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Rick Scott campaign ad features Tampa shop owner convicted of human smuggling
A star of Gov. Rick Scott’s Spanish-language television campaign ad — plugging the governor’s job creation record — is a Cuban-born grocery store owner featured as a Florida success story.
Maikel Duarte-Torres, seen hugging Scott in the 30-second digital ad, was also convicted in St. Maarten four years ago on human smuggling charges.
“Four years ago, the economy was very bad. Rick Scott helped Florida’s economy and you can see the difference. He’s created jobs. That’s why I support Rick Scott. I’m just like him. I’m like the American Dream,” Duarte-Torres says in the commercial recorded during a May campaign stop at his Tampa store.
Francisco Alvarado, reporting in Browardbulldog.org, writes that neither Scott, his staff nor the Republican Party of Florida was aware that Duarte-Torres was arrested in the Caribbean nation on Nov. 14, 2010, for an alleged role in a smuggling ring trying to ferry 10 Cuban migrants from St. Maarten to Miami.
Five months later, a St. Maarten criminal court judge convicted Duarte-Torres, sentencing him to two years in prison.
However, due to prison overcrowding, Duarte-Torres only served two days, St. Maarten Attorney General spokesperson Tineka Kampfe, told BrowardBulldog.org. Duarte-Torres was permitted to return to Tampa on the condition he never returns to St. Maarten.
Duarte-Torres owns MD Foot Market at 4019 W. Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa.
A member of the “Small Business for Scott” Coalition, Duarte-Torres is one of 100 business owners from 67 counties supporting the governor’s re-election bid. During a campaign stop in May, Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera visited MD Food Market, standing with Duarte-Torres as the answered questions from the local press.
MD Food Market has 18 full-time employees, and Duarte-Torres dreams of launching a chain of markets.
“I started with a watermelon in my hand, selling fruits and vegetables on Lois Avenue,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “Things have grown from there.”
During the photo-op, a film crew took footage for the commercial, which became a spot paid by the Republican Party of Florida. Duarte-Torres, 32, is shown stocking shelves, interacting with employees, and interviewing in Spanish.
“The most-important thing [in Florida] are jobs,” he said in the ad. “Let’s continue working toward that.”
Authorities in St. Maarten accused Duarte-Torres of heading a human smuggling ring.
During his trial in March 2011, Duarte-Torres testified to traveling to St. Maarten for a friend to deliver $2,000 to 64-year-old Erold Montgomery Bolan, a cab driver who aided human smugglers in transporting illegal aliens across the Florida Straits from Haiti and Cuba. Duarte-Torres asserted the money was to help two Cuban girls move from St. Maarten to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
However, Alvarado writes that the St. Maarten prosecutor — M.L.P. Ridderbeks — argued that Duarte-Torres had a larger role in the ring, accusing him of bringing over ten Cubans to St. Maarten on the ship Braveheart.
Ridderbeks claimed the migrants each paid $12,500. Duarte-Torres remained in contact with Erold Bolan, as well as a Cuban woman in St. Lucia known as “Adele” to arrange transport of the 10 migrants.
Duarte-Torres was found guilty and sentenced to two years, Kampfe confirmed.
On Monday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Scott’s campaign pulled the campaign featuring Duarte-Torres.
This makes it the second time a person who had run afoul of the law has been featured in a a Scott campaign ad. In April, a digital ad featured former South Bay City Manager Corey Alston, who resigned after accusations of corruption, grand theft and misuse of office.