Miami-Dade Politics

Hialeah ballot scandal attracts interest of FBI

 

As a county commissioner met with prosecutors Thursday, two candidates said federal agents had questioned them about their contact with ballot brokers.

msanchez@ElNuevoHerald.com

FBI agents and Miami-Dade public-corruption investigators Thursday began interviewing sitting county officials, former judicial candidates and even elected judges about Hialeah’s growing absentee-ballot scandal.

The interviews come just days after several former judicial candidates told El Nuevo Herald that they were appalled by the number of offers they received from so-called boleteros, or ballot brokers, as they campaigned for the Aug. 14 elections, and almost two months after authorities discovered a suspicious bundle of 164 absentee ballots in a Northwest Miami-Dade mailbox.

County Commissioner Esteban Bovo met with prosecutors Thursday to speak about his former aide, Anamary Pedrosa, who collected the 164 ballots in his Hialeah office.

“They didn’t call me. I came on my own,” he said.

In the past week, several former judicial candidates — who both won and lost their respective races — have told El Nuevo Herald similar stories about how boleteros offered ballots in exchange for money, sometimes explicitly.

On Thursday, many of those candidates said they had been approached or interviewed by federal or local agents.

Lourdes Cambó, a labor attorney who lost her race, said she was interviewed by investigators from a law enforcement agency that she declined to name. She said they told her they were looking for ways “to prevent the tampering of absentee ballots in the future.”

Another former judicial candidate who asked not be identified said he was approached by the FBI.

An FBI spokesman in Miami said he could not confirm or deny the existence of a federal investigation. However, at least two candidates said they had been contacted by FBI agents on Thursday.

Officials from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office in Miami did not comment. State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle has said she would ask a grand jury to look into absentee-ballot fraud, and has convened a multi-agency task force to combat electoral fraud.

Public-corruption prosecutors have also reached out to elected judges to ask why they didn’t report suspicious ballot-fraud activities during their own campaigns.

Last week, Cambó told El Nuevo Herald that one woman promised to deliver votes in exchange for $1,500. Attorney Diana González, who won her judgeship election, explained how she would feign distraction to avoid confrontations with persistent ballot brokers.

Another attorney who won her race, María Elena Verde, told of one campaign stop where a woman said she had been filling out ballots that very morning.

Cambó, González and Verde all said they rejected the offers but did not report the incidents to authorities.

“I never really thought to reach out to authorities because I was in such shock,” Cambó said. “The [ballot brokers] finally stopped bothering me when they saw they weren’t going to convince me.”

Thursday afternoon, a half-dozen reporters were waiting for Bovo when he arrived at the state attorney’s office to meet with prosecutors.

Last week, Bovo revealed that he had known since early July of an allegation that his then-aide, Pedrosa, had offered boletero services to judicial candidates.

Bovo has said that Pedrosa denied the accusation and assured him that several judicial candidates had sought her help with their campaigns.

Pedrosa resigned in late July.

Pedrosa has given sworn testimony to authorities that several known boleteros gave her dozens of ballots in Bovo’s Hialeah office because they trusted she would drop them off at a post office.

But public records and the accounts of those ballot brokers suggest that Pedrosa might have played an active role in collecting ballots and coordinating campaigns.

Her own emails show how, during work hours, she organized a campaign event for Manny Díaz Jr., who was elected to a seat in the state Legislature.

Meanwhile, Pedrosa’s mother, Ana Valdez, was paid $5,700 by the judicial campaigns of Miami-Dade County Judge Don Cohn and attorneys Tanya Brinkley and Michelle Alvarez Barakat, all of whom won their races.

Last week, Cohn told El Nuevo Herald that Pedrosa offered to take him to a Hispanic church and elderly housing buildings in Hialeah Gardens, in addition to distributing campaign literature. He maintained that absentee ballots were never part of the deal.

Brinkley and Alvarez-Barakat have refused to speak with El Nuevo Herald.

Until now, the only person arrested in the case has been Sergio “el Tío” Robaina, a popular Hialeah ballot broker and uncle of former Mayor Julio Robaina. He has said he is not guilty of felony charges of tampering with two ballots that wound up in Pedrosa’s hands.

Robaina and another boletera, Claribel “Beba” Ferrer, have told El Nuevo Herald that Pedrosa asked them for help in collecting ballots in support of the campaigns of Díaz and two other state representatives, José Oliva and Eddy González.

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