Elections

Aide to Miami Congressman Joe Garcia embroiled in absentee-ballot fraud investigation resigns

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

Giancarlo Sopo, Congressman Joe Garcia’s communications director who has been ensnared in an ongoing criminal investigation into fraudulent absentee-ballot requests, has resigned.

Sopo informed Garcia, a Miami Democrat, of his resignation Friday, Garcia’s office confirmed Monday.

“I thanked him for his service to our office,” Garcia said. “I understand that he is cooperating with investigators and hope that this will give him an opportunity to resolve this matter.”

Sopo declined to comment. His attorney, Gus Lage, said Sopo resigned “for personal and financial reasons, and also because he didn’t want to be a further distraction to the congressman’s work.”

Sopo had been placed on unpaid administrative leave last month, days after Miami-Dade prosecutors and police raided his cousin’s home in connection with the scheme to request ballots online for nearly 500 unsuspecting voters in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary. Garcia said at the time that he did not immediately fire Sopo — opening the congressman to criticism from Republicans — because Sopo told Garcia he wasn’t involved in the plot.

Sopo recruited his friends or family to assist, Lage said — presumably either to compile or submit the ballot requests.

“If there was any illegality to what was done, Mr. Sopo did not appreciate that at the time,” Lage said, adding that he has met with prosecutors investigating the case. “If there was, he wouldn’t have had his cousin, sister and friends of his do this.”

Garcia swiftly dismissed former chief of staff and top political adviser Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, when he admitted to his boss that he orchestrated the attempt to manipulate the election.

Jeffrey Garcia’s admission came hours after the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and other law enforcement executed search warrants on May 31 seeking computers and other electronic equipment at the homes of Sopo’s cousin and the family of John Estes, Joe Garcia’s 2012 campaign manager.

Joe Garcia, pledging to cooperate with prosecutors, hired attorney William Barzee to conduct an internal investigation into the matter. The congressman also said he urged his former chief of staff to work with investigators, but Jeffrey Garcia has not yet met with the state attorney’s office, said his lawyer, Henry Bell.

“There’s an ongoing investigation,” Bell said Monday. “As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s appropriate to jump to conclusions that the law has been violated here.”

In a separate absentee-ballot case, investigators on June 13 raided the home of a Juan Pablo Baggini, a political worker for the mayoral campaign of Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, for submitting 20 absentee-ballot requests from his computer. Sopo volunteered in Suarez’s campaign in January.

State law requires prohibits anyone other than voters or their immediate family members from requesting mail-in ballots. Suarez has said no one on his campaign intentionally broke the law and that the case has nothing to do with the more-organized fraud that took place in the congressional race last year.

Prosecutors reexamined the ballots in the congressional primary contest after a Miami Herald investigation found that more than 2,500 absentee-ballot requests flagged by the Miami-Dade elections department last year as suspect were not random: They targeted Democratic voters in Garcia’s 26th Congressional District and Republican voters in two Florida House of Representatives districts. The Herald revealed that the fraudulent ballot requests targeting voters in the congressional race came from domestic Internet Protocol addresses that could be traced.

A grand jury convened by State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle issued a report in December noting that the mystery hacker or hackers behind the requests could not be determined because they originated from foreign IP addresses.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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