Police raid Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez’s mayoral campaign in absentee ballot fraud investigation

06/13/2013 12:40 PM

06/17/2013 1:27 PM

Detectives raided a political worker’s home Thursday after he submitted other voters’ absentee-ballot request forms to help Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez’s mayoral campaign, which spun into damage-control mode and said no one intentionally broke the law.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office targeted Juan Pablo Baggini after county elections workers flagged a series of 20 absentee-ballot requests made on May 29 that were linked to Baggini’s computer.

“I can’t say anything, it’s an ongoing investigation,” Baggini, 37, said at his Coconut Grove office. He is listed as the “operations director’’ for Suarez’s campaign.

The raid at Baggini’s Continental Park home was the second performed by police and prosecutors since May 31, when investigators searched three locations in a separate absentee-ballot fraud case involving the 2012 campaign of U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia. The Miami Democrat has said he wasn’t aware three of his staffers might have fraudulently requested absentee ballots for hundreds of voters without their permission.

One of those Garcia campaign workers briefly volunteered for Suarez’s mayoral campaign.

Suarez said he welcomes an investigation by “any agency” because his campaign did not knowingly do anything wrong.

“We feel confident that once they investigate the circumstances fully, it will be apparent nothing was done to purposely violate the law,” he said at City Hall, where he was on the dais for a city commission meeting Thursday. “They will conclude that everything was done legally.’’

Suarez said the 20 voters in question signed a form provided by his campaign that “mirrors” an official county ballot-request document. Suarez said it was his understanding that the form gave the campaign the authority to request an absentee ballot on that person’s behalf.

Police armed with a search warrant seized those 20 forms from Baggini’s home, Suarez said, noting: “Every single voter an absentee ballot was requested for had given authorization.’’

But it might not matter.

It can be a third-degree felony in Florida to submit an absentee-ballot request for anyone who is not an immediate family member. It also can be a first-degree felony to use another person’s confidential information online.

Even if a person supplies a campaign with his or her personal information to request an absentee ballot, it’s still illegal for the campaign to submit the request.

“The law is clear: You can’t do it,” said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee-based state election-law lawyer who has represented hundreds of political clients across the political spectrum.

“You would think Suarez would know this,” said Herron, referencing the 1997 absentee-ballot fraud that occurred during the Miami mayoral race of the commissioner’s father, current County Commissioner Xavier Suarez. A court effectively removed Xavier Suarez from the mayor’s post and invalidated that election after finding massive ballot fraud; Xavier was not implicated in the wrongdoing.

After that campaign, the Legislature passed a series of laws designed to ensure that absentee ballots — the easiest to commit voter fraud with because they’re mailed in — are more secure.

Francis Suarez said this case bears little resemblance to that incident from years ago. He also was quick to downplay the possible connection to the fraud that might have happened in Congressman Garcia’s campaign, which involved online applications on behalf of voters who were not aware their names were being used.

Detectives raided a home associated with Garcia’s communications director Giancarlo Sopo, who also had volunteered on Suarez’s campaign in January. Sopo is on unpaid leave.

“He volunteered at the beginning when we did the [campaign] roll out,’’ Suarez said.

Suarez is also good friends with Jeffrey Garcia, who’s no relation to the congressman and was fired as the representative’s chief of staff after admitting he orchestrated the fraud leading up to the Aug. 14 congressional primary.

Suarez, a Republican running for the nonpartisan mayoral post, said there is no link between Jeffrey Garcia and Thursday’s raid involving Baggini.

“You are talking about 20 people who authorized somebody to request an absentee ballot on their behalf, versus a computer program that authorized and asked for absentee ballots wholesale without authorization,’’ Suarez said.

One of the voters listed in the search warrant for Baggini’s home, 24-year-old Melissa Rospigliosi, said she is longtime friends with Suarez and that she and her boyfriend happily signed up to vote absentee at Suarez’s booth at a Cinco de Mayo festival in Brickell.

She said she was “shocked’’ when an investigator called her Thursday morning and kept talking about “fraud.’’

“She made me feel they had put my name down without me knowing. Of course that’s not the case,’’ Rospigliosi said. “I wanted to vote absentee because it’s easier, more convenient.’’

Other voters on the list said the same thing as Rospigliosi.

Suarez would not say if he had consulted with an attorney before Baggini, who has been paid by Suarez’s electioneering committee, requested the absentee ballots by computer. Suarez said he is cooperating with investigators.

Baggini said Suarez’s campaign was the first he has worked on, and that he doesn’t know and hasn’t met Joe Garcia or Jeff Garcia. He said the police, who knocked on his door at 5:30 a.m. Thursday, asked him not to speak with the media.

Mayor Tomás Regalado, Suarez’s opponent, said investigators need to press Suarez and the campaign for more answers.

“I’m hopeful that the FBI and state attorney’s office will be scrutinizing every detail of every campaign in the city of Miami,’’ Regalado said, adding that he’s “very glad that the investigation is happening before the election, because after the election, it would have deprived people of their right to elect who they want.’’

The ballot requests Baggini submitted were flagged as suspicious because they were generated from the same computer. Investigators traced the computer’s Internet Protocol address to Baggini. The ballots were not mailed to the voters.

Suarez, whose campaign has been courting young professionals, said he hired Baggini to handle social media and media relations activities.

He would not say if Baggini was still with the campaign, or if he had been suspended or fired.

The campaign has held several events targeting younger voters, and has promoted voting by absentee ballot.

“Don’t be absent on Election Day!!’’ Suarez tweeted before the May 5 event at Mary Brickell Village. “SUPPORT Miami’s future!!! Come out to Cinco de Mayo and sign up for an absentee ballot for the November election.’’

At that event, Suarez said, his campaign used its form to collect information from attendees who were already registered voters and wanted to vote absentee.

Juan Pablo Baggini is a newcomer to Miami politics. A number of political operatives said they had never heard of him.

Baggini has never contributed to state candidates but was paid once — $2,000 in February — by Suarez’s electioneering committee, The Future is Now.

Baggini has been involved with a handful of businesses over the years and is listed as a corporate officer along with Suarez’s cousin and campaign manager, Esteban “Steve” Suarez, in a defunct Coconut Grove marketing firm called Markidia LLC.

Listed as a no-party-affiliation voter, Baggini displayed some interest in politics last year when a he chided an artist for urging people to vote for President Obama.

Baggini also engaged in a limited amount of political criticism in general.

“So, if we lie to the government, it’s a felony,” he wrote on Twitter. “But if they lie to us its politics” #hatepoliticians.”

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.

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