One day before the Miami mayoral runoff election, a stream of poor and homeless people flowed to a back lot at St. John Baptist Church in Overtown. They weren't there to pray.
A man with a wad of cash was paying for votes. As word spread, dozens of people boarded vans, headed downtown and cast absentee ballots -- in exchange for $10 each.
Thomas Felder took the money.
"I had no choice. I was hungry that day, " said Felder, who is out of work and broke. "You wanted the money, you were told who to vote for -- 212, Suarez." That was Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez's number on the runoff ballot.
"I did it to get paid, that's all, " said Mary Ludlow, 32, who lives in a run-down apartment building on Northwest First Place that overlooks a flooded and trash-strewn roof.
She said she was told to vote for Suarez, and did.
A dollars-for-votes operation was in full swing in Miami's inner city during last November's mayoral election, a Herald investigation shows.
In independent interviews with The Herald, 14 voters and witnesses outlined the same basic vote-buying operation at the church lot in Overtown, though not all said they were told to vote for Suarez.
Voters were driven in white vans and beat-up cars to County Hall, where the Miami-Dade elections department was accepting absentee ballots in the Nov. 13 runoff between Suarez and former Mayor Joe Carollo.
When they came back to the church lot, they got their payoff: a $10 bill peeled off the top from a stack stashed in a recruiter's pocket.
The operation was hard to miss, witnesses said.
"It was about 300 or 400 people. God, yeah, they were coming all day, " said Ellis S. Dunning Jr., who lives in an apartment that overlooks the church lot. He said he, too, took the $10.
The Herald located five people who said they received $10 to vote during the operation at 1328 NW Third Ave.
Three voters said they were told to vote for Suarez, although one of them declined to say whether he pocketed any cash.
One woman said she learned about the absentee operation from a Carollo operative and voted for Carollo -- although she would not say whether the vote-buyer at the church gave her instructions.
The two other $10 voters said they don't recall receiving instructions on how to vote.CASH MAN IDENTIFIED
'Pop' Hoskins says he saw no one buying votes
Five witnesses identified a man they said was handing out cash or taking down names: Jeffrey "Pop" Hoskins, 34. Hoskins admitted he has participated in "two or three" $10-a-vote operations in the past -- but denied any involvement in November's vote-buying scheme.
A basketball coach for the Overtown Optimists, Hoskins said he was at adjoining Gibson Park that day. He said he didn't see anybody trading cash for votes.
"I'm not going to be a scapegoat for anyone, " he said. "Everybody's trying to cut me, and for what? I didn't do anything. There's people getting something, but it's not me."
He refused to say which candidates were involved in the cash-for-votes operations he assisted in the past.
"It exists. It always exists. You go to Liberty City, Coconut Grove -- everybody knows about the $10. If they say they didn't, they're lying.
"In Overtown, $5 could get you a vote, " said Hoskins, who called himself a veteran of "15 to 25" campaigns. "Everybody else did it. Everybody who's ever run."
Both the Suarez and Carollo campaigns said they had nothing to do with the vote-buying operation.
"I'm shocked. I really am, " said Irby McKnight, an Overtown activist who helped run Suarez's campaign. "I don't operate like that."
"I think that's a terrible thing, " McKnight said. "Black people died for the vote, and there's not enough money to buy mine. If you do that, you should go to prison, because you are weakening our democracy."
"We ran a crystal-clear campaign, " Carollo said. "There's nobody from our side that put up any money. I know the kind of campaign we ran -- we run it as straight as anyone can run it."
State law makes it a third-degree felony to pay someone to vote for a candidate. It's a misdemeanor violation for a voter to sell his or her vote.JUST BEFORE THE RUNOFF
Campaigns focused on inner-city votes
The Overtown vote-buying operation came a day before the Nov. 13 runoff, at a time when the mayoral campaigns were desperate to drum up support in Miami's black neighborhoods.
Campaign professionals said many black voters lost interest in the elections the week before, when veteran politician Arthur E. Teele Jr. easily won election to a seat on the Miami City Commission. Teele represents predominantly black District 5, which includes Overtown.
Both Suarez and Carollo are white Cuban Americans.
"The people in this community didn't care, not at all, " who won the mayoral election, said McKnight, the political consultant who spearheaded Suarez's campaign in Overtown. "A lot of people said, 'I'm not going to vote for anybody but Teele.' It didn't matter who was mayor."
Despite that apathy, the number of absentee votes from Overtown rose in the mayoral runoff.
On Nov. 4, when Teele and opponent Pierre Rutledge were on the ballot, 48 people living within a half-mile of the St. John church voted absentee, election results show.
