Allowing someone to order another voters ballot in violation of the law is a slippery slope to voter fraud, State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said in a statement Thursday.
She cited a grand jury report from last December that found gaping holes in the absentee-ballot voting system and recommended a slew of improvements to prevent fraud.
It was made clear by the grand jury that the community has zero tolerance when it comes to violations of the elections process, Fernández Rundle said. We will continue to protect the integrity of the elections process by investigation and prosecuting these cases.
On Friday, attorneys for Suarez and Baggini are expected to enter no-contest pleas to avoid a conviction for the two men, who will receive a year of probation that could later be reduced to six months. Among the probation conditions will be that neither man get paid to work on a political campaign. They will also be prohibited from any volunteer absentee-ballot duties.
Steve Suarezs attorney, Frank Prieto, said in an interview Thursday that only under the strictest reading of the elections law could his clients actions have been considered a violation.
There was no intent of fraud, he said. But Prieto decided not to fight what would have been a more serious felony charge in court leading up to the Nov. 5 mayoral election, in which Francis Suarez is challenging incumbent Tomás Regalado.
We dont think its worth dragging it out in the public eye and perhaps be a black eye to the campaign, Prieto said. We just want to get it over with.
Political newcomer Baggini and his lawyer, Hector Flores, declined to comment.
The Miami-Dade Elections Department flagged the requests as suspicious because they originated from the same Internet Protocol address on Bagginis computer, prosecutors found, after obtaining the information from the Internet provider through a subpoena.
The investigation included taking voluntary statements from Francis Suarez, Steve Suarez and Baggini; obtaining records from Bagginis house, cellphone and computer; and recorded phone calls between the targets. The information allowed prosecutors to tie the ballot requests to Steve Suarez, the unpaid campaign manager, according to sources close to the investigation.
The campaign collected information from registered voters who wanted to vote by mail at a boozy Cinco de Mayo campaign event at Mary Brickell Village. Two attractive young women hired by the event promoter pulled double duty for the campaign and helped sign up the voters, the sources said.
But instead of mailing the forms to the elections department which would have been legal Baggini took them home and submitted online requests from his computer.
Miami Herald researcher Monika K. Leal contributed to this report.