Congressman Joe Garcia moved quickly to contain the fallout of an election-fraud scandal that rocked his office, but said Monday hes not going to fire a key staffer implicated in the case.
Garcia, a Miami Democrat, said Communications Director Giancarlo Sopo told him he was not involved in a plot last year to submit hundreds of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests though investigators with the Miami-Dade state attorneys office searched the home of one of Sopos relatives Friday in connection with the attempt to manipulate the Aug. 14 primary.
Sopo was placed on unpaid administrative leave late Monday.
He said he did not do that, and I take him at his word, Garcia told The Miami Herald. If I find thats not the case, hes not going to be put on administrative leave hes going to be let go. Until that happens, I am neither the prosecutor nor the judge and jury.
Garcia dismissed Jeffrey Garcia, his chief of staff and longtime political advisor, Friday after law enforcement raided the family homes of Sopo and former campaign manager John Estes seeking computers and other electronic equipment. Jeffrey Garcia, who is not related to his boss, admitted to the congressman that he directed the campaign to submit the phantom ballot requests, Joe Garcia said.
I dont know why, he added, saying the operation which ultimately failed wasnt needed. During this entire election, we were polling. ... We thought we were ahead early on and from the get-go.
Under state elections law, it may be considered a third-degree felony fraud for a ballot request to be filled out by someone other than voters or their immediate family. Using peoples personal information as required in the requests may be considered a first-degree felony.
Miami-Dade commissioners had been scheduled to ask the elections department Tuesday to make the online absentee-ballots request system more secure, but the measure will be deferred for two weeks while the department comes up with a plan and price tag.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundles office has said there is no evidence Rep. Garcia had knowledge of the ballot operation.
Jeffrey Garcias consulting company, Palm Media, did at least $372,952 worth of work for Joe Garcias campaign in 2012. Jeffrey Garcia and his company did $122,796 worth of campaign work for Joe Garcia in 2010.
As chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia received a salary of $29,224.21 between Jan. 17 and March 31, congressional office records show.
Joe Garcia said Sopo wrote news releases, advertising scripts and speeches for his 2012 campaign. Sopos compensation does not appear in Garcias campaign reports, though he could have been paid by another consultant. Sopo and Jeffrey Garcia have declined to comment.
Joe Garcia, who has hired an attorney to conduct an internal investigation, was unable to say why Sopo was not paid directly: Thats part of what we have to figure out.
That Sopo remains on the congressmans staff left an opening for Republicans to continue hammering Garcia over the scandal.
Congressman Garcia needs to stop with the slippery double talk and finally explain why he is allowing one of his top staffers to remain on his taxpayer-funded salary while being investigated for breaking the law, Katie Prill, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement Monday.