All five employees of the Allapattah Business Development Authority -- a private, nonprofit agency that has received about $2 million in loans and grants from the city since 1990 -- engaged in an unusual all-out effort to help the campaigns of Xavier Suarez and Humberto Hernandez.
The vote-gathering came at a time when ABDA staffers and an affiliated consultant were lobbying for an infusion of city money to embark on new housing projects in Allapattah and expand their reach into the adjacent neighborhoods of Model Cities and Wynwood. Those projects had been stymied while Mayor Joe Carollo occupied the mayor's seat on the City Commission.
ABDA employees collected and witnessed absentee ballots at all hours -- including during the business day -- before the controversial Nov. 4 election, interviews with dozens of voters indicate. Employees of nonprofits are barred from engaging in political activity during work hours under federal and state rules.
ABDA staffers witnessed nearly 100 absentee ballots, according to election records. After visiting 47 of those voters, The Herald found 14 ballots that were questionable or possibly fraudulent.
In some instances, The Herald found, ABDA staffers used the dubious tactics that a judge cited last month in tossing out the Nov. 4 vote:
Some witnessed ballots from people who live outside city limits or in a commission district other than the one where they voted. Some signed ballots as witnesses even though they weren't present when the voters signed the envelopes, as state law requires. One voter whose ballot was witnessed by an ABDA staffer said it was punched without her permission.
ABDA executive director Rafael Cabezas declined to comment and would not allow his staff to be interviewed.
"I don't wish to speak of any of these things with The Herald, " Cabezas said, adding only: "It has been many years of sacrifice and struggle. My satisfaction is in doing my duty and helping those who have nothing."
ABDA Chairman Peter Bernal, an unpaid volunteer who leads the agency's board of directors, said he was unaware of the extent of staffers' involvement in the November campaign. But he defended Cabezas and staffer Alberto Martinez Echenique, both of whom he said he has known for many years.
"They're very honorable persons and would never do anything wrong. I can vouch for them, " said Bernal, a businessman who writes a freelance opinion column for El Nuevo Herald.
Bernal, who said he was not involved in the November elections, said ABDA employees are free to campaign on their own time. But he said he was concerned by the possibility that some did campaign work on agency time, which could jeopardize its funding.
"They're supposed to know that rule very clearly, " Bernal said, promising to look into the matter. "So far we have nothing we need to be embarrassed about and I hope to keep it that way."
City: Agency gets results
ABDA builds affordable housing and helps small businesses take root and grow in impoverished neighborhoods. Such groups need commission votes to get grants and loans for salaries and projects.
Competition is stiff for the small pool of city funds, most of it federal money. In the coming fiscal year, for instance, the city has $12.7 million available in Community Development Block Grants -- and $63 million in requests from nonprofits.
City officials say the group is funded because it produces results. The agency has been especially successful in coordinating the renovation of scores of run-down storefronts, ranking at the top of the city's annual evaluation. The group is also developing three low-cost condominium projects.