TALLAHASSEE -- The self-described “Queen of Absentee Ballots,” has gone missing in the middle of a civil trial that could determine the ultimate victor in a race for District 107 in the Florida House.
On Tuesday, a Leon County judge approved an order calling on police to track down Noucelie Josna and haul her into court.
“This is a pickup order,” said J.C. Planas, an attorney for Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami. Julien is challenging the results of the August primary against Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, who won the razor-thin election by 13 votes in a district that is dominated by Haitian-Americans.
Josna — and the business card listing her as royalty in the realm of absentee ballots — have become central figures in the case between Julien and Watson.
In his lawsuit, Julien alleges that Josna and a woman named Carline Paul gathered several fraudulent absentee ballots from nursing homes and apartments. Josna has not responded to a court-ordered subpoena and a private investigator hired by Julien has not been able to track her down.
On Tuesday, Judge Charles Francis reviewed more than 150 absentee ballots from two contested precincts in the race and found six of them to be invalid.
“Those signatures don’t match up at all,” Francis said while looking at one ballot.
But an attorney for Watson pointed out that even with the six invalid ballots, Watson still had a seven-vote edge over Julien.
Planas said four of the invalid ballots came from a North Miami nursing home where Paul, an alleged ballot broker, was a frequent visitor.
Paul has been called in to testify at a Wednesday hearing in the case.
Watson’s campaign paid $1,000 to an entity owned by Paul, who ran radio ads telling Haitian Creole-speaking North Miamians to “consult Teacher Carline” before casting their absentee ballots, in order to “vote correctly.” The campaign also paid Josna several thousand dollars for “canvassing.”
Julien has said that Josna played a role in collecting fraudulent absentee ballots, and Planas believes that’s why she has not responded to a court subpoena.
Christopher Benjamin, who is representing Watson in the case, said there’s no evidence to back up the claims of fraud.
“It’s an interesting allegation. I’ve seen no evidence of it thus far,” he said. “We believe the [Paul] has not done anything wrong. I think she will exonerate herself.”
Planas said Josna’s disappearance and Paul’s initial reluctance to testify are red flags.
“There’s a reason why they don’t want to testify,” said Planas, who argued it was not a coincidence that Watson’s campaign paid both Josna and Paul. “If there was nothing wrong that they did, then you come in, you give a deposition, you say, ‘I made phone calls, I did this, I did that. I didn’t do anything wrong’ ”
In the Aug. 14 primary election, almost 40 percent of the votes cast in Miami-Dade were absentee. In some precincts in Hialeah and Sweetwater, as many as two-thirds of the votes were cast by mail, records show.
Following the August primary, Miami-Dade police arrested two boleteros, or ballot-brokers, on charges of altering ballots of elderly or disabled voters. The ballot-brokers are also accused of collecting almost 200 ballots from Hialeah voters, violating a local ordinance limiting possession of multiple ballots.
Absentee-ballot fraud is nothing new, particularly in Miami-Dade, where two local elections were overturned in the 1990s because of phony and forged absentee ballots. In 1976, local elections officials tossed out piles of suspicious absentee ballots cast at Miami nursing homes.
Miami Herald reporter Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report.
Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.