Dubious tactics snared votes for Suarez, Hernandez

 

In their zeal to win, some campaign workers for Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez and Commissioner Humberto Hernandez teamed up in a mad dash to gather votes across Miami last fall, often trampling election laws in the process, a Herald investigation has found.

The campaign workers used a variety of tactics: They registered people to vote at addresses where they didn't live. They punched voters' absentee ballots without permission. They cast ballots in the names of people who insist they did not vote. They cast questionable ballots themselves.

And they signed dozens of ballots as witnesses, even though they weren't present when the voters signed the envelopes, as state law requires.

Among the campaign workers collecting and witnessing questionable ballots were members of Hernandez's family and his closest aides.

Some supporters of Suarez and Hernandez described in interviews how they engaged in dubious electioneering.

Alfredo Perez said Hernandez campaign workers moved his voter registration to an address in the commissioner's district, even though he did not live there.

Miriam Mor said a top Hernandez aide told her to witness ballots for a couple who lived far outside Miami -- in West Dade. Mor later changed her story: "My memory improved."

Zunilda Menendez, who worked for both campaigns and was paid $858 by Hernandez, acknowledged she never met most of the people whose absentee ballots she signed as witness -- including two questionable ballots.

"I got a pile of absentee ballots from Humbertico's father at the campaign headquarters on Flagler and he said, 'Here, you can sign those, ' " Menendez said.

Suarez and Hernandez denied any wrongdoing, as did Hernandez's father. "There was no organized conspiracy in this election from either camp. Any wrongdoing that has been found was unintentional, as far as I know, " Hernandez said.

"You guys have not found enough to say this was widespread. Fraud is fraud. We shouldn't allow one fraudulent vote. But it wasn't substantial, and it shouldn't overturn the election."

Suarez would not grant an interview, but issued a brief statement saying he ran a clean campaign.

"I urge The Miami Herald to concentrate on substantive matters affecting the city, " Suarez said. "The constant emphasis on the election is tiresome, to put it mildly." Absentee ballots decided the November mayor's race. Nearly 12 percent of the 44,000 votes cast came from absentee voters, the largest proportion of any race in city history.

ABSENTEE REQUESTS

Suarez forced incumbent Joe Carollo into a runoff by collecting twice as many absentee votes in the Nov. 4 election. Nearly 40 percent of those ballots cast citywide came from Hernandez's Commission District 3, where his campaign ran an aggressive absentee-ballot operation.

So many requests for absentee ballots poured into the Miami-Dade County elections department that it had to print new ones to keep up with demand. With little oversight, bad votes went largely unchecked.

In the scramble, some people say, their votes were stolen.

"I was taken advantage of, " said Ada Perez, 70, who was tracked by a Hernandez operative she could not name at a hospital, where she was recovering from a severe stroke just before the Nov. 4 election.

Perez, a Little Havana resident who wanted to vote for then-incumbent Joe Carollo, described how the operative badgered her to vote for Suarez, then finally took her ballot and punched it for her. Whose number was punched? She doesn't know.

The witness name on her ballot is Jorge L. De Goti, Hernandez's 29-year-old chief of staff. De Goti was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

A VOTER'S COMPLAINT

"My vote was stolen, " Perez said, her eyes welling with tears. "They know our eyesight is not good and we are not well. What kind of person would take advantage of the elderly?"

Manuel Ramudo, 87, said somebody who brought him Suarez campaign literature punched his ballot when he wasn't looking. When Ramudo complained, he said the man told him: "You've already voted."

The witness name on the ballot: Miguel Amador, a Suarez campaign volunteer arrested by state investigators for allegedly offering to buy three absentee ballots.

Amador's lawyer "vehemently" denied his client punched Ramudo's ballot.

A criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has so far produced two other arrests of campaign aides, including Hernandez's law-office secretary and Alberto Russi, a 92-year-old former produce vendor who allegedly witnessed a ballot for a dead man. Agents say they expect to make more arrests soon.

START OF TRIAL

Carollo has sued to overturn the election, alleging that Suarez benefited from widespread ballot fraud. The nonjury trial begins Monday.

After checking just over 3 percent of ballots cast on Nov. 4, including both absentee and at the polls, The Herald has documented 175 invalid votes. Carollo fell short of winning the first round outright by just 155 votes.

The Herald investigation found only a handful of questionable ballots linked to other campaigns. The most serious claim against the Carollo campaign was made by Juana Riera, who said Carollo volunteer Jorge Diaz grabbed her ballot and punched it while her back was turned. Diaz vehemently denies the allegations.

