Almost unrecognizable in a trim beard, Jeffrey Garcia, the former chief of staff to Congressman Joe Garcia, hugged his relatives, kissed his wife and stepped up to the lectern in a Miami courtroom Monday morning to apologize.
He had directed the Miami Democratic congressman’s political campaign last year to request some 1,800 absentee ballots without voters’ permission, breaking Florida elections laws that require voters or their immediate family to ask for the ballots themselves.
“I should not have done it,” Garcia, 41, told Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie. “I’m sorry, and I accept responsibility for my actions.”
Then he pleaded guilty.
A few moments later, three police officers placed him in handcuffs and escorted him to jail. As part of a plea deal with prosecutors, he will serve 90 days behind bars, followed by 18 months’ probation — including the first three months under house arrest, wearing a GPS monitor.
During his probation, Garcia, a professional political operative who is not related to the congressman, will be prohibited from volunteering or working for any campaigns.
His sentencing marks the culmination of an investigation by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, triggered by a Miami Herald report, into thousands of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests that rolled into the county elections department’s website last year, a sign of a worrying trend of campaigns using technology to take advantage of the convenient online system.
“It was a very just resolution given the severity of the crime and the preciousness of the democratic process,” State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said.
The cases of two others who participated in the scheme under Garcia’s guidance, former communications director Giancarlo Sopo and former campaign manager John Estes, will likely be resolved soon, given Garcia’s admission of guilt.
Still pending is a federal investigation, also prompted by a Herald report, into Garcia’s ties to Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo, a bogus tea party candidate who ran for Congress in 2010. The Herald found Garcia might have secretly funded Arrojo’s campaign to siphon off conservative votes from Republican David Rivera, who defeated Joe Garcia that year but then lost to him in 2012.
Separately, Rivera is also under federal criminal investigation for his possible connection to another ringer candidate, Democrat Justin Lamar Sternad, who challenged Joe Garcia in last year’s primary and has pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations.
Both Garcia and Rivera have denied any ties to the fake candidates.
In court Monday, Jeffrey Garcia emphasized that the campaign did not tamper with any ballots. It requested them to target infrequent voters the campaign thought could be persuaded to vote for Joe Garcia.
“My intent and actions were calculated merely to increase voter participation,” Jeffrey Garcia told the judge.
The congressman, a friend of Garcia’s for more than a decade, underscored the same point in a written statement in which he called Monday “a difficult and sad day.”
“It is painful to watch a friend go through this very difficult ordeal,” said Joe Garcia, who has not been implicated in the scheme. “As we all move past this investigation it must be noted that while these actions were wrong, no ballots were touched or manipulated in any way, and no voter had their votes interfered with or impeded in any way.”