Miami-Dade County

Ex-aide to Miami Rep. Joe Garcia to head to jail in absentee-ballot case

Congressman Joe Garcia’s former chief of staff will head to jail for orchestrating a fraudulent, online absentee-ballot request scheme during last year’s elections.

Jeffrey Garcia, the Miami Democratic congressman’s longtime political strategist, will spend 90 days in jail as part of a plea deal reached with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, the Miami Herald has learned.

The deal, expected to be inked Monday, will require Garcia, 41, no relation to the congressman, to plead guilty to requesting absentee ballots on behalf of voters, a felony.

His attorney, Henry Bell, noted Garcia never “touched a ballot, manipulated a vote or otherwise interfered with anyone’s vote.”

“He accepts responsibility for his conduct which involved requesting absentee ballots for voters when it was the voters themselves who are required to make the requests,” Bell said in a statement. “Jeff is a good person who made a mistake. He is sorry and is doing the right thing in admitting this and accepting responsibility.”

Prosecutors tied Jeffrey Garcia to hundreds of phony ballot requests submitted for last year’s elections on behalf of unsuspecting voters without their permission. Though none of those ballots were mailed, forged or cast, Joe Garcia’s campaign planned to target those infrequent voters with telephone calls, fliers and visits to try to persuade them to vote for the candidate.

Investigators reopened their probe into the ploy in February after the Herald reported that almost 500 of the August 2012 primary ballot requests in Garcia’s congressional district could be traced through Internet Protocol addresses that originated in Miami. Florida elections law prohibits anyone other than voters or their immediate family members from submitting online ballot requests.

In June, the Herald found that Jeffrey Garcia might have secretly funded bogus tea party candidate Jose Rolando “Roly” Arrojo in 2010 as a way to siphon conservative votes from Republican David Rivera, who defeated Joe Garcia that