2 aides for Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez receive probation

08/23/2013 12:40 PM

08/23/2013 7:55 PM

To make the most of its booth at a Cinco de Mayo festival on Mary Brickell Village, Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez’s campaign paid two women who worked for an event promoter to sign up voters for absentee ballots.

Few questions were asked. Many of the voters were tipsy, according to Miami-Dade prosecutors. So were the two women. One drank shots of alcohol with partygoers in exchange for their signing forms authorizing the campaign to request ballots on their behalf.

Obtaining those permissions was legal. How the campaign used them was not.

Instead of mailing the forms to the county Elections Department, Juan Pablo Baggini, Suarez’s operations manager, submitted the requests online on May 29. Each time, he had to swear or affirm that he was the voter or an immediate family member, as required by Florida elections law.

On Friday, Baggini and campaign manager Esteban “Steve” Suarez, whom the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office contends directed Baggini, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to submit an absentee ballot request of behalf of voters. They agreed to serve up to a year of probation for unlawfully submitting 20 of the ballot requests online.

The charges appear to be a reflection of inexperienced and unsophisticated campaign workers who did not realize what they were doing was wrong. A source close to the investigation repeatedly referred to the way things played out as a “comedy of errors.”

For the duration of their probation, Baggini, a 37-year-old paid worker, and Suarez, 34, who is the candidate’s cousin and was volunteering, will be prohibited from getting paid to work for any campaign, or volunteering for any duties involving absentee ballots. The year-long probation will be terminated in six months if the men do not violate those conditions.

As part of the no-contest plea deals Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fred Seraphin approved Friday, neither Suarez nor Baggini will have a conviction on their record.

“He’s not a political guy,” Suarez’s attorney, Frank Prieto, said. “Simply I think some naiveté may have been involved in this — lack of political acumen — because there was no intent.”

Baggini’s attorney, Hector Flores, declined to comment. Neither Suarez nor Baggini appeared in court.

Prosecutors Jose Arrojo and Tim VanderGiesen said in their memo concluding the investigation that there was no evidence of a larger plot to submit unlawful ballot requests, or of any attempt to conceal the campaign’s actions. Neither Suarez nor Baggini had a prior criminal record.

Commissioner Francis Suarez was cleared of wrongdoing. He had maintained from the day Baggini’s Kendall home was raided two months ago that any mishandling of the ballot requests was unintentional.

“The state attorney’s office investigation concludes that there was no bad faith,” he told reporters Friday. “There was no intent to defraud anyone.”

Suarez, a Republican, is seeking the nonpartisan mayoral post in the Nov. 5 election against another Republican, incumbent Tomás Regalado. Suarez said he intends to remain in the race and resign his seat by the Tuesday deadline in order to run for mayor.

Regalado promised to make the criminal case a campaign issue.“It's sad that the city of Miami keeps being in the headlines because of these campaign problems,” Regalado said. “He's been reckless with his campaign.”

Suarez had advised his campaign to seek legal advice before submitting absentee-ballot requests. But according to an email exchange between Baggini and campaign attorney Robert Fernandez, Baggini did not specifically ask about online submissions.

On April 19, Baggini asked Fernandez only whether the form created by the campaign to be distributed at the Cinco de Mayo event was acceptable. Fernandez responded the same day asking for some time to review absentee-ballot laws. “Anything having to do with Abs nowadays has to be done absolutely correct otherwise [they] invite unwanted scrutiny,” Fernandez wrote.

He followed up on April 25 recommending the campaign use the elections department’s ballot form.

“It has all the required information and you cannot get any grief for mailing that form in once you copy the information for your records (if you want),” Fernandez wrote. He enclosed a copy of the county’s absentee-ballot request policy.

Francis Suarez, a lawyer, was copied on some of the emails. Steve Suarez was not.

No one, however, followed up. Baggini’s interpretation of the advice, according to prosecutors, was that it was legal to submit the requests online.

At the Cinco de Mayo event — attended briefly by Francis Suarez and Steve Suarez but not Baggini — signing up voters became a competition for the two hired women, Marian Sanabria and Ivana Saud, who were subpoenaed to testify.

“They even testified that some of the names and personal information on the forms were for fictitious people that they created because they were competing with each other to see who could get the most ‘forms’ completed,” prosecutors said.

Some voters contacted by prosecutors said they knew what they had signed up for. Others admitted to drinking alcohol at the time and not thinking clearly about the form. Most did not know what the forms were for or did not remember them.

No one told Francis Suarez, Steve Suarez or Baggini that the forms were not properly explained to voters before they signed them. The commissioner said Friday that he was dismayed by the drunken scene portrayed by prosecutors.

“I was not happy when I read that,” he said.

Weeks later, Baggini submitted the requests online — with Steve Suarez’s support, prosecutors said.

“Once he completed the online requests, Baggini sent a text to Steve Suarez that they were completed and Steve Suarez responded ‘Great!’” prosecutors said.

Two days later, prosecutors working on an unrelated absentee-ballot investigation raided the homes of two campaign aides for Miami Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia in connection with a broad, complex scheme to submit hundreds of phony requests online.

Francis Suarez contacted his cousin to confirm the forms collected by his campaign had been delivered to the elections department. But he was too late. Steve Suarez learned from Baggini that the forms had been “transmitted” online.

Two weeks later, prosecutors from State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office — along with Miami-Dade and Miami Beach police officers and representatives from the Miami-Dade inspector general — executed a search warrant on Baggini. He cooperated and agreed to call Francis Suarez and Steve Suarez while being recorded by investigators.

“You can always tell them ... that you were instructed to do this by me,” Steve Suarez said in one of the calls.

Francis Suarez, who was a friend of Jeffrey Garcia, the congressman’s chief of staff who had resigned in the wake of the raids in that case, mentioned it to Baggini.

“As soon as I found out about the thing with Jeff ... I read it in the paper. I told Stevie to make sure that he, you know, stop ... but apparently you had already done it.”

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