During the fall campaign, Suarez and Hernandez supporters worked hand in hand to gather votes. At least a dozen people were actively soliciting votes for both candidates. A couple of those workers were paid by both campaigns. When some voters called Suarez headquarters to have their ballots picked up, Hernandez workers wound up signing them as witnesses.

"There is no question that people who were working for me were supporting Suarez. And people working for Suarez were supporting me, " Hernandez said.

APPOINTMENTS FOLLOWED

After the election, Suarez appointed Hernandez, who is awaiting trial on bank-fraud and money-laundering charges, to chair the commission. And some campaign workers who helped gather illicit votes have been hired for city jobs and named to city boards.

One common campaign tactic: registering out-of-town or out-of-district voters at homes in District 3, thus making them eligible to vote for both Suarez and Hernandez. Hernandez supporter Alfredo Perez recounted in an interview how campaign workers recruited him to cast a bad ballot a month before the Nov. 4 election.

"I approached Humberto Hernandez's father because I've known him for years, from way back in Cuba when I was a police sergeant in Havana and Humbertico's grandfather was a councilman in Cuba, and I told him that I was ready to help with the campaign in anything they needed, " said Perez, who lives outside District 3.

"He thanked me, and eventually a campaign worker asked me for my voter registration card. They took it away and later called me to fill out some forms to change the registration to an address within Humberto Hernandez's district -- 1601 SW Second Ave."

"The Hernandez campaign is the one that supplied that address. I don't know who lives there or how they came up with it, " Perez said. "But I understood that it was an address that was convenient to the campaign."

ANOTHER REGISTRATION

At the campaign workers' behest, Perez said, he also registered his sister at the same address, though she, too, lives outside the district.

Perez said he didn't hear about the ballot again until the campaign called and asked him to come over to sign it.

Hernandez Sr. said he had "no recollection" of Perez and denied his story.

"Despite what anybody might claim, I have never switched anybody's address, " he said.

That District 3 address where Perez's voter card landed was also used by a paid Suarez campaign worker, Christina Mansourou.

Public records show that Mansourou, 21, lives with her grandparents outside District 3, at 2801 SW 17th St. But all three voted inside Hernandez's district.

Mansourou switched her voter registration to the district Oct. 17, then switched it back to Southwest 17th Street in December, elections records show. Mansourou, found at her out-of-district home, declined to comment.

Three more possibly bad ballots were cast from the same address where Mansourou's grandparents were registered to vote during the election. None of those three voters live there, either, public records show -- for a total of eight bad ballots at these houses.

Another Suarez supporter linked to a questionable ballot is former department-store chief executive officer Oscar Gaetan, who was hired as a $48,000-a-year special mayoral assistant after the election.

His son, Jason, voted at the polls from his father's Coconut Grove house. But records show that Jason Gaetan lives in a Coral Gables townhouse that he and his wife bought in December 1996.

Jason Gaetan did not answer a note requesting comment. His father said his son and daughter-in-law were living with him while their home was renovated. Coral Gables city records, however, show no building permits for the home in all of 1997.

Gaetan resigned his city job last month.

DENIES WRONGDOING

Suarez, who recently told a state Senate subcommittee that he personally oversaw his absentee-ballot operation, said his campaign workers did nothing wrong.

"I reiterate . . . that our campaign did everything properly and within the law, " he wrote in his statement to The Herald, stressing that he has cooperated with the Senate inquiry and the criminal investigation. "The focus should be on Mr. Carollo and his incredible war chest, not on my modestly funded, grassroots campaign."

If any bad ballots were cast by people linked to the Suarez campaign, they were the result of "human error, " said the mayor's chief of staff, Jorge Alvarez.

"For you to characterize it as fraud is just grossly unfair, " Alvarez said.

Many of the questionable ballots identified by The Herald can be linked directly to the Hernandez campaign.

Questionable ballots were collected, cast by or witnessed by Hernandez's father, two of his aunts, and his baptismal godfather, Juan Balsera.

Hernandez's father played a key role in the campaign, raising funds and directing some of the day-to-day operations. He also helped pull in other volunteers, including 62-year-old Andres Manso, a fellow officer in the Association of Salesmen and Merchants of Florida, a nonprofit group whose Flagler Street office served as campaign headquarters.

WITNESS ON BAD BALLOTS

Manso's name appears as witness on three bad Miami ballots, including those of an elderly couple, Gloria and Cipriano Alvarez, who live in Hialeah and said they never voted. In an earlier story, The Herald said Russi witnessed those ballots.

