The Robert King High Tower in Little Havana boasts a wealth of elderly voters and this week was the scene of prime Miami political theater — featuring a media-savvy private investigator, a failed undercover sting and claims of candidates paying for access to the building.
The allegations: Elderly homeowners association president Marta Campos was accepting money from candidates for access to the public housing after hours, presumably to illegally collect absentee ballots.
The claims were floated Friday at a press conference by private investigator Joe Carrillo and lawyer Rick Yabor, who railed against Miami-Dade prosecutors for doing nothing to stop what they called a crime, although the pair admitted they weren’t sure what law had been broken.
“This is about absentee ballots,” Yabor said. “It’s basically pay-for-play. It order to get in there, you have to pay.”
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The press conference, held in front of the riverfront tower at 1403 NW Seventh St., made for a bizarre scene — with Campos herself indignantly puffing on cigarettes while talking to reporters. “Absolutely not,” Campos said when asked if she ever took money from any candidates.
Then, after the press conference, a county mayoral candidate named Alfred Santa Maria showed up for some air time.
“I am the only candidate who has not hired a boletera for this electoral process,” proclaimed Santa Maria, who is running against incumbent Carlos Gimenez and former school board member Raquel Regalado.
Prosecutors said their investigation, spurred by Carrillo’s tips, is now “compromised” thanks to the press conference.
Carillo is a well-known private investigator who four years ago investigated so-called boleteros, political operatives who deliver and collect absentee ballots, usually from elderly Hispanic voters.
He worked with Miami-Dade police corruption detectives, who arrested two boleteros for collecting an illegal number of absentee ballots. The two elderly boleteros accepted probation and no jail time.
This time, Carrillo claimed he went to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office a month ago with the allegations of wrongdoing at the King tower. He and Yabor said they were told they needed a candidate to come forward and complain — but no one wanted to.
“We decided to do the operation on our own,” Carrillo said.
They recruited reporters from Miami’s Univision station and the Spanish-language newspaper Diario de las Americas to try to confront Campos were she to take the payoff.
Yabor’s secretary, Elisa Fajardo, who is also a private investigator, met with Campos on a bus bench outside the tower, posing as a worker for an unstated campaign. In her hand, she held an envelope supposedly stuffed with $500 cash — it was actually just filled with paper.
“We didn’t want to be accused of paying a bribe,” Carrillo said.
Campos supposedly told Fajardo that she would only accept money if she knew which candidates were behind the payoff. Campos then got on the phone with Yabor, allegedly giving a list of candidates that included judicial hopeful Marcia del Rey. Yabor claims he played along, saying he was working for her opponent, incumbent Jason Bloch, although he insisted he is really not working for any candidate.
“Her words were, ‘I cannot help you because Marcia del Rey has paid me,’” Yabor said.
As Carrillo snapped photos from across the street, Campos would not take the money. With that, the operation fizzled.
Del Rey, who hit the news earlier this week over questions about whether she improperly claimed to be a prosecutor on campaign ads, denied the allegations as “totally false.”
“Marcia del Rey casually knows Mrs. Campos from campaign visits to centers for elderly residents,” said campaign spokeswoman Helena Poleo. Campos acknowledged her support for the judicial candidate, but said: “I didn’t receive money from Marcia del Rey — or anybody.”
Carrillo claimed he again called public-corruption investigators, insisting he would hold the press conference unless they acted quickly. They did nothing, he claimed.
But a spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office said an investigation is now blown.
“Regrettably, the release of confidential information to the media and public substantially compromised this investigation,” said spokeswoman Lissette Valdes-Valle. “Although we are still reviewing the circumstances surrounding the complaint, we know of no evidence to indicate that there was any elections fraud or ballot fraud.”