Miami-Dade prosecutors on Thursday charged two political operatives for Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez including his campaign manager with unlawfully submitting absentee-ballot requests online on behalf of voters.
Campaign manager Esteban Steve Suarez, 34, who is also the candidates cousin, and campaign aide Juan Pablo Baggini, 37, were charged with attempting to request absentee ballots for 20 voters in May.
Francis Suarez, a sitting city commissioner and lawyer, was cleared of any wrongdoing during the investigation, according to the Miami-Dade state attorneys office. His only involvement was advising his campaign to seek legal advice to make sure any online requests did not run afoul of the law.
The campaign did so but failed to heed a recommendation that the requests be submitted differently to avoid potential problems, sources close to the investigation said.
Neither Steve Suarez nor Baggini were arrested. Instead, as part of a deal negotiated with prosecutors, each was charged with a misdemeanor, will plead no contest and will receive probation. Their attorneys will appear in court Friday.
In a statement Thursday to the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, Francis Suarez emphasized that he and his campaign cooperated with the investigation and never had any intent to violate Florida election law.
To the extent that technical mistakes were made in the transmission of absentee ballot requests, the campaign has learned from this experience, he wrote. Now we must focus on the important issues that affect the daily lives of the City of Miamis citizens and to bring a brighter future to our great city.
He declined to elaborate beyond the statement, or address whether the charges would affect his campaign.
The state attorneys office is still investigating an unrelated case involving three campaign workers of congressman Joe Garcia. The Miami Democrats former employees have been tied to a much broader, more sophisticated scheme to submit hundreds of phony absentee-ballot requests online for unsuspecting voters. No charges have been filed in that case.
Prosecutors connected Garcias campaign to the plot following a Miami Herald investigation in February that revealed that the requests had originated in Miami and could be further traced.
In the Suarez case, prosecutors and police officers raided Bagginis home two months ago after linking his computer to the online requests. Suarezs campaign quickly characterized the incident as unintentional. The 20 voters whose requests were submitted online had filled out forms by hand authorizing the campaign to ask for the ballots.
But prosecutors said that violated state elections law, which makes it a third-degree felony to submit an absentee-ballot request for anyone who is not a family member and a first-degree felony to use another persons confidential information online. The person making the request must check a box swearing that the requestor is the voter or a relative.
The state attorneys office negotiated a lesser, misdemeanor charge attempting to request an absentee ballot on behalf of an elector in light of the Suarez campaigns cooperation and lack of evidence that it intended to break the law, the sources said. But the charges will likely still send a message to campaigns that prosecutors have absentee-ballot violations in their sights.