For the Nov. 13 race, that number rose to 75.
Election records show that none of the five who sold their votes cast ballots in the Nov. 4 primary. Several told The Herald they turned out only because of the $10 offer.
"You're trying to make 10 bucks, you know?" said Dunning, the man who lives in an apartment overlooking the church lot. "Ten bucks is ten bucks." He said he took the money but received no instructions on how to vote.'ABUSING' THE SYSTEM
Sites for early voting will now be cut back
For years, the elections department has set up a number of early voting sites around Miami-Dade where people can cast ballots a week or more before Election Day. Those votes are counted as absentees, since they are cast outside a voter's home precinct.
James Kohanek, assistant elections supervisor, said campaigns are "abusing" that system by busing in voters who could easily vote at the polls.
All of the sites except the county building will be shut down in future elections, he said.
"It was set up as a convenience for the voter, and all it turned out to be was an abuse by candidates, " Kohanek said.
Miami-Dade election administrators have long heard reports of vote-buying in Dade.
"You always hear it, but you never see it, and no one has ever brought any proof, " Kohanek said.
In separate interviews, each of the five voters and nine witnesses interviewed by The Herald gave similar descriptions of the vote-buying operation:
"I went over there because I saw all the people and thought they were giving out food, " said Bobby Hobbs, 70, still covered with dust from his job as a $5.14-an-hour day laborer. He said he was driven to County Hall in an old blue Chevrolet sedan, voted, and returned to the church lot in a van.
"They gave us $10, if I'm not talking too much, " said Hobbs, who lives in a rooming house in the shadow of the elevated Metrorail tracks. "I wasn't going for no money. I was just trying to help people. I wanted to vote to try to help straighten this place up."
Hobbs said he did not remember anyone telling him to vote for either Carollo or Suarez. He said the people paying for votes assured him he wasn't doing anything wrong.
"I always try to do things right, " he said. "I don't read or write so good."HOW TO GET A RIDE
Voters had to show they were registered
Once voters arrived, someone asked to see their voter registration card and asked for their Social Security number.
"You had to show your card before you got a ride, " Felder said.
Once they proved they were registered to vote, they were taken to County Hall at 111 NW First St., where the elections department had set up its usual early polling place in the lobby.
All of the voters said rides were provided in an unmarked white van, supplemented by a light blue sedan and other vehicles as the crowd grew in midafternoon.
"It was a party, " Felder said. "Everybody needed money. You don't make that much in an hour, and here you could make $10 in 15, 20 minutes."
"I didn't give a damn who won or lost, " Felder said. "They're not going to do anything for me, either way."
Most of the voters said two men seemed to be running the operation: a stocky, well-dressed white man who carried documents, possibly a voting roll, and talked on a cellular phone, and a black man who checked voter cards and doled out the $10 bills.
Shown his photo, two voters -- Felder and Lola Chapman, 55 -- identified Hoskins -- the Overtown Optimists basketball coach -- as the man who gave them the money. Mary Ludlow, the woman who said she was paid $10 to vote for Mayor Suarez, described a man who fits Hoskins' description: muscular, with two gold front teeth.
Ludlow's sister, Sonya Calderon, said she saw Hoskins handing out money, but said she did not take any -- although Ludlow said in a previous interview that her sister did.
Dunning said Hoskins took down his name, but he was paid by a white man. Hobbs, shown a picture of Hoskins, did not recognize him. He said he was paid by someone else.THE WORD SPREADS
Witness: 'Homeless men were out there voting'
As word spread, the crowd grew. By midafternoon, it was large enough to attract attention throughout the neighborhood.
Mary Duncan, 55, noticed the milling crowd when she dropped by the Chinese restaurant in front of the church parking lot about 3 p.m.
"Homeless men were out there voting, " she said. "I saw them -- some white man and some colored men -- and they all were in the churchyard. I didn't get $10. But I heard from the men that that's what they were getting. I saw them giving out the $10."
Donald Knowles, manager of the city-owned Gibson Park that adjoins the church property, said the vote-buying operation was obvious. All day, he said,
two unmarked white vans came and went, ferrying crowds of people, including homeless men and women with young children.
Shown a picture of Hoskins, he said that was the man who was doling out the money.
"He had a little stack, " Knowles said. "He reached in and gave them whatever came out of his pocket. No checks -- cash. He just took it off the top and just handed it to them."
Knowles said he jokingly called out: " 'Hey, you need any more help?' And he said, 'No, man, you got a job. You don't need any of this.' "
A well-dressed, middle-aged white man stood just inside church property, Knowles said, supervising the operation.
