When two well-known absentee-ballot brokers in Hialeah were arrested four months ago on charges of electoral fraud, several of their accomplices stayed away from politics, fearing they would be discovered during the campaigns leading up to the November elections.
However, given authorities’ apparent lack of interest in investigating the cases, some of the Miami-Dade ballot brokers, known as boleteros, have already begun to coordinate the collection of absentee ballots for next year.
There will be elections in 2013 in 15 of Miami-Dade’s 35 municipalities, among them the largest cities in the county — Miami, Hialeah and Miami Beach.
“When I saw on television that they had arrested that woman in Hialeah, I told my husband, ‘I’m glad it wasn’t me,’ ” said an experienced boletera who has worked for several municipal campaigns during the past decade.
“But I think it’s unfair that the politicians who hire us can simply wash their hands and not one of them has been arrested,” added the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
So far there has not been a deep investigation into the politicians who benefited from the work of boleteros Deisy Cabrera and Sergio Robaina, who were arrested in August. Authorities made the arrests under a county ordinance that, beginning last July, penalized those who collect more than two ballots belonging to other people.
The ordinance was intended to reduce electoral fraud, but its future is uncertain. Attorney Thomas Cobitz, who represents Robaina, has questioned its constitutionality in court, alleging that it violates Robaina’s freedom of political expression and the rights of voters who seek assistance from others.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch will hear arguments from Cobitz and prosecutor Tim VanderGiesen on Jan. 15.
“We expect the ordinance’s constitutionality to be reaffirmed,” said County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who sponsored the measure last year. “Our duty as commissioners is to make sure that we stop the abuse, guarantee the rights of every voter and make sure that everyone’s vote counts.”
Regardless of what happens in court, the cases of Cabrera and Robaina have revealed how the business of boleteros can lead to the abuse of elderly voters, some of them illiterate or mentally disabled. El Nuevo Herald interviewed about 10 voters whose absentee ballots ended up in the hands of Cabrera and Robaina, and who said they did not know whom they had voted for. Some of them suffer from Alzheimer’s.
“Democracy is the big loser in all of this because there is no justice,” said Joe Carollo, who in 1997 was named mayor of Miami by a court after an electoral fraud scandal. “There are voters now who are frustrated and who do not even want to vote, believing that their vote doesn’t count and that nothing will change.”
Cabrera, 57, was arrested on Aug. 2, accused of collecting 31 absentee ballots belonging to other people and for allegedly forging the signature of a dying, elderly woman at a hospice. Cabrera, who says she is not guilty, refused to comment for this report through her attorney, Eric Castillo.
Cabrera’s arrest prompted a political scandal that affected two of the most important election campaigns in Miami-Dade a few weeks before the Aug. 14 primaries. Authorities noted Cabrera’s presence in the Hialeah office for the reelection of county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has said she did not work for his campaign.
In addition, Al Lorenzo, an advisor to Gimenez, assisted the reelection campaign of State Attorney Katherine Fernández-Rundle. The state attorney ended up recusing herself from the case after it was revealed that one of Lorenzo’s employees had been seen with Cabrera.
While this scandal was unfolding, Miami-Dade Public Corruption Unit detectives were also investigating Robaina, the uncle of former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina. This case began with the mysterious deposit of a package containing 162 ballots in a mailbox a few hours after Cabrera was discovered. The ballots had been deposited by Anamary Pedrosa, then assistant to County Commissioner Esteban Bovo.
Pedrosa told authorities that several boleteros, among them Robaina, delivered the ballots to her at Bovo’s county office in Hialeah because they trusted that she would mail them. Pedrosa said she did not know about the county ordinance, which had been co-sponsored by her boss.
Bovo, who was reelected without opposition, has said he had no knowledge of Pedrosa’s activities.
On Aug. 10, Sergio Robaina was arrested and charged with electoral fraud after a voter told authorities he had pressured him to vote for a candidate and had altered the ballot of his mother, who suffers from dementia.
Private detective Joe Carrillo, who gave the police crucial information against Cabrera, said he believes prosecutors have not diligently pursued the case.
“I believe that the state attorney was also benefiting from operators like Deisy Cabrera,” Carrillo said. “I have said that much directly to the state attorney. I think that there is a lot more here than just a conflict of interest.”
Pedrosa was a key piece in the operation of boleteros operating in Hialeah. In fact, she admitted to detectives that she collected absentee ballots at the homes of two boleteras — Claribel “Beba” Ferrer and Zoa Caridad Barcena.
However, Barcena told detectives that she had personally taken to the Elections Department her own ballot, her husband Leonel’s ballot and those of two friends.
Meanwhile, Ferrer and Robaina have told El Nuevo Herald that it was Pedrosa who asked them for help to collect ballots for Manny Díaz Jr., Eddy González and José Oliva, all candidates for the Florida Legislature who won their races and have repeatedly refused to talk about the issue.
An El Nuevo Herald investigation has documented the participation of both Pedrosa and her mother, Ana Valdés, who collected absentee ballots from relatives and acquaintances in several political campaigns in August. For example:
• Pedrosa organized campaign events for Díaz in at least two apartment buildings for low-income elderly residents of Hialeah and Hialeah Gardens.
• Oliva hired Valdés for his campaign and paid her $250.
• Three elected judges — Don Cohn, Michelle Alvarez Barakat and Tanya Brinkley — paid Valdés a total of $5,700 for campaign services. However, it was Pedrosa who organized the political event at the building where her grandmother lives. A fourth judge, Ivonne Cuesta, benefited from Pedrosa’s services, though no payments appeared in her campaign reports.
Pedrosa received immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony, which is at odds with Robaina’s account.