To make the most of its booth at a Cinco de Mayo festival on Mary Brickell Village, Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarezs campaign paid two women who worked for an event promoter to sign up voters for absentee ballots.
Few questions were asked. Many of the voters were tipsy, according to Miami-Dade prosecutors. So were the two women. One drank shots of alcohol with partygoers in exchange for their signing forms authorizing the campaign to request ballots on their behalf.
Obtaining those permissions was legal. How the campaign used them was not.
Instead of mailing the forms to the county Elections Department, Juan Pablo Baggini, Suarezs operations manager, submitted the requests online on May 29. Each time, he had to swear or affirm that he was the voter or an immediate family member, as required by Florida elections law.
On Friday, Baggini and campaign manager Esteban Steve Suarez, whom the Miami-Dade state attorneys office contends directed Baggini, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to submit an absentee ballot request of behalf of voters. They agreed to serve up to a year of probation for unlawfully submitting 20 of the ballot requests online.
The charges appear to be a reflection of inexperienced and unsophisticated campaign workers who did not realize what they were doing was wrong. A source close to the investigation repeatedly referred to the way things played out as a comedy of errors.
For the duration of their probation, Baggini, a 37-year-old paid worker, and Suarez, 34, who is the candidates cousin and was volunteering, will be prohibited from getting paid to work for any campaign, or volunteering for any duties involving absentee ballots. The year-long probation will be terminated in six months if the men do not violate those conditions.
As part of the no-contest plea deals Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fred Seraphin approved Friday, neither Suarez nor Baggini will have a conviction on their record.
Hes not a political guy, Suarezs attorney, Frank Prieto, said. Simply I think some naiveté may have been involved in this lack of political acumen because there was no intent.
Bagginis attorney, Hector Flores, declined to comment. Neither Suarez nor Baggini appeared in court.
Prosecutors Jose Arrojo and Tim VanderGiesen said in their memo concluding the investigation that there was no evidence of a larger plot to submit unlawful ballot requests, or of any attempt to conceal the campaigns actions. Neither Suarez nor Baggini had a prior criminal record.
Commissioner Francis Suarez was cleared of wrongdoing. He had maintained from the day Bagginis Kendall home was raided two months ago that any mishandling of the ballot requests was unintentional.
The state attorneys office investigation concludes that there was no bad faith, he told reporters Friday. There was no intent to defraud anyone.
Suarez, a Republican, is seeking the nonpartisan mayoral post in the Nov. 5 election against another Republican, incumbent Tomás Regalado. Suarez said he intends to remain in the race and resign his seat by the Tuesday deadline in order to run for mayor.
Regalado promised to make the criminal case a campaign issue.It's sad that the city of Miami keeps being in the headlines because of these campaign problems, Regalado said. He's been reckless with his campaign.