"The thing is under investigation right now, " Manso said. "I cannot talk to you until after the investigation is finished. Now, it's impossible."

The elder Hernandez voted from his son's home on South Miami Avenue, but public records indicate Hernandez Sr. lives on Red Road in Coral Gables. Commissioner Hernandez said his father divided his time between the two homes last fall.

The elder Hernandez witnessed three absentee ballots himself, including one cast by Luis Valdes, who registered to vote at his father's apartment -- in a government high-rise for the elderly. Valdes is 32.

Neighbors on both sides of the apartment said Valdes doesn't live there. Public records show he lives at an apartment in North Bay Village, where he has a two-year lease. Valdes did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.

His father, Luis Valdes Sr., insisted his son lives with him at the Robert King High elderly complex. So did Hernandez's father.

"The neighbors don't matter. His father says he lives there, which means he lives there, " the elder Hernandez said in a phone interview.

Hernandez also said he could not recall giving any unwitnessed ballots to Zunilda Menendez, the campaign worker who says he did.

EXPLANATION GIVEN

Menendez said she didn't think she was doing anything wrong when she signed the ballots.

"I was on the phone when Humbertico's father approached and said, 'Will you please do me a favor? Can you sign these ballots as witness?' I told him, 'Yes, I will, ' I took them and signed them and continued handling the calls. So I never really looked at the names."

Two of the ballots that Menendez said Hernandez gave her to sign are questionable. One was cast by a woman registered to vote in Hernandez's district but who lives outside the city in West Kendall, according to public records.

The other vote was cast by Aleida Perez Vera, an 81-year-old woman who said Commissioner Hernandez picked up her ballot at her Little Havana apartment. She wanted to vote for Carollo, but said Hernandez quickly snatched the ballot and punched it, then would not let her examine it.

"He told me, 'Look, it's already punched.' I couldn't even see the hole because it's so tiny. He might have voted for Suarez, for all I know. Next time, I punch it myself."

The elections department disallowed the ballot because her signature on the ballot envelope did not match the signature on file.

Hernandez said he never punched anyone's ballot.

"I guarantee you that didn't happen, " Hernandez said, adding he was too busy campaigning to collect absentee ballots. "I didn't even want to get my hands on those things."

RELATIVES OF HERNANDEZ

Other Hernandez relatives also can be linked to questionable ballots:

* Emma Arce, Hernandez's aunt, voted from an address in District 3. The homeowner there said she doesn't know Arce. Records place Arce at the elder Hernandez's Coral Gables home. Arce said she "sometimes" sleeps at the District 3 house, in a room rented by her sister.

* Juan Balsera, the commissioner's godfather, appears as witness on the District 3 ballot of a woman who lives in District 1. The woman, Olga Hernandez, said she did not vote. "I didn't go to vote and I didn't fill out any absentee ballot. I don't know this man Balsera, " she said. Balsera did not respond to a letter seeking comment.

* The name of another Hernandez aunt, Aracely Lasseville, appears on the ballot of Ana Obregon, whose family is close to the commissioner. Obregon and five relatives cast ballots for Hernandez from a rental property they own but did not live in.

Lasseville's husband, John Lasseville, is Hernandez's political mentor and chief campaign strategist.

Aracely Lasseville said she could not recall signing Obregon's ballot.

"I don't know her, " Aracely Lasseville said. "I could have signed it. I don't remember."

* Maria Narcisa Gomez, 79, another Hernandez relative, cast a ballot from the District 3 home of a longtime Lasseville employee, Jose Felix Noguerol, according to election records. Visited twice, he insisted Gomez lived there but was out. A neighbor said she doesn't, and that her name went up on the mailbox around the time of the election. Her ballot was witnessed by Aracely Lasseville.

Gomez's name also appears as a witness on at least 21 ballots. The signatures on those ballots often differ radically. Several of those voters questioned by The Herald said someone else had actually picked up the ballots.

Aracely Lasseville insisted Gomez, her relative, lives at her voting address, but was "in hiding from all this" and unavailable for an interview.

Shown three samples of ballots purportedly signed by Gomez, Lasseville said it was apparent someone was signing her name to the ballots: "Those are not her signatures. They're not even close."

Family friends joined in the hunt for absentee ballots.

A PRINCIPAL OPERATIVE

One of the principal operatives in the drive was Jose Joaquin De Goti, 56, an elementary school teacher and the father of the commissioner's chief of staff.

