Miami-Dade County

Online ballot fraud marks the ‘e-boletera era of Miami politics’

The election scandal dogging Congressman Joe Garcia’s campaign and two state House races makes it clear: Computer techies are supplementing old-school, block-walking ballot-brokers known as boleteras.

Over just a few days last July, at least two groups of schemers used computers traced to Miami, India and the United Kingdom to fraudulently request the ballots of 2,046 Miami-Dade voters.

Garcia said he knew nothing of the plot that recently implicated three former campaign workers, two employed in his congressional office. Investigators, meanwhile, have hit a dead end with a larger fraud involving two state House races.

A third incident cropped up Thursday in Miami’s mayoral race, but the case appears unrelated to last year’s fraud when two groups appeared to act separately from each other. They employed different tactics to target different types of voters, a University of Florida/Miami Herald analysis of election data indicates.

The ultimate goal was the same: get mail-in ballots into the hands of voters, a job that many boleteras once handled on the streets of Miami-Dade.

Now, it’s electronic.

“This is the e- boletera era of Miami politics,” said Daniel Smith, a UF political science professor who analyzed the voting data previously examined by The Miami Herald.

“Garcia’s campaign is taking the fall,” Smith said, “but the data clearly indicate there are other interests in other races involved, and they went about the fraud in different ways and sought different types of voters.”

Campaigns highly prize absentee ballots and target their voters. It’s a good way to bank votes early in a state where the mail-in voting period starts weeks before Election Day.

But because absentee ballots are cast out of the eye of election officials, the mail-in style of voting is the most fraud-prone — and the most likely to be at the center of electoral whodunits.

So far, police and prosecutors have raided four locations related to two separate schemes implicating at least four campaigns and four campaign workers. Separately, they’re also prosecuting two absentee-ballot boleteras (Spanish for “balloteer”). Another has become a witness.

It can be a third-degree felony in Florida to submit an absentee-ballot request for anyone who’s not an immediate family member. Requesting an absentee ballot online with a non-family member’s personal identification can be a first-degree felony.

Florida cracked down on absentee-ballot abuses after Miami’s 1997 fraud-marred mayoral race. Now, decades later, another Miami mayoral race is back in the news.

A computer savvy worker for Commissioner Francis Suarez, whose father’s 1997 mayoral campaign became collateral damage in the fraud at that time, used his computer to submit 20 absentee ballots requests of other voters.

Suarez suggested it was a misunderstanding — not illegality — because the employee, Juan Pablo Baggini, had the permission of the voters.

“I have all confidence that once the investigation is concluded the facts will reflect that no willful violations of the law occurred,” Suarez said in a statement.

Still, Baggini’s home was raided Thursday by police and investigators with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office who had traced the Internet Protocol addresses linked to the ballot requests to Baggini.

Two weeks earlier, the investigators raided three places associated with Rep. Garcia’s campaign staff. Garcia promptly fired his top advisor and congressional staff chief, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation), who admitted orchestrating the scheme to submit hundreds of fraudulent absentee ballot requests.

The congressman later put his communications director, Giancarlo Sopo, on unpaid leave. Sopo briefly worked on Suarez’s mayoral campaign earlier this year.

But the commissioner, who’s also friends with Jeffrey Garcia, said the case involving his campaign had nothing to do with the more-organized fraud that occurred from July 7 to July 24, 2012.

During that time, fraudsters electronically submitted thousands of absentee-ballot requests — sometimes on multiple occasions for the same voter.

In all, there were about 2,552 fraudulent anonymous electronic requests for 2,046 voters, primarily in Congressional District 26 and state House districts 103 and 112.

None of the requests resulted in actual ballots sent to voters. The elections department’s computer software flagged the requests as suspect, in part, because many were submitted by the same fraudsters with the same Internet Protocol address.

Though the effort was ultimately unsuccessful, it was a sign to law enforcement that a new high-tech, shady election practice is blending with the ballot brokers of old.

Boleteras have some advantages: They have personal relationships in neighborhoods or senior centers; can secretly help steer voters to favored candidates; and can help deliver the ballot to a post office or elections department.

In the 2012 frauds, professor Smith said, the e- boleteras presumably intended to contact the voters whose ballot requests they submitted electronically.

Tracking the requests by computer, the fraudsters could have contacted the voters after the ballots arrived at their home. They could even have dispatched a boletera to get the voter to cast the ballot.

Boleteras are fading as campaigns rely more on phone banks and computerized ballot requesting and tracking techniques.

There are still a few brokers left. And they’re being prosecuted.

Two were busted before the Aug. 14 primary: Deisy Pentón de Cabrera and Sergio “El Tío” Robaina, so named because he is the uncle of former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who has pleaded not guilty to federal income-tax evasion charges.

Cabrera was caught with others’ absentee ballots in her possession, police say, after a tip from a private investigator. Detectives hopped on Robaina’s trail after a stack of 164 absentee ballots was discovered in a North Miami-Dade post office.

Those ballots were delivered by a then-aide to Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve’’ Bovo, Anamary Pedrosa, who told police that Robaina had asked her to deliver the envelopes to the post office.

Robaina has said Pedrosa approached him and said she was helping three Hialeah-area campaigns, including that of Manny Díaz Jr. in House District 103.

Díaz, who ultimately won the primary and became a state representative, has said he and his campaign had no involvement in any crimes.

That House race and District 112 accounted for the fraudulent electronic requests of 1,558 seemingly unaware voters for 10 days during the Aug. 14 Republican primaries.

The two districts had a common fraternal tie: Miami-Dade School Board member Renier Díaz de la Portilla was running against Díaz, and his brother, former state Sen. Alex Díaz de la Portilla, was running in 112.

Both brothers have denied involvement in any fraud and so has Alex Díaz de la Portilla’s opponent, former state Rep. Gus Barreiro.

Professor Smith noted that the fraudsters appeared to coordinate their requests in the two House races, switching back and forth between requesting batches of absentee ballots. There was no overlap in the timing of the requests.

“Someone was either trying to help or hurt the Díaz de la Portillas,” Smith concluded.

Smith’s analysis also showed the Republican voters in the House districts were higher-propensity voters than the Democratic voters targeted in the congressional race of Garcia.

Ultimately, only 18 percent of the Democrats cast ballots during that election and the voters were relatively young. But about 38 percent of the Republicans in the House races cast ballots during that election. These voters were relatively elderly.

Smith said the fraud in the Republican races made more sense because higher-propensity voters are a good bet to spend time targeting. The low-frequency voters in the Democratic race were more of a waste of time — unless the fraudsters were simply trying to expand the pool of typical voters.

In the Republican races, the ballots were requested by computers that used foreign IP addresses, making it all but impossible for Miami-Dade prosecutors to track them down. The IP addresses were registered in India and the United Kingdom, and investigators stopped examining the case in August.

But in Garcia’s Democratic primary, they used local computers.

After a Miami Herald story in February revealed that no attempt had been made to trace the local computers, investigators reopened the case.

On May 31, they raided three locations associated with Joe Garcia’s spokesman, Sopo, and John Estes, his former campaign manager. Investigators seized computers.

Later the same day, Joe Garcia fired Jeffrey Garcia.

“I didn’t know any of this was happening and when I found out, I fixed it,” Joe Garcia said. “But there are serious problems with absentee ballots in our election system, and that should be fixed, too.”