The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Joe Garcia’s ballot scandal


OUR OPINION: Prosecutors must not dilly-dally in this investigation of attempted ballot fraud

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia says he’s angry — and was clueless — that his chief of staff was involved in a cockamamie absentee-ballot scheme during last year’s Democratic Party primary in Congressional District 26, which stretches from the Florida Keys north to Kendall.

His chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation to the congressman) has resigned, and a Miami-Dade state attorney’s office investigation continues. Prosecutors should pursue the truth purposefully and with due diligence. No dilly-dallying.

Voters whose choice in 2012 was between two political enemies — Mr. Garcia, the former head of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, and former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a Republican who has his own troubles with campaign and tax laws — deserve to know exactly what went down in this race and to hold their elected representative accountable if it is found he played a role in this scheme.

A Miami Herald investigation in February by reporter Patricia Mazzei found the mystery computer hackers asking the elections office for absentee ballots were not solely from overseas computer addresses, as a grand jury had reported, but also from Internet Protocol addresses in Miami. That finding prompted prosecutors to get serious about pursuing this electoral fraud attempt.

State law considers it a third-degree felony for a ballot request to be filled out by someone other than a voter or his or her immediate family. But using voters’ personal information that is required in the ballot request forms can be considered a first-degree felony.

The stakes are high and may cover many more races than Mr. Garcia’s. In fact, of the 2,552 fraudulent online requests, about 500 involved the District 26 Democratic primary where Mr. Garcia was competing against three other candidates, including one, Justin Lamar Sternad who is involved in a separate federal corruption case involving former Rep. Rivera.

Mr. Sternad pleaded guilty to accepting $81,486 in illegal payments from unnamed co-conspirators. Investigators are looking into whether Mr. Rivera put up the stealth candidate in the Democratic primary to take votes from Mr. Garcia. Mr. Rivera and a Republican operative who was working for Mr. Sternad’s campaign, Ana Sol Alliegro, deny wrongdoing.

Meantime, there’s another suspected ringer candidate — Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo — with ties to Jeffrey Garcia who Republicans suspect ran in 2010 as a conservative to take votes from Mr. Rivera.

Voters’ heads must spin at all the webs of deceit in this race. But there are other races, too, that involved the phantom ballot requests — mostly for Republican candidates in legislative races.

Then there are the ballot-broker scandals that smeared the reputations of local candidates, too, yet those investigations by Miami-Dade and Broward prosecutors seem to be moving at a snail’s pace.

Last year, Miami-Dade prosecutors, after an 18-month investigation into Mr. Rivera’s spending exploits as a state GOP committeeman and state legislator, concluded they couldn’t make the charges stick because the statute of limitations had run out.

Mr. Garcia, for his part, stresses that the fraudulent online requests for absentee ballots never went anywhere because the county elections office flagged a problem and didn’t deliver the ballots. True, but the bigger issue here is a culture of political conceit that crosses the line into fraud.

Prosecutors must find the culprits wherever the evidence leads in all races. The statute-of-limitations clock is ticking.

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