Elections

Congressional candidate, Miami-Dade prosecutors spar over absentee-ballot probe

 
 
Congressman Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat, holds a press conference in June to talk about the resignation of his chief of staff over a fraudulent absentee-ballot request scheme.
Congressman Joe Garcia, a Miami Democrat, holds a press conference in June to talk about the resignation of his chief of staff over a fraudulent absentee-ballot request scheme.
Peter Andrew Bosch / Miami Herald staff

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office engaged in a war of words Wednesday with congressional candidate and Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, who called for a special prosecutor to take over a high-profile absentee ballot investigation.

MacDougall, a Republican, intends to challenge Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, whose campaign has been at the center of the investigation into hundreds of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests submitted online for last August’s primary election.

Garcia fired his former chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, on May 31 after Jeffrey Garcia told the congressman that he had directed the campaign to submit some of the phantom requests. Florida elections law prohibits anyone other than voters or their immediate family members from requesting absentee ballots.

Joe Garcia has denied any involvement in the scheme, and prosecutors have said they have no evidence to the contrary.

In a letter Wednesday, MacDougall asked Republican Gov. Rick Scott to step in, accusing Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, a Democrat, of taking too long in her probe. MacDougall also unveiled a website, StopMiamiElectionFraud.org, to collect petitions urging the governor to take action, and said he plans a round of robocalls to congressional district voters to steer them to the site.

“It is unacceptable that State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle has failed to produce a single indictment or arrest, despite an admission of guilt months ago from the congressman’s chief of staff,” MacDougall wrote.

Fernández Rundle responded to MacDougall with a strongly worded statement in which she said she hoped the congressional hopeful was “not using an ongoing criminal investigation as some kind of political fodder for his campaign.”

“Mr. MacDougall must understand that a complicated investigation involving multiple targets, the serving of search warrants, the seizing of computers and papers and the ongoing forensic analysis of computer hard drives, takes time,” Fernández Rundle said.

Her statement mentioned an “anticipated prosecution” in the case, indicating the state attorney’s office plans to file charges, presumably against at least one of Congressman Garcia’s former campaign workers.

In May, Miami-Dade prosecutors, along with county and Miami Beach police offers, raided residences linked to two Garcia staffers: Giancarlo Sopo, the congressman’s communications director, and John Estes, his former campaign manager. Sopo, who was later also served with a search warrant for his cell phone, resigned last month.

In July, Sopo’s attorney, Gus Lage, said he had met with prosecutors on behalf of his client.

Prosecutors linked Garcia’s campaign to nearly 500 absentee-ballot requests submitted online from only a handful of Internet Protocol addresses last summer. A Miami Herald investigation revealed in February that the requests targeted Democratic voters in Congressional District 26 and had originated from IP addresses in Miami that could be traced by law enforcement — but had not been.

The origin of an additional 2,000 or so fraudulent requests from the Aug. 14, 2012, primary were masked by foreign IP addresses. Those requests targeted Republican voters in two Florida House districts.

Software used by the county elections department flagged the suspicious requests, so none of the absentee ballots were mailed out.

Separately, investigators in June searched the home of Juan Pablo Baggini, who worked on the mayoral campaign of Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, for submitting 20 absentee-ballot requests from his computer. Suarez has said no one in his campaign intentionally broke the law or had anything to do with the more-organized fraud from 2012.

Prosecutors are taking “multiple statements” from witnesses and targets as part of the Garcia investigation, Fernández Rundle said, noting that MacDougall has not called prosecutors or a voter fraud hotline with any additional evidence.

“As a former police officer, surely he knows the importance of providing law enforcement with any evidence available which may assist a criminal investigation,” she said.

On Tuesday, MacDougall blasted Fernández Rundle for failing to press charges against Garcia’s predecessor, Republican David Rivera, after an 18-month investigation into his campaign and personal finances. The state attorney’s office drafted 52 charges but did not file them, citing a lapsed statute of limitations and ambiguous campaign-finance laws.

It was MacDougall’s first foray into the absentee-ballot investigation, nearly two months after Garcia was tied to the probe. In the crowded Republican field to challenge the incumbent in 2014, Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo has repeatedly hammered Garcia over the investigation.

Last month, Curbelo released a poll showing Garcia leading the race — but also that he had been made vulnerable by the scandal.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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