Miami-Dade County

Prosecutors charge 2 campaign aides for Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez in absentee-ballot probe

Miami-Dade prosecutors on Thursday charged two political operatives for Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez — including his campaign manager — with unlawfully submitting absentee-ballot requests online on behalf of voters.

Campaign manager Esteban “Steve” Suarez, 34, who is also the candidate’s cousin, and campaign aide Juan Pablo Baggini, 37, were charged with attempting to request absentee ballots for 20 voters in May.

Francis Suarez, a sitting city commissioner and lawyer, was cleared of any wrongdoing during the investigation, according to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. His only involvement was advising his campaign to seek legal advice to make sure any online requests did not run afoul of the law.

The campaign did so — but failed to heed a recommendation that the requests be submitted differently to avoid potential problems, sources close to the investigation said.

Neither Steve Suarez nor Baggini were arrested. Instead, as part of a deal negotiated with prosecutors, each was charged with a misdemeanor, will plead no contest and will receive probation. Their attorneys will appear in court Friday.

In a statement Thursday to the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald, Francis Suarez emphasized that he and his campaign cooperated with the investigation and never had any “intent to violate Florida election law.

“To the extent that technical mistakes were made in the transmission of absentee ballot requests, the campaign has learned from this experience,’’ he wrote. “Now we must focus on the important issues that affect the daily lives of the City of Miami’s citizens and to bring a brighter future to our great city.”

He declined to elaborate beyond the statement, or address whether the charges would affect his campaign.

The state attorney’s office is still investigating an unrelated case involving three campaign workers of congressman Joe Garcia. The Miami Democrat’s former employees have been tied to a much broader, more sophisticated scheme to submit hundreds of phony absentee-ballot requests online for unsuspecting voters. No charges have been filed in that case.

Prosecutors connected Garcia’s campaign to the plot following a Miami Herald investigation in February that revealed that the requests had originated in Miami and could be further traced.

In the Suarez case, prosecutors and police officers raided Baggini’s home two months ago after linking his computer to the online requests. Suarez’s campaign quickly characterized the incident as unintentional. The 20 voters whose requests were submitted online had filled out forms by hand authorizing the campaign to ask for the ballots.

But prosecutors said that violated state elections law, which makes it a third-degree felony to submit an absentee-ballot request for anyone who is not a family member and a first-degree felony to use another person’s confidential information online. The person making the request must check a box swearing that the requestor is the voter or a relative.

The state attorney’s office negotiated a lesser, misdemeanor charge — attempting to request an absentee ballot on behalf of an elector — in light of the Suarez campaign’s cooperation and lack of evidence that it intended to break the law, the sources said. But the charges will likely still send a message to campaigns that prosecutors have absentee-ballot violations in their sights.

“Allowing someone to order another voter’s ballot in violation of the law is a slippery slope to voter fraud,” State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said in a statement Thursday.

She cited a grand jury report from last December that found “gaping holes” in the absentee-ballot voting system and recommended a slew of improvements to prevent fraud.

“It was made clear by the grand jury that the community has zero tolerance when it comes to violations of the elections process,” Fernández Rundle said. “We will continue to protect the integrity of the elections process by investigation and prosecuting these cases.”

On Friday, attorneys for Suarez and Baggini are expected to enter no-contest pleas to avoid a conviction for the two men, who will receive a year of probation that could later be reduced to six months. Among the probation conditions will be that neither man get paid to work on a political campaign. They will also be prohibited from any volunteer absentee-ballot duties.

Steve Suarez’s attorney, Frank Prieto, said in an interview Thursday that only under the strictest reading of the elections law could his client’s actions have been considered a violation.

“There was no intent” of fraud, he said. But Prieto decided not to fight what would have been a more serious felony charge in court leading up to the Nov. 5 mayoral election, in which Francis Suarez is challenging incumbent Tomás Regalado.

“We don’t think it’s worth dragging it out in the public eye and perhaps be a black eye to the campaign,” Prieto said. “We just want to get it over with.”

Political newcomer Baggini and his lawyer, Hector Flores, declined to comment.

The Miami-Dade Elections Department flagged the requests as suspicious because they originated from the same Internet Protocol address — on Baggini’s computer, prosecutors found, after obtaining the information from the Internet provider through a subpoena.

The investigation included taking voluntary statements from Francis Suarez, Steve Suarez and Baggini; obtaining records from Baggini’s house, cellphone and computer; and recorded phone calls between the targets. The information allowed prosecutors to tie the ballot requests to Steve Suarez, the unpaid campaign manager, according to sources close to the investigation.

The campaign collected information from registered voters who wanted to vote by mail at a boozy Cinco de Mayo campaign event at Mary Brickell Village. Two attractive young women hired by the event promoter pulled double duty for the campaign and helped sign up the voters, the sources said.

But instead of mailing the forms to the elections department — which would have been legal — Baggini took them home and submitted online requests from his computer.

Miami Herald researcher Monika K. Leal contributed to this report.