The uncle of Hialeah’s former mayor was arrested Friday as part of a broad voter-fraud investigation, after police say he filled out two absentee ballots with his own choices, not those of the voters involved, including a woman with dementia.
Sergio Robaina, 74, turned himself in Friday afternoon. He was briefly held at Ward D of Jackson Memorial Hospital, where inmates receive medical treatment, before posting a nominal bond Friday evening. His nephew is former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina.
Sergio Robaina was charged with two felony counts of voter fraud for allegedly filling out the two ballots in a way that did not match the voters’ intentions. He also faces two counts of violating a county ordinance by possessing more than two absentee ballots belonging to others.
Robaina admitted to police he picked up the ballots of seven or eight other people, according to an arrest affidavit, and told police that “he will continue to do it.”
Robaina is the second ballot broker arrested as part of the investigation, which has brushed the political campaigns of the Miami-Dade mayor and state attorney, and the office of a sitting county commissioner.
Last week, police arrested Deisy Cabrera, 56, who collected at least 31 absentee ballots over two days last month. She was charged with filling out an absentee ballot and forging the signature of a terminally ill woman in a nursing home.
Robaina’s case stems from 164 absentee ballots police say were dropped off at a post office by the woman who ran Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban Bovo’s Hialeah district office.
Among the ballots were those of a man, identified in the arrest affidavit as G.M., and his mother, identified as O.H., who has dementia. G.M. told police Robaina chose the candidates and then had G.M. and his mother sign the ballots.
“G.M. stated that neither he nor his mother had any input into which candidates were designated on their ballots,” the affidavit says.
The Miami Herald identified the man and his mother as Gustavo Martinez, 45, and Ocilia Hernandez Martinez, 82, based on the 164 ballots reporters viewed at the county elections department Thursday.
Martinez told an El Nuevo Herald reporter Friday that police had asked him about “a friend” of his, Sergio Robaina.
“He’s been pulling scams,” Martinez said. “I had the absentee ballot, and I wanted to vote for certain people, and he said, ‘No no no no no.’ Then he marked the ballot himself for the people he wanted to vote for.”
Martinez, who said he fears fallout for speaking to police, said he did not remember whom he wanted to vote for.
Several other voters whose ballots were among the 164 told reporters Thursday and Friday that they gave their ballots to Robaina, known as “ e l Tío,” or “the Uncle.” People who know Robaina say he has collected absentee ballots for years.
Robaina admitted to a Miami Herald reporter Thursday that he has long collected ballots, but he said he mostly does so for the elderly and infirm.
“I’ve collected ballots because the person can’t,” he said. “They have to be very old or something. And the ballots have to be sealed.”
An unidentified woman at Robaina’s house said Thursday that he has a blood-sugar condition, among other ailments. It is unclear why he was taken to the hospital after he surrendered at the office of his lawyer, Thomas Cobitz, Friday afternoon. Cobitz declined to comment.
Police went to Robaina’s house Friday morning to arrest him, but he was not home. His nephew, the former Hialeah mayor, could not be reached.
Sergio Robaina denied Thursday that he dropped off any ballots at Commissioner Bovo’s district office.
The arrest affidavit, however, says Bovo’s aide, Anamary Pedrosa, told police Robaina brought in a total of about 40 signed, sealed ballots on approximately five different occasions.
“Ms. Pedrosa reported that Robaina asked her to deliver the envelopes to the post office because he trusted her,” the affidavit says. Pedrosa kept the ballots in the trunk of her car.
The other ballots Pedrosa delivered were dropped off by voters at Bovo’s district office and by other boleteros, unidentified in the affidavit because of the ongoing investigation.
Voter Pedro Forte, 76, of Miami Springs, told an El Nuevo Herald reporter Friday that he filled out his ballot and sealed it but did not have a postage stamp to mail it. So he took it to Bovo’s district office, where he wanted to inquire about obtaining unemployment benefits, and left the ballot with a female assistant whose name he didn’t know who promised to mail the ballot.
Pedrosa, the aide, stopped working for Bovo on July 27. She delivered the ballots to the post office at 2200 NW 72nd Ave., some time between the evening of July 25 and the early morning of July 26, when postal workers discovered them and alerted police. Cabrera, the boletera arrested last week, had mailed 19 ballots from the same post office.
The 164 ballots appear to be unrelated to Cabrera, whom police had trailed last month as she entered the building housing Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s Hialeah reelection campaign office. Gimenez has strenuously denied any connection between his campaign and Cabrera; a dozen of his political consultants have signed affidavits to that effect.
After Cabrera’s arrest, State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle recused herself from that case to avoid a potential conflict of interest based on unconfirmed reports that a man working on her campaign had been seen with Cabrera. Fernández Rundle, who has a Democratic primary challenger in Tuesday’s election, has since fired the man.
She said Friday that prosecutors have focused on building felony cases against Cabrera and Robaina, instead of charging them with violating the county ordinance, a lesser crime. The ordinance, which went into effect July 1, has helped prosecutors investigate more serious voter fraud, she said.
“It’s pretty serious, when you find people filling out people’s ballots and not letting them vote the way they wanted to vote,” she said.
Robaina’s arrest affidavit noted that Commissioner Bovo has not been linked to the 164 ballots.
“It should also be noted that Ms. Pedrosa testified that neither Commissioner Bovo Jr.’s nor any other members of his staff had knowledge of the absentee ballots,” the affidavit says.
Bovo issued a statement Friday saying he is “deeply disturbed that my name, or that my office, is being mentioned in the same breath of an absentee ballot investigation.”
“Over the last 14 years, I have served my community and have strived to do so in a dignified and respectful manner,” he said. “A former employee’s actions are not indicative of the mission the residents of District 13 elected me to do.”
On Friday, a political committee run by former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla put out a robocall urging listeners to recall Bovo.
“Say no to fraud. Say no to this clown. Say no to Bovo,” the call says.
Diaz de la Portilla is running for the Florida House in Little Havana. His younger brother, School Board member Renier Diaz de la Portilla, is vying for a state House seat in Hialeah against Manny Diaz Jr., who has been backed by Bovo.
“It’s campaign season,” Bovo said. “All this stuff is par for the course, I guess.”
Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Monique O. Madan and Christina Veiga contributed to this report.