August 26, 2012

Some absentee voters’ stories conflict with investigators’ beliefs

More than 60 people who voted absentee said they cannot explain how their ballots became mixed in with a batch of 164 that are the focus of an investigation

Olga Roqueta, 77, and her husband say they filled out their absentee ballots without help and put them in their mailbox weeks before the Aug. 14 election.

Alberto Rodríguez, 42, said Anamary Pedrosa, a former employee in Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo’s Hialeah office, passed by his house to pick up his ballot.

Doris Martínez, 83, said she and her husband gave their sealed ballots to their old friend Sergio Robaina.

Roqueta, Rodríguez and Martínez are among the 164 voters whose ballots are the focus of an ongoing voter-fraud investigation that has led to the arrest of Robaina and inquiries about an additional half-dozen possible ballot-brokers, or boleteros.

The stories of these voters — mostly elderly Hispanics who vote Republican — offer a glimpse into the boletero operations that depend on networks of friends and family, and are an entrenched part of Hialeah politics. In many cases, their stories conflict with the facts offered by authorities.

Pedrosa, who does not face charges, told authorities that Robaina and others gave her the ballots in Bovo’s office. She then dropped them into a blue mailbox outside the post office at 2200 NW 72nd Ave., where a postal employee discovered them July 26.

More than 60 voters whose ballots were part of this batch told reporters they could not explain how they got there.

“I voted, signed and put them in my mailbox,” said Roqueta, one of 14 voters who told a similar story.

Sources close to the investigation say the ballots all appeared to have been deposited together, which was why the postal agent who found them alerted police.

Close to three dozen voters told reporters they mailed their ballots themselves.

Among them: Juana Olano, 80, who remembered dropping hers in a mailbox outside a Sedano’s grocery store. And Felix Bermúdez, 79, who said he took his to the mailbox outside the neighborhood Navarro’s pharmacy.

Sixty other voters said they handed their ballots to a friend or acquaintance who saved them the trouble of going to the post office.

The man whose name came up most frequently is Robaina, who faces two felony charges of tampering with the ballots of a woman with dementia and her son. Robaina, 74, denies the allegations.

Pedrosa told authorities that during five visits, Robaina gave her about 40 ballots in Bovo’s office.

Of the 35 voters who told reporters they gave their ballots to Robaina, 14 live in the same public housing complex in Hialeah. An additional half-dozen live on the same city block.

Except for the voters whose allegations make up the criminal case against him, no one has accused Robaina of pressuring them to vote for certain candidates.

“He’s a conscientious and respectful person,” said Martínez, who has known Robaina for years. “He’s never done anything wrong.”

Robaina, known in Hialeah as “el Tío” because of his nephew, former Mayor Julio Robaina, has also worked as an Elections Department poll inspector during the past four years.

Other voters pointed to Claribel “Beba” Ferrer, 71, as the woman who came by to pick up their ballots. At least six ballots in the bundle of 164 are linked to her.

Ferrer told El Nuevo Herald she picked up the ballots. She said she tries to help her friends and relatives who don’t always understand how to fill out their own ballots. But she said she has never pressured anybody to vote for specific candidates or filled out ballots herself.

“I always tell them to open their own ballots,” she said. “I don’t want to touch them.”

Ferrer declined to say whether she was paid to pick up the ballots. But she did say that Pedrosa had contacted her to ask for help with the campaigns of state Reps. Manny Díaz Jr. and Eddy Gonzalez.

Pedrosa’s attorney, J.C. Planas, said he couldn’t comment.

Another person under investigation is Zoa Caridad Barcena, 74. Both hers and her husband’s ballots were found in the bundle of 164.

Voter María Cabezas, 83, said she gave Barcena her ballot and those of two neighbors. She said she’s known Barcena since they lived in Cuba decades ago.

Barcena has declined to comment. Like Robaina, both she and her husband have been poll workers in recent years.

Pedrosa’s own ballot is also in the bundle, as is that of a woman who appears to be her mother. It’s still unclear why Pedrosa agreed to accept the ballots and Bovo has denied knowing anything about them.

Still another voter, Raúl Pérez, offered a confusing story about his ballot and that of his nephew. Pérez, 82, first said he’d once volunteered for Bovo’s campaign. Then he said he gave them “to a female employee in an office.” He couldn’t clarify where he took the ballots.

“And so what if I gave them to somebody, what’s the problem?” he asked.

Ester Gómez, 85, said a man she knows from church dropped by to help her fill out her ballot. She said Roberto Hernández sat next to her and filled in the candidates she wanted.

“I think he works for the government,” she said.

But when a reporter called Hernandez, he denied knowing a thing about Gomez’s ballot.

“Don’t get me mixed up in this ballot mess,” he said. “I didn’t help with anything.”

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