One Hialeah voter, 82-year-old Rosa Sanchez, told El Nuevo Herald that she gave both her ballot and her husband’s ballot to Lago, whom she described as her brother-in-law. She said Lago put the ballots in her mailbox. However, Sanchez’s ballot was among the 164 ballots that police believe Pedrosa took to the post office.
Lago, Robaina and Cabrera have also worked on campaigns for state Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah. Garcia did not respond to interview requests, but he has said that he did not use ballot-brokers in his campaigns.
“I’ve never had an absentee ballot operation like other folks have had,” Garcia said last month. “There is a cottage industry of people trying to chase absentee ballots, and it’s wrong.”
Hialeah a hub
As in years past, the current vote-fraud investigation focuses on so-called ballot-brokers who go door-to-door on behalf of candidates offering to help voters, many of them elderly, cast their ballots and make sure the ballots get mailed.
This practice of ballot collection has long been criticized as an opportunity for fraud: A boletero could potentially alter a voter’s choice, or forge a voter’s signature. Cabrera, for example, is accused of casting a bogus ballot for an incompetent, terminally ill woman in a nursing home. She has pleaded not guilty.
Some ballot-brokers have also been suspected of trying to collect ballots from an opponent’s supporters to make those votes disappear.
“Over the years it’s been perfectly accepted or legal to collect absentee ballots, which is an invitation for fraud,” said Joe Centorino, the director of Miami-Dade’s Ethics Commission and former corruption prosecutor who led several vote-fraud investigations. “It’s fraught with problems. Here you have campaigns injecting themselves into what is supposed to be a very private process.”
These tactics have been seen all over Miami-Dade County, but nowhere more so than in Hialeah, where police have investigated vote-fraud allegations at least four times in the past 20 years. Despite the persistence of the complaints, criminal charges seldom stick.
“I told everyone including the state attorney 10 years ago and there has never been an attempt to go after the people who are running these things,” said Michael Pizzi, the Miami Lakes mayor and attorney who led an effort to overturn Hialeah’s 2003 elections.
In 1993, a judge tossed out the results of Hialeah’s mayoral race after finding rampant vote fraud and forgery tied to “unscrupulous” campaign workers — some of whom used tracing paper to forge voters’ signatures.. In that race, then-Mayor Raul Martinez beat challenger Nilo Juri by 273 votes, but he would have lost if not for a 2-to-1 advantage in absentee ballots.
Martinez’s campaign targeted nursing homes housing mentally ill patients to gather absentee votes, The Herald found at the time. And after Juri filed a court challenge to the vote, a dozen witnesses, including a Hialeah police officer, refused to testify in the case, invoking their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The judge ordered a new election, where Martinez beat Juri again.
Despite the judge’s findings of fraud, only one campaign worker from that race was charged with ballot tampering — and she worked for Juri, not Martinez.