"He was standing right at the entrance of the church parking area, inside the gate, " Knowles said. "It was like he didn't want to be on city property doing whatever he was doing, because he stayed inside that gate."
Church representatives said they didn't notice anything. "From my understanding and from what I know, no one used church grounds for politics, " said the Rev. Henry Nevin.BOTH CAMPAIGNS SEEN
Two candidates' signs reportedly at church lot
Some voters and witnesses said both campaigns were represented at the church lot that day.
Knowles, the park manager, said he saw a number of people leaving the lot carrying Carollo campaign signs.
Another voter said she saw campaign signs for both candidates.
"There were people there with signs for Mr. Suarez and Mr. Carollo, " said Geraldine Haywood, 52. She said she got a ride from the church but no one offered her any money.
Chapman said she heard about the rides from a woman living in her complex: Elsie Hubbard, a paid operative for Carollo and a longtime member of the St. John church. She would not say whether Hubbard told her about the $10 payoff.
Chapman said she voted for Carollo. Afterward, Hubbard's son -- Hoskins -- paid her the $10, she said. Hubbard also hired her to hold Carollo campaign signs at the polls the next day.
"I got $10 for going out to go to vote and $50 to hold the signs, " said Chapman, who was unemployed at the time. "They got a lot of people to go down there and vote like I did. . . . I could use the money."
Chapman, who has since landed a job as a school-crossing guard, said she also was paid $10 to vote in another election two years ago. She could not recall the name of the candidate.
Hubbard said she knew nothing about the vote operation outside her church and never instructed anyone to go there.
"Whoever said it told a lie, and I would overlook my Christianity and kick their [rear], " she said.
"Why should I do that, when everything you need to vote is right here at the Culmer Center?" said Hubbard, referring to the nearby county-run community center that serves as a voting precinct.
Like Felder and Ludlow, voter David McPhee Sr. said operatives at St. John suggested he vote for Suarez. Asked whether he received $10, he abruptly ended the interview.
"I don't want to talk about that, " he said angrily.CHECKING IT OUT
Suarez campaign worker says he gave no rides
The Suarez campaign sent someone to the church lot when it heard about the gathering crowd -- but only to see what was going on, said McKnight, the Suarez campaign coordinator in the area.
McKnight said he sent campaign worker Andre Marshall to check things out.
McKnight said Marshall told him the Carollo camp was providing rides to its own poll workers so they could vote before Election Day.
However, in an interview with The Herald, Marshall said he assumed that the church was providing the rides to assist voters. He said he directed some people to go there.
"I told voters about it, " said Marshall, an unemployed single father of four who once worked as an office aide to Suarez and who now hopes to land a city job. "I said: 'Hell, go on, get your free ride.' Personally, I didn't give any rides from St. John's."
Marshall said he is a friend of Hoskins -- the man identified by several people as the one paying and recruiting voters outside St. John -- and has worked with him on past campaigns. He said he saw Hoskins at the church on Nov. 12, but did not see him or anybody else paying voters.
"Nobody I told to go down there got any money, " he said. "And I don't believe any money was exchanged. I didn't see anybody get paid."
Hoskins at first said he didn't work for either Carollo or Suarez.
"I didn't work for any campaign, " he said Tuesday, in an interview at his dilapidated apartment complex on Northwest Second Avenue. "People make accusations every day."
He later said he volunteered one morning for Suarez during the nine-day runoff campaign in November. Hoskins also was paid for one day's work on the Carollo campaign on the Miami primary election day, Nov. 4.
Hoskins, shaken after a first visit by Herald reporters, said he called Mayor Suarez's chief of staff and campaign manager, Jorge Alvarez. He said he did not know Alvarez but got his name and number from a friend, whom he would not identify.
"This has been very unsettling for me. I got Jorge Alvarez because I wanted to get in touch with someone to get some names [of those involved in the vote-buying operation], " Hoskins said. "Alvarez hung up on me. He said he knew nothing about it."
Alvarez said he did not know Hoskins and did not remember getting such a phone call.
"There are campaign workers at the last minute who want to get involved and work the polls. This might have been someone who didn't get paid, " Alvarez said. "I have gotten calls from people I never heard from before demanding payment. And, quite frankly, they [tick] me off."
In an era when Hispanic votes dominate Miami politics, Hoskins said vote-buying in black precincts has become passe.
"These 50 votes you get out of Overtown, they don't really count for s---, " Hoskins said. "Nineties politics doesn't really dictate it. It's real dirty now.
"Do what you got to to win -- that's what Miami politics is about."Herald research editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.