The beginning of the end of Francis Suarez’s promising bid to become mayor of Miami started the day his campaign got two attractive young women to work the crowd at a Cinco de Mayo party.
The assignment was not difficult: Get voters to allow the campaign to request absentee ballots for them.
The two friends flirted, downed vodka tonics and got some signatures. But not enough.
So they improvised: They filled out forms for themselves. They called a boyfriend and a sister and forged their names.
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And when they ran out of people they knew, they made up names of fake voters.
Which landed them in the middle of a criminal investigation.
“We were bored,” 21-year-old Ivana Saud told the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
A novice campaigner, Juan Pablo Baggini, submitted 20 ballot requests — the legitimate ones — to the county elections website.
Except Florida law prohibits anyone other than a voter or his or her immediate family from filing requests online.
Baggini and his de facto boss — the candidate’s cousin and campaign manager, Esteban “Steve” Suarez — ended up charged and pleaded out to misdemeanors.
They got probation.
The candidate quit the race. He acknowledged, among other reasons, his campaign’s “mistakes.”
A review of investigation records suggests the campaign, though well-financed, relied on neophytes — well-intentioned but inexperienced relatives and friends — in a big-time election.
“We’re just a bunch of young guys trying to become the mayor of Miami,” a candid Steve Suarez told prosecutors.
It wasn’t all amateur hour: Francis Suarez hired seasoned Miami political consultants, a Washington D.C.-based media firm and a Virginia-based pollster. All took part in decisions along the way.
But his family formed his inner circle.
Steve Suarez, working as a volunteer without a formal title, headed the million-dollar campaign. Andrew Suarez, another cousin, helped raise piles of cash. Carolina Suarez, the candidate’s sister, managed the Cinco de Mayo effort.
Even the candidate’s dad — Xavier Suarez, a Miami-Dade County commissioner — got in on the act: He started his own little investigation into the ballots case.
That drew prosecutors’ attention. They found out he emailed voter Nicole Cueto and wanted to chat.
“He asked me if I was one of the 20 people who had filled out that form, and I said yes,” Cueto, a former Francis Suarez aide, told prosecutor Tim VanderGiesen. “And he basically went off on a tangent and didn’t say much about the whole incident.”
VanderGiesen pressed for details, apparently trying to decide if Xavier Suarez had tried to influence a witness. But the questioning of Cueto went nowhere. “We started talking about my last name and if I was related to certain other Cuetos in Miami,” she said.
Xavier Suarez told the Miami Herald he called Cueto to find out if she had willingly filled out the request form.
“She confirmed everything,” he said. “She confirmed that nobody pressured her into anything, that the whole thing was kosher.”
Prosecutors cleared Francis Suarez, 35, of wrongdoing. His two aides did not face more serious charges in part because the 20 voters signed off on the requests.
“I got into the race for the right reasons,” he said in an interview last week. “I got out of the race for the right reasons. I’m at peace with my decision. I’ve learned a lot from it.”
Suarez got into the race confident he could defeat incumbent 66-year-old Mayor Tomás Regalado. Miami’s demographics were changing, with untapped young, professional voters living in Brickell, Wynwood and Midtown. Why not give them a candidate they could get excited about?
“We ran a very sophisticated campaign,” Suarez said the night he exited the race. “We tried to do things outside of the box. When you try to do things outside of the box, you run risks. A lot of the stuff we did on social media was cutting edge.”
But he admitted to prosecutors that his campaign’s chain of command was “informal.”
Steve Suarez, 34, whose only prior experience was helping his cousin get elected commissioner, brought on Baggini — a 37-year-old jobless friend — to throw him some work. Baggini had some Internet and marketing skills but no background in politics.
“I have no idea what the hell I’m doing when it comes to the Internet,” Steve Suarez said. So Baggini was named operations manager and paid $2,000 a month.
“I wouldn’t say that he necessarily answered to anyone,” Francis Suarez said. “You know, again, this was a very kind of collegial and kind of informal environment.”
On the day investigators raided his house, Baggini ended up leading them to Steve Suarez. They asked him to call Suarez and recorded the conversation.
“You did nothing wrong,” Suarez told Baggini, urging him to remain calm. “ Tranquilo. We’re not going to let anything happen to you.”
He encouraged Baggini to be honest. “Tell them you were instructed to do this by me,” he said.
When prosecutors later confronted him, Suarez said he hadn’t really “instructed” Baggini on the absentee ballots, he just wanted to ease Baggini’s nerves.
“I wanted to make him feel, ‘I’m here with you,’ but it’s not true — I never gave him the directive to do it,” he said, noting his own ignorance about the elections department’s website. “Why would I tell somebody to do something that I don’t even know how to do myself?”
The idea to recruit absentee voters during the Cinco de Mayo party originated from a meeting Baggini and Steve Suarez had at the Berries in the Grove restaurant with the event’s promoter.
“We’ll have a booth there, a bunch of hot girls with their Francis Suarez shirts,” Steve Suarez recalled.
But, he conceded, there was no plan after that.
“To be completely honest, I have no idea what idea what the next step was, it was kind of something that I said, ‘Juan Pablo, run with this, I don’t have time for this s--t,’” he told VanderGiesen. “Excuse my language.”
They hoped to persuade young voters to cast ballots by mail. Brickell’s Cinco de Mayo festival seemed like the perfect place to start.
The promoter hired two women to work at the campaign booth. Saud and her friend Marian Sanabria, 23, showed up at the tent-covered dirt lot Sunday morning.
Carolina Suarez assigned them to find voters to fill out the ballot-request forms. The two women spent between five and eight hours on the hunt.
“It was very hot,” Saud told prosecutors, who gave the women immunity for their testimony. “So we would go back, get a drink, go back, walk around.”
She couldn’t remember how many drinks she had. Her first one was at around 10 a.m.
“And some people would only sign it if they could buy me shots,” Saud said, chalking up those offers to “flirting.” “They weren’t always shots. They were drinks, too.”
Did the alcohol cloud the women’s memory of that day? “Of course,” she said. But they did remember starting a friendly competition to see who could sign up more people. So they decided to fill out the forms with their own names, though they weren’t eligible to vote, and then called friends and family. Finally they made up a few names, without confessing the forgeries to the campaign.
Steve Suarez said he realized when he dropped by the festival that the dusty outdoor setting was not the grand event he expected. The campaign’s social-media firm was going to film the party but decided against it.
“It wasn’t pretty,” Suarez said. “In fact in retrospect we laughed about just what a waste of time the event was.”
Looking back, he told prosecutors, the well-heeled campaign — considered to pose the only serious challenge to Regalado — should have been better run.
“You kick yourself in the ass every day, because you’re like, ‘Man, we could’ve done so many things differently to avoid this.’”