Elections

After conviction, absentee-ballot case turns to 2 former Joe Garcia aides

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

Miami Congressman Joe Garcia’s former chief of staff began serving a 90-day jail sentence last week, becoming the first person convicted for submitting hundreds of phony absentee-ballot requests online during last year’s elections.

But despite Jeffrey Garcia’s sentence, the investigation into the scheme isn’t over.

Still pending is what prosecutors from Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office will do about the campaign underlings who recruited their relatives to fill out the ballot request forms without voters’ permission.

Attorneys for campaign manager John Estes and volunteer Giancarlo Sopo — who later became the congressman’s communications director — argue their clients were victims lied to and manipulated by Jeffrey Garcia, who they say was pulling the campaign strings even though he held no official title other than “consultant.”

Both young men had asked Garcia up front if it was OK to file the online requests, the lawyers said. Each form required checking off a box affirming that the person making the request was the voter or an immediate family member.

“Jeffrey Garcia told my client that he had vetted this with an attorney, and that it was all fine,” said Gus Lage, Sopo’s attorney.

Garcia told Estes the same thing, said his lawyer, Sabrina Puglisi.

But Florida elections law prohibits anyone from submitting online absentee-ballot requests on another person’s behalf.

Garcia, 41, apologized and pleaded guilty Monday to a felony and three misdemeanor charges.

The misdemeanor charges were for soliciting others — Estes, Sopo and their relatives — to submit ballot requests on behalf of voters. Prosecutors could contend that’s also what Estes and Sopo did when they had their relatives fill out the forms.

In an interview last week, Fernández Rundle wouldn’t tip her hand to what her office will do about Estes and Sopo, saying prosecutors had focused on making a case against Garcia as the mastermind behind the plot. Joe Garcia, no relation, has not been implicated.

The scheme began in the summer of 2012, when Jeffrey Garcia, the Miami Democratic congressman’s longtime top strategist, devised the plan to increase the number of Democratic voters in the 26th congressional district, which spans Kendall to Key West.

Once potential voters’ personal information had been plugged into the ballot-request forms, the campaign would reach out to them to try to persuade them to vote for Joe Garcia.

Jeffrey Garcia asked Estes and Sopo if they knew people who might be interested in the gig, paying $8 to $10 an hour.

Estes, now 26, suggested his younger brother, Nicholas Estes, now 22.

Beginning on July 4, 2012, Nicholas Estes submitted more than 300 ballot requests for the Aug. 14 primary election, prosecutors say.

Yet that was apparently not good enough for Jeffrey Garcia, who kept a close eye on the project.

In October 2012, Garcia turned to Sopo, who had worked as Joe Garcia’s spokesman in the 2010 congressional campaign Jeffrey Garcia had managed. Might Sopo know of anyone else who could help out?

Sopo, now 30, suggested his sister, Giannina Sopo, now 26, and a cousin, Laura Rossello, now 47.

The new crew cranked out the requests, submitting more than 1,400 between Oct. 19 and Oct. 26, 2012, for the Nov. 6 general election.

Joe Garcia won the election, comfortably defeating Republican incumbent David Rivera.

What Garcia’s campaign didn’t know was that the Miami-Dade elections department had flagged the fraudulent online primary requests. None of those ballots were mailed to voters.

In December, a grand jury disclosed the existence of those and other requests. Prosecutors had been unable to determine their origins. Garcia’s campaign was safe — until February, when the Miami Herald ran an investigative report that found that at least some of the requests — the ones targeting voters in Garcia’s district — originated in Miami. (The origin of the other requests, targeting Republican voters and apparently submitted by a separate campaign from Garcia’s through foreign Internet Protocol addresses, remains a mystery.)

Prosecutors reopened their investigation. They found the previously undiscovered general-election requests. And they traced them all to the homes of Estes’ parents and Sopo’s cousin. Jeffrey Garcia was fired. Sopo eventually resigned.

But will Sopo and Estes also get charged?

Their relatives almost certainly won’t, predicted Lage, Sopo’s attorney, citing past conversations with prosecutors.

“My understanding overall is they’re not interested in the individuals that did the data entry,” he said.

As for Sopo, he didn’t “willfully and knowingly” violate the law, or else he wouldn’t have asked his family to join him, Lage argued.

He questioned the wisdom of charging someone like his client, a middleman of sorts who didn’t submit online requests or otherwise touch or tamper with any ballots, especially considering that in an unrelated case, two absentee-ballot brokers known as boleteros, Deisy Cabrera and Sergio “ El Tío” Robaina, who were caught with ballots in hand last year, received only probation.

Puglisi, Estes’ attorney, said her client and Sopo were “duped” by Garcia, a seasoned political consultant who was calling the campaign shots.

Somehow, Lage lamented, “something as innocuous as data entry turns into this ginormous thing.”

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