Ballot tampering suspect in Hialeah was poll worker for county

08/24/2012 5:00 AM

08/25/2012 3:11 PM

Sergio Robaina, facing absentee ballot tampering charges out of Hialeah, has worked as a seasonal precinct inspector for the Miami-Dade Elections Department for the past four years.

Records show that Robaina, 74, was paid to work during 11 elections ranging from races for seats on Hialeah’s City Council to the White House. He even worked elections in which his nephew, former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, was a candidate. Several voters said that for years Sergio Robaina passed by their homes to pick up their absentee ballots during these elections.

In mid-June, Robaina took a refresher training course in preparation for his job as an inspector at Precinct 362 at Hialeah’s Meadowlane Elementary School during the Aug. 14 elections. But he called in sick before he could take up his post.

Four days earlier, Miami Dade police arrested Robaina on two felony counts of tampering with the absentee ballots of a woman with dementia and her son. Some 35 voters have told El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald that Robaina collected their ballots prior to the recent elections.

When asked about Robaina’s employment at the county’s polls, Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley said her office carefully reviews allegations.

“The Elections Department holds itself to the highest standards to ensure a fair, secure and convenient electoral process,” she said Friday in a statement.

On Saturday, Elections Department officials clarified that they had decided to no longer utilize Robaina as a poll worker after learning of the police allegations -- and before he called in sick -- to avoid compromising the integrity of the elections process.

Robaina has entered a not-guilty plea. A woman who answered the telephone at his home Friday evening said he would not comment. Phone and email messages to his attorney, Thomas Cobitz, were not returned.

Robaina isn’t the only suspected ballot broker under investigation who has worked inside Hialeah’s voting precincts.

Zoa Caridad Barcena, a precinct inspector since 2011, was identified by one voter as the woman who collected her ballot and that of two neighbors. These three ballots are among a batch of 164 that were dropped off together at a Doral post office and are now the center of a criminal probe.

The charges against Robaina also are connected to the same bundle of ballots.

According to María Cabezas, 83, Barcena collected three ballots from her house several weeks ago. The sealed ballots belonged to her and two neighbors in her West Hialeah neighborhood.

“Zoa did me a favor in taking the ballots to the post office,” said Cabezas, adding that they’ve been friends for years.

The ballots belonging to Barcena and her husband, Leonel, 79, also wound up in the batch of suspicious ballots.

Anamary Pedrosa, a former employee in County Commissioner Esteban Bovo’s Hialeah office, told authorities that she received the ballots from several people, including Robaina. She said she then dropped them off at a blue mail drop box at a post office at 2200 NW 72nd Ave. on July 25 or 26.

A postal official noticed the suspicious bundle and notified the authorities.

It just so happened that on July 25, Miami-Dade detectives had questioned another woman, Deisy Pentón de Cabrera, who had been found in possession of dozens of absentee ballots in Hialeah.

Cabrera was formally charged a week later with forging a signature on a ballot.

Pedrosa, 25, has not been charged with a crime and is cooperating with authorities. She resigned from her job as an assistant in Bovo’s office. The commissioner has denied knowing his office had become a ballot drop-off site.

Leonel Barcena, like his wife, also has been a seasonal employee with the Elections Department since the special county elections in March 2011 that ended with the recall of then-county Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

His job was to ensure that political campaign workers and others remained 100 feet from the entrance of his assigned precinct.

Zoa and Leonel Barcena worked together at Precinct 321, at the Victor Wilde Community Center, 1701 W. 53rd Ter. during the Aug. 14 elections.

Both Zoa and Leonel Barcena refused to speak with El Nuevo Herald reporters who visited their home on two occasions. Zoa Barcena said she’d already spoken to detectives and had nothing more to say.

The Barcenas have two neighbors who say they placed their sealed absentee ballots in their own mailboxes and have no clue how they ended up in the suspect group of 164.

Mirsa Lorente, 40, lives next door to the Barcenas.

“I filled it out, signed it and placed it in my mailbox,” she said.

José Frometa, 80, lives on the other side of Lorente.

“I can’t say that somebody stole my ballot,” he said. “But what’s going on with these politicians is shameful.”

Miami Herald writer Monique O. Madan contributed to this report.

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