A campaign volunteer and key adviser for Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez oversaw a vote-buying operation in Overtown during last November's mayoral election, witnesses told The Herald and state investigators.
Raymond Molina, a former mayoral candidate who is now a close Suarez adviser, supplied the cash and personally kept watch over the $10-a-vote scheme at St. John Baptist Church last Nov. 12, two witnesses said.
One witness is Jeffrey "Pop" Hoskins, 34, who allegedly recruited homeless and poor voters from the streets of Overtown to vote absentee the day before the runoff. In a sworn statement to state investigators, Hoskins said Molina promised him $500 cash and a city job if he helped round up Suarez votes.
Hoskins was arrested by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Friday on felony vote-buying charges. The FDLE is examining Molina's role, prosecutors said. But Molina said he was not at the Overtown church on Nov. 12 and never paid anyone for votes. Molina said he did pay Hoskins $150 out of his own pocket on Nov. 13 -- Election Day -- for putting up Suarez signs and buying food for campaign workers, but that's all.
"It doesn't make any sense to pay anyone. How can you guarantee they're going to vote?" Molina said Friday. "Ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. The Suarez campaign has never had any money to pay anybody."
Suarez adamantly denied that his campaign was involved in buying votes. He said Molina supported his campaign, but was not involved in campaign operations.
"As in other cases and allegations during the last four months, I am absolutely certain that no campaign funds were used for any other purpose other than contemplated in the law, " the mayor wrote in a statement. He declined a request for an interview.
The FDLE began investigating Hoskins after The Herald reported the cash-for-votes scheme Jan. 11. Five witnesses said they saw Hoskins taking down the names of voters who showed up to get rides to an absentee voting station at County Hall, or paying $10 to people after they returned.
Hoskins, in a sworn statement to investigators a month ago, acknowledged that he participated in the operation. He said Molina hired him and supplied the cash, according to sources familiar with his statement.
Hoskins and his lawyer, Jason Grey, declined to comment.
VOTER TELLS STORY
She identifies Molina as supplier of money
One $10 voter also told The Herald she saw Molina in the church's back lot, staying in the background, occasionally handing money to Hoskins. She said Hoskins paid her and told her to vote for Suarez.
When shown a photograph of Molina, voter Sonya Calderon said, "That's him."
"He had a van that said 'Suarez' on it. He was standing by it. . . . It was parked inside the church [property] on the back lot, " she said, adding that she gave the same account to state investigators. "He'd give him [Hoskins] some money to come back with.
"It was all about the money. Ten dollars in 10 minutes, " Calderon said. "Yeah, I took the money. I wasn't going down there for free."
Another $10 voter, Bobby Hobbs, was shown a half-dozen photos by The Herald. He discounted the others and pointed to one of Molina: "He looks something like that." But two other witnesses said they did not see Molina at the church.
Molina told The Herald he met Hoskins through a paid Suarez campaign worker, Andre Marshall, who said Hoskins could help with signs and fliers during the runoff election. He paid them $150 each.
About a month ago, Hoskins called him and demanded another $150, Molina said.
"I said, 'Yeah? Where am I going to get the money? Xavier hasn't reimbursed me for anything, ' " Molina said, explaining that he has not asked Suarez for reimbursement.
Molina: It wasn't Suarez campaign money
The payments made by Molina do not show up on Suarez's campaign reports, as required by law. Molina admitted the oversight.
"It's not Xavier's campaign money, " he said. "He doesn't know I did it."
Molina said he did not keep a calendar during the campaign so he didn't know where he was Nov. 12, the day of the vote-buying operation. But Molina said he is certain he was nowhere near the St. John church.
"This is somebody's agenda, " Molina said. "I would have to be a magician to understand what is behind this.
"You don't know who you're dealing with when you're in a campaign, " he said. "All the cockroaches come out of the sewers."
Jorge Alvarez, Suarez's chief of staff and campaign chairman, said that Hoskins never did any work for Suarez, and that Molina was not directly involved in the mayor's campaign.
"Raymond got involved in the end of the day. He was not in the inner circle. He was someone who latched on toward the end, " Alvarez said.
Molina, now serving as Suarez's unpaid economic liaison, accompanied the mayor on a taxpayer-funded trip to Washington, D.C., Feb. 10-12. He was part of a delegation that met with federal housing administrators to discuss ways to bring economic development to Miami's inner city.
Molina said he hopes to become a paid consultant working for Suarez, trying to lure new companies and federal dollars into the city. He said he'd like to be paid $120,000 a year. He already has an office in the city's Riverside Center and is negotiating with companies interested in relocating to Miami.
Molina, 61, is a public affairs consultant and former real estate developer. He has lobbied in Washington for an umbrella anti-Castro group called Cuban Unity. He spent two years in one of Cuba's most notorious prisons, El Príncipe, for his part in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
A MAYORAL CANDIDATE
Judge's ruling forced Molina from the race
Molina ran for mayor last year but was forced to leave the race because a judge ruled he had not lived in the city long enough.
Last Oct. 10, he announced he would give up his legal fight to get on the mayoral ballot and would throw his support behind Suarez, a candidate he said had the "vision and integrity" to restore the city.
"Miami has been through too much scandal, " Molina said then. "The residents need a mayor they can trust."
In his statement, Suarez said Molina had little to do with his campaign.
"Mr. Molina was involved in only one operation in regards to my campaign. That operation concerned a reception given in the Wynwood area a few days prior to November 4, 1997, " Suarez wrote.
