MIAMI (CBS4) – Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez was back on the campaign trail Friday, slapping backs and shaking hands at a Miami senior citizens center, a day after police dramatically opened a probe of possible absentee ballot misdeeds by his campaign.
“The worst case scenario is that it’s an honest mistake, and I think that’s my perspective on this right now,” Suarez told CBS4′s Gary Nelson on Friday.
On Thursday, investigators served a warrant at the Southwest Miami-Dade home of Suarez’s campaign operations manager, Pablo Baggini, seizing documents and a computer allegedly holding evidence that the Suarez camp requested absentee ballots for voters online, in apparent violation of elections laws. The search warrant said investigators expected to find evidence of “electronic” filings being made for absentee ballots to be sent to voters. Under state law, only a voter or immediate family member may request an absentee ballot over the web.
Suarez has admitted that his campaign gathered voter information and signatures at a May campaign event in Miami’s Brickell area. Subsequent requests were sent via the web for absentee ballots to be mailed to some 20 voters. None were, because elections department computers red-flagged the requests.
Suarez on Friday said there could have been an error on his campaign’s part “in terms of understanding how they (the ballot requests) should have been transmitted. That’s definitely the worst case scenario.”
It is technically a 3rd degree felony for someone to knowingly request an absentee ballot for a second party online, if the person is not an immediate relative. In online requests for ballots, applicants must “affirm” that they are the voter or the voter’s immediate relative.
CBS4 News on Friday reached half a dozen of the voters named in the search warrant that was served at the Suarez campaigner’s home, and all said they voluntarily filled out a form, asking the campaign to request an absentee ballot be sent to them.
“I’m one hundred percent sure he didn’t do anything wrong,” said registered nurse Melissa Rospigliosi, a Suarez supporter who requested a ballot through his campaign. She said she and several friends stopped at the Suarez booth during the Cinco de Mayo celebration in Brickell and signed the forms.
“We all voluntarily signed up for the absentee ballots and that’s all there is to say,” Rospigliosi said, adding she was surprised to hear that “fraud” was being alleged.
Another voter who was named in the warrant, Rodney Ketchens, said he never thought anything was nefarious about the “help” Suarez’s campaign was giving voters, assisting them with “the convenience” of being able to vote absentee.
“I think the intentions were good,” said Ketchens, a financial analyst for a major health insurance firm. “There’s always room for error, room for mishandling,” Ketchens said, adding that he thought Suarez’s people were acting in good faith.
Suarez told CBS4 Friday that he hopes the state attorney’s office will conclude there was no criminal intent in what his operatives did, and suggested that there may be gray areas in the law that permit voters “to empower” others to request ballots for them, equating the signatures and forms that were gathered to a “power of attorney” granted to another.
“We’re cooperating with investigators, making sure that they understand that there was no fraud,” Suarez said. “All these ballots were requested by the people themselves.”
Officials at the Miami Dade Elections department and the office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle declined to comment for this report, citing the on-going investigation.
The raid on the home of Suarez’s campaign staffer comes two weeks after investigators descended on the homes of three confidants of Congressman Joe Garcia, a Miami-Dade Democrat, in another case where absentee ballots were allegedly requested for voters online by campaign workers. Garcia fired his chief of staff and suspended his communications director who have been implicated in that case. His former campaign manager is also under investigation.
In all the cases, screeners at the Miami-Dade Elections department detected the allegedly improper requests for ballots after noticing that large numbers of requests were coming from the same computers.
Ironically, tougher election laws and penalties were generated in large part by rampant fraud that surrounded the election of Suarez’s father, Xavier Suarez, as mayor of Miami in 1997. The fraud, committed without the participation or knowledge of the elder Suarez, saw thousands of bogus absentee ballots cast, even by some voters long dead. It resulted in Xavier Suarez’s removal from office in 1998, and the office being awarded the second place finisher, Joe Carollo, by a court of appeals.
In a subsequent CBS “60 Minutes” broadcast, Miami’s electoral shenanigans were notoriously likened to that of a “third world banana republic.” At the time, some took to dumping loads of bananas at the front door of Miami city hall.
At his campaign stop at the seniors’ center Friday, the younger Suarez evoked the service of his father and the “integrity” that he brought to public office. Xavier Suarez is now a Miami-Dade county commissioner.
Election rules and laws designed to deter fraud have evolved in such a way as to become quite complex. A candidate – even a voter – can find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and ignorance is generally not regarded as an adequate excuse.
Election laws, including proper procedures for obtaining absentee ballots by mail, in person, on the phone or online can be found at http://www.miamidade.gov/elections/.