Tomika Shanteek Curgil got behind the wheel of a beat-up Pontiac on Friday morning, dropped her son and daughter off at school, and was on her way back to her Liberty City home when a thought occurred to her: She was being followed.
She was right.
Police stopped the 33-year-old campaign worker and placed her into custody amid accusations she submitted more than a dozen fraudulent voter registration forms to the Miami-Dade elections department. A few hours later, Gladys Coego, 74, would turn herself in to authorities over charges that she tampered with absentee ballots this week while working as an elections department temp.
Prosecutors say the cases are unrelated. But Friday’s arrests have secured the women a place in South Florida infamy and marked them in the cross-hairs of an election beset by rigging allegations — even though the women appear to live disparate lives with none of the trappings of master conspirators.
“I want to ensure the voters of Miami-Dade County that the integrity of the electoral process is intact because our procedures work,” Miami-Dade Elections Department Supervisor Christina White said in a statement.
According to her arrest affidavit, Coego was caught marking absentee ballots for Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Carlos Gimenez, only one day after she began working in the supervisor’s office on a short-term basis. Coego, who authorities say has no apparent connections to the Regalado campaign, was tasked with opening vote-by-mail envelopes and checking, counting and sorting ballots.
Like a student doing a poor job of cheating on a test, Coego was caught by a co-worker conspicuously marking ballots at a table with a pen that she had sneaked into a ballot sorting room inside her purse. They found at least two ballots marked by Coego in black ink, although it’s likely she manipulated a few more.
Coego, charged with two felony counts, declined to speak with reporters when released from Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center on Friday afternoon. Wearing slacks and a pink blouse, she hid her face behind a folded piece of white paper and walked toward a waiting, gray Mercury sedan between two men, one of whom had identified himself at her Westchester town home earlier Friday as her son-in-law.
“We know nothing. It’s too fresh. In due time the truth will be revealed,” he told a reporter at the house after declining to give his name.
White, the elections supervisor, said Coego was hired by a temp agency to work as an elections support specialist, and was to be paid $14.69 an hour. She had worked for the department once before as a temporary worker during the 2012 election, though it’s unclear for how long. That year, she was assigned to the voter services division, which handles petitions, voter correspondence, calls and mail ballots.
Coego’s neighbors said she’s well-liked and known for doing little favors like taking out neighbors’ trash if they’re out. Some said the Cuban abuelita — who carries no party affiliation and voted by mail in the Nov. 8 election — is a widow who used to clean schools at night with her husband before he died a few years ago.
“She’s a beautiful human being and neighbor,” said Aimee Garcia, Coego’s 55-year-old neighbor from across the street. “There has to be an error somewhere.”
Curgil’s immediate family was left with the same impression Friday morning after her arrest on five felony counts, according to an acquaintance who asked to remain unnamed. They were aware she was collecting signatures as part of a voter registration drive, the person said, but knew nothing about her working for the People United for Medical Marijuana campaign — even though court documents state she got the job with the help of her grandmother.
According to her arrest affidavit, Curgil, an out-of-work security guard with butterfly tattoos on her chest, hardly ran a sophisticated scheme. Elections employees flagged what appeared to be forged voter registration forms she submitted on behalf of the pro-medical marijuana campaign Oct. 12 and turned them over to investigators. Detectives said they then confirmed Curgil had filed false voter registration forms — some of which involved the deceased — by staking out her house, tailing her in her car and talking to the voters involved.
Attempts to reach Curgil’s grandmother, Babe Baker, were unsuccessful Friday. A man at Curgil’s home declined to comment, as did Curgil’s sister when reached by phone.
A consultant leading the medical marijuana campaign said the organization, authorized to register voters in late September, is cooperating with prosecutors and has a system for catching bad registration forms that simply failed to snuff out Curgil’s documents.
Curgil, meanwhile, has for the first time in her 33 years a blemish on her previously untarnished record.
“She has never been in any trouble with the law,” said Curgil’s friend. “I’m just lost right now. It’s kind of crazy.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.