His name appears as witness on a ballot from an out-of-city voter. Aurora Mendiola voted from an apartment over an auto-repair yard on West Flagler Street.

"There must be a mistake, " said Manuel Barcia, who operates Rainbow Auto Repair. "She could not have voted from here because she does not live here."

Mendiola did not respond to notes left at her Westchester home.

In addition, 10 possibly fraudulent ballots were cast from homes owned or formerly occupied by members of the De Goti family. Two of those votes came from Rodolfo and Evelyn Herbello, a Miami police sergeant and his wife, who records show live in West Dade.

Those ballots were witnessed by Mor, 50, a longtime Hernandez supporter who worked on his campaign. In an initial interview, she said she had never met the Herbellos. She said Jose De Goti brought her to a house in District 3 to sign the ballots. Only "elderly people" were present, she said. The Herbellos are in their 30s.

"I never met these people, " Mor said, pointing to copies of the two ballot envelopes. 'He handed me the ballots and said, 'Sign here.' And I did."

Mor changed her story the next day, saying the Herbellos came in to the campaign office to get their ballots signed.

"My memory has improved, " she said. "I've done nothing wrong, " she added later.

BALLOTS COLLECTED

De Goti also collected -- but did not sign -- the ballots of two elderly people who share a house down the street from his Roads home.

Maria Luisa Vazquez -- who said she is an acquaintance of Carollo's mother -- said she asked De Goti to punch her ballot for Carollo and Hernandez. But she realized after the election that the number he punched was actually Suarez's, not Carollo's.

Eloy Sanchez, who shares a house with Vazquez, said De Goti grabbed his ballot before he could punch it and said he would fill it out at home.

"I didn't vote, " Sanchez said. "He took it."

At De Goti's home, a woman turned off the lights Thursday night and said the family was out of town until the following week. She said she had no way of contacting them.

Two people who voted in District 3 live in Tampa. Their votes are linked to Russi, the vegetable vendor arrested by the FDLE. A prolific campaign volunteer who says he worked for both Hernandez and Suarez, Russi rounded up more than 90 ballots, including those of:

* Zonia Gonzalez and Leslie Perez, who live in Tampa. Leslie Perez said she and her mother live "on and off" in Miami. Gonzalez's father, Santiago Hernandez, said the two left his house and moved north before the election.

* Lucas and Violeta Trujillo and their son, Alberto, who are registered to vote at a house down the street from Russi's home in the Roads. Alberto Trujillo said he and his parents moved out of the house five years ago and don't vote. The tenant who rents the Trujillo house, George Saenz, said Russi came by one day and picked up the Trujillos' unpunched ballots. The Trujillos say they never gave Russi permission to take their ballots.

JOBS FOR CAMPAIGN WORKERS

Some of the campaign workers who participated in questionable voting practices were hired by the city shortly after the election.

Jorge De Goti became Hernandez's $48,000-a-year chief of staff.

Others, including Jorge De Goti's brother, serve on city boards. Paris Obregon, who has acknowledged casting a ballot from an address where he doesn't live, is Hernandez's appointee on the Planning Advisory Board.

Still others work for agencies that often vie for city money. Rafael Cabezas, director of the Allapattah Community Business Development Authority, witnessed ballots that voters said were actually picked up by others. Cabezas' group received $50,000 from the city last year. He declined to comment.

Some also got checks from the campaigns.

On Nov. 7, the Suarez campaign wrote a $300 check to Gabriel Sanchez, a campaign worker. But The Herald traced that money to Gabriel Garcia, a 20-year-old campaign aide who was also paid $240 by the Hernandez campaign.

HIRED AS A CLERK

Garcia -- who previously worked for Hernandez at City Hall -- landed a $21,000 clerk job in the city budget office after the election.

Garcia's own vote was suspect. He cast a ballot from a house in District 3, although public records show he lives elsewhere in the city.

Garcia was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment.

Suarez campaign treasurer Jeffrey Bartel could not explain why the check was issued in the wrong name. "I think it looks as odd as you do, " he said.

This article is based on reporting by these Herald staff writers: Karen Branch, Tyler Bridges, Alfonso Chardy, Manny Garcia, Lisa Getter, Rick Jervis, John Lantigua, Marika Lynch, Sandra Marquez Garcia, Patricia Maldonado, Connie Prater, Ken Rodriguez, Joe Tanfani and Andres Viglucci. It was written by Viglucci, Tanfani and Getter. Herald research editor Dan Keating and Getter handled computer analysis and researcher Elisabeth Donovan and Annabelle Degale provided research assistance.

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