"Other than that operation, Mr. Molina acted as an adviser on matters affecting the Nicaraguan community and the Nicaraguan-American media in Miami. Neither I nor my campaign staff involved him in any operation in the area of Overtown on election day."
But Molina had a different account. He said he was something of a free agent for Suarez -- working independently to coordinate volunteers in northwest Miami neighborhoods like Allapattah, Wynwood, Little Haiti and Overtown.
Molina also was often photographed with Suarez at rallies and was a spokesman in paid ads for Suarez on Spanish-language radio.
Molina was first tied to the vote-buying operation by Hoskins.
Witnesses placed him at the vote-buying scene
In interviews with The Herald before the Jan. 11 story, Hoskins had denied taking part in the operation behind St. John church -- though he said he had worked in cash-for-votes schemes in "two or three" other campaigns.
But Hoskins said he was near the church that day and saw the crowd. He said he later heard that Molina was responsible for the operation.
"The only name I could get was Molina, " Hoskins said. "He was a big Suarez backer." Later that day, The Herald showed him a dated photo of Molina with a mustache. "That looks a lot like him -- but he didn't have a mustache, " Hoskins said. Molina, in fact, was cleanshaven during the campaign.
In that earlier interview, Hoskins said he had worked as an unpaid volunteer for Suarez during the runoff. He said he was paid for one day's work during the Nov. 4 primary by then-Mayor Joe Carollo's campaign.
But in the Jan. 11 Herald story, five witnesses said Hoskins was directly involved in the $10-a-vote scheme: He checked voting cards, wrote down names on a clipboard, and paid off voters when they returned from the absentee field station.
Most voters and other witnesses told The Herald that a white man seemed to be overseeing the operation, though he kept his distance -- standing near the van and talking on a cellular phone.
Two witnesses said the white man they saw was not Molina. Others said they were not sure.
"It's definitely not any of these guys, " said Donald Knowles, manager of the city-owned Gibson Park next to St. John church, when shown a group of pictures that included Molina. "This guy was young, I would say no more than his early 40s. Tall, slender. It looked like he worked out."
Mary Ludlow, one of the $10 voters, told The Herald she saw two white men at the scene. Hoskins also has told investigators there was a second white man accompanying Molina that day, though investigators have not been able to confirm his identity.
Hoskins gives statement outlining the scheme
After the Jan. 11 story, defense attorney Grey took Hoskins to meet with state investigators. Against Grey's advice, Hoskins gave a statement outlining the scheme: "Do you want to make $500?" Hoskins said Molina asked him. The deal: Hoskins would get $500 cash for helping to distribute literature and recruit voters, and a city job later if Suarez won.
Hoskins said the St. John operation seemed like a spur-of-the-moment idea. In his statement to investigators, he said Molina found him on Nov. 12 and told him to come along to the church -- never telling him he was intending to pay voters.
Hoskins' job was to ask people for ID cards and make sure they were qualified to vote -- then refer them to Molina, who would take some of them aside and talk to them quietly, out of Hoskins' earshot.
The voters would get into the van for a ride to County Hall, where elections department staffers were accepting early ballots in the mayoral runoff. Those votes were counted as absentees, since they were cast outside the voters' home precinct.
When the van came back, Molina asked the returning voters to describe the scene at County Hall as proof they entered the absentee polling place, Hoskins said.
Hoskins said Molina didn't trust him with the money. Molina would dole out the $10 bills to Hoskins one or two at a time, and Hoskins would in turn hand them to voters. Three voters said Hoskins -- not Molina -- told them to vote for Suarez.
HANDLING THE CASH
Hoskins says he didn't tell anyone how to vote
In his statement to the FDLE, Hoskins admitted handing over the cash but insisted he did not tell anybody how to vote.
Hoskins told investigators that Molina got worried when word spread through the neighborhood and too many people started showing up.
Hoskins got worried, too. He still had not received his $500, and the money was running out. He said Molina told him he didn't have it all and would have to pay him later. Hoskins cursed Molina and walked off.
Hoskins described the votes-for-dollars scheme as a failure.
"It was a minor sort of thing that didn't pan out, " said one source familiar with Hoskins' statement.
Both Hoskins' attorney and the FDLE said they could not talk about Molina.
"We are conducting an ongoing criminal investigation and have been talking to numerous people, " said Doyle Jourdan, the FDLE's regional director in Miami. "Citizens have been cooperating. We can't really comment further."
"There's a pending investigation, " attorney Grey said. "It would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time."
Alvarez, Suarez's chief of staff, expressed surprise at the allegations against Molina. He said Molina is a respected member of the community and the people making the claims lack credibility.
"This would not be admitted in a court of law, " Alvarez said Friday afternoon. "You are trusting the word of street people."
Alvarez said the mayor has been trying to find Hoskins for several days and requested the help of retired Miami police officer Charles Wellons, a campaign coordinator, to track him down.
"We needed to find this guy to ask him what he said about the votes being bought, " Alvarez said. He said Suarez wants to get to the bottom of the vote buying.
Two days after the St. John operation, Molina was part of the crowd at Miami City Hall celebrating Suarez's swearing-in. At the time, he said Carollo's complaints about absentee voter fraud were just sour grapes.
"We ran the cleanest campaign ever in Miami, " Molina said. "Mayor Suarez is known for running clean campaigns, and we did everything by the book. That is why we were so successful. I personally witnessed it."