Miami-Dade’s Fernandez-Rundle: Restore voters’ trust, legislators

As detailed recently in the Miami Herald, the “sealed” search warrants served on three locations involving a congressional race were investigative steps to determine those responsible for falsified electronic absentee ballot requests in the primary and general elections of 2012.

While the initial data information supplied by the Miami-Dade elections department contained only foreign computer identifications (IP addresses), each subsequent listing contained more information than the previous one without ever making that point clear. The Herald’s recognition of this discrepancy helped provide two of the local IP addresses for two search warrants. Our election fraud task force helped develop the final IP address and search warrant for the previously unknown general election attempt.

Now comes the tedious work of reviewing all of the electronic data in order to file criminal charges. Despite a public desiring a quick decision, there is a distinct legal process that prosecutors must follow to develop a criminal case.

Every law enforcement expert recognizes that there are no easy public corruption investigations. The Miami Herald explained the problem clearly when it wrote on Feb. 16, 2003: “Public corruption cases can be much harder to investigate and prosecute than violent crimes. Without a body or smashed window, prosecutors first have to prove that a crime took place. Then they have to prove that someone did it. The legwork can involve digging through reams of technical or financial records and interviewing dozens of reluctant witnesses.”

The investigation of former state Rep. David Rivera is a case in point. Reams and reams of records had to be reviewed before recognizing that the statute of limitations had passed, prohibiting criminal charges, even before the investigation had begun.

We have already had successes with the election fraud task force I formed in August with over 50 police officers from seven law enforcement agencies. It has been investigating allegations of impropriety and fraud stemming from the 2012 primary and general elections and subsequent elections. We have interviewed candidates, elected officials, community activists, voters, and numerous citizens who have made allegations of some kind of impropriety.

The arrest of Deisy Cabrera last July for violation of the county absentee ballot ordinance and the felony charges of completing the ballot of another, along with the arrest of Sergio Robaina last August for similar ordinance and felony charges, clearly show that when sufficient evidence involving voting or election fraud existed, charges were filed. These cases are currently making their way through the courts, just as do tens of thousands of other felony cases.

The recent search warrants executed in the ongoing criminal investigation into computerized absentee ballot requests has already resulted in the resignation of the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.

Arrests virtually stopped the ballot brokers ( boletería) in the November election — another testament to what we have already accomplished.

Our task force investigations are only one effort to attack voter fraud. I asked the Miami-Dade Grand Jury to review the issue. On Dec. 19, 2012, jurors urged a number of specific reforms. Our Miami-Dade County Commission and its chair, Rebeca Sosa, voted to support the implementation of these reforms during the 2013 legislative session. Now the commission is reviewing local reforms, which may help bring greater integrity to our absentee ballot process.

The recommendations of the grand jury did lead the Legislature to outlaw paying people or accepting payments to collect absentee ballots. It is now a first-degree misdemeanor crime. This is a half-step toward what is actually needed to foil vote manipulators, making such activities felony crimes. A misdemeanor charge will not deter them and will not result in a jail sentence.

However, the Legislature chose not to pass a number of reforms that might have helped ensure honest elections. Although recommended by the grand jury, Florida still does not outlaw collecting absentee ballots. A law intended to implement the Miami-Dade model statewide did not pass.

The Legislature chose not to pass the strongest prosecutorial tool available to help fight fraud, a reinstitution of the witness signature requirement on all absentee ballots. This was the tool that allowed me to file charges against more than 60 defendants and convict them in the 1997 Miami mayoral election. That election was overturned because of absentee voter fraud.

I am concerned that false characterizations of our law enforcement efforts may actually breed greater voter cynicism. Some individuals have made the media rounds proclaiming that no one is interested in following criminal leads. Nothing is further from the truth. However, many investigations have failed when individuals, sometimes with campaign affiliations, provide bold sound bites to the media and then tell an entirely different story when speaking to a police officer or when asked to provide a sworn statement under oath subject to perjury laws.

Actions against voter fraud have already had an impact. More and more citizens and candidates are coming forward and contacting law enforcement about their concerns. We have heard from elected officials and potential candidates that they will not hire individuals who engage in questionable election activities. Although these future promises are difficult to enforce, bringing into open sunlight these often unsavory facts is certainly a step forward.

Almost all voter fraud is committed through the use of absentee ballots. If we really are committed to the fight against voter fraud, all of us must play a role. Citizens must not only be our eyes and ears, they must urge our legislators to reform our laws. During the last legislative session, I went to Tallahassee to advocate for stronger protections for the integrity of our elections. We must repeatedly tell our legislators that we want true reform, not Band-Aid solutions.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle is the state attorney for Miami-Dade County.

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