Raquel Regalado wants a judge to disqualify incumbent Carlos Gimenez from the Miami-Dade mayoral race over a flubbed check he submitted to the county’s Elections Department in June with the wrong date.
The last-minute gambit by the school board member claims Miami-Dade violated state election laws by allowing Gimenez to qualify for the Aug. 30 primary after submitting a corrected check hours before the noon June 21 deadline. The lawsuit, Regalado vs. Gimenez, requests a court order removing Gimenez from the Nov. 8 ballot and instructing the elections department not to count any votes he has received.
“We want to ensure that this election is not tainted,” Regalado said during a press conference at the Miami-Dade courthouse in downtown Miami Thursday morning. “That we are doing everything in our power to ensure its validity.”
In a statement, the Gimenez campaign called Regalado’s suit baseless and “bizarre.” “Ms. Regalado’s desperate campaign is once again resorting to frivolous tactics to try and thwart the will of the voters of Miami-Dade County,” the statement read.
Hours later, Gimenez summoned reporters outside a polling place at the Coral Gables Library to dismiss the litigation as a publicity stunt.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said, citing a recent poll showing Regalado trailing Gimenez by 22 points in the two-person race. “I expect the kitchen sink to come next.”
At issue is an $1,800 check that Gimenez personally delivered to the Elections Department on June 17 with the media there to document him officially qualifying for the 2016 mayoral race. It was dated June 10, with the year as 2015 instead of 2016. Jesse Manzano-Plaza, Gimenez’s campaign manager, said the handwritten check was filled out and signed by the campaign’s accountant, Tom McDonald. The signature on the check is an illegible scrawl, but matches McDonald’s signature on Gimenez’s campaign filing documents.
Election officials, who ultimately report to Gimenez, said they eventually flagged the error and asked the mayor’s campaign for a replacement check, which was delivered after 10 p.m. on June 20, according to candidate documents posted on the agency’s website. The qualifying deadline wasn’t until noon the following day.
Regalado’s lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court cited a Florida law requiring campaigns to submit cashiers checks for any check “returned by the bank for any reason.” Both elections officials and the Gimenez campaign contend the flawed check was never sent to the bank.
On Thursday afternoon, the Gimenez campaign released a page from its June account statement from Sabadell Bank. It lists a June 30 balance of $1.2 million, as well as a series of processed checks that lacks the June 10 check, numbered 226. The register skips from 217 to 227, and then includes the $1,800 check ultimately processed by the Elections Department, which was No. 233.
“Nobody broke any rules,” said J.C. Planas, the former Republican state lawmaker working as an elections lawyer for the Gimenez campaign. “This is so devoid of merit.”
Regalado’s suit claims Sabadell did receive the wrongly dated check, but cites no evidence beyond “upon information and belief, the June 2015 check was rejected by Sabadell United Bank which contacted the Miami-Dade County Elections Department.”
She told reporters that the suit was filed so close to Election Day because her camp had exhausted efforts to obtain documents from Elections needed to confirm that Sabadell never returned the misdated check. Regalado lawyer Peter Gonzalez said the suit relies on the contention that the bank returned the check, and that Miami-Dade hasn’t yet proved that transaction didn’t happen.
“The Elections office hasn’t confirmed that it wasn’t sent back by the bank,” he said.
The suit includes a volley of emails between Elections and the county’s police union, a longtime Gimenez foe backing Regalado. The correspondence seeks records related to the delivery of the check, including surveillance footage of the Elections headquarters’ lobby in Doral. Elections officials declared the security-camera footage exempt from Florida’s public-records laws.
Christina White, an Gimenez appointee and supervisor of Elections, issued a statement refuting the lawsuit’s allegations. She cited Florida law that requires elections agencies to try to get candidates to fix errors in filing and qualifying materials.
“A reasonable effort is made to notify all candidates with a deficiency that may need to be addressed before the end of the qualifying period,” she wrote. “During a routine review, staff observed a 2015 date on the qualifying check and the candidate’s campaign was notified of the observation. At no time did the Department submit the original check to the bank nor was a qualifying check for Carlos Gimenez ever declined by a bank for any reason.”
A former practicing attorney, Regalado announced her lawsuit on the fourth day of early voting in Miami-Dade’s Nov. 8 election, with an untold number of residents already casting their ballots for the incumbent mayor and his challenger.
The lawsuit against Gimenez and White seeks to remove Regalado’s lone opponent in the mayoral race. She and five other candidates challenged Gimenez in the Aug. 30 mayoral primary, where the incumbent took about 122,000 votes. Regalado finished second with 81,952 votes.
A recent poll by Bendixen Amandi for Univision and WLRN showed Regalado in roughly the same position she held on primary day, with 33 percent support in the survey of 600 likely voters. Gimenez improved his standing from the primary and was the choice of 55 percent of the poll participants.
Fernand Amandi, a partner in the polling firm, said Regalado’s suit reflected a candidate trying to dramatically alter a campaign trajectory headed for defeat.
“Hell hath no fury like a losing candidate,” he said. “Just look at Donald Trump.”
Regalado has cited the check mishap in the past as evidence of Gimenez manipulating county government to benefit him politically, since Miami-Dade is the only Florida county without an elected elections supervisor.
“The reason that I have taken this action is because Carlos Gimenez’s abuse of power has called into question the legitimacy of this election,” Regalado told reporters.
Regalado questioned whether a candidate who didn’t also supervise the Elections Department would have been granted late-night access to the Doral headquarters to replace a flawed check. Elections said it had staff there late at night as the June 21 filing deadline approached for dozens of races, and any candidate could have dropped off materials to the agency then.
Either way, the Gimenez campaign would have had several hours to deliver a new check during regular business hours on June 21 before the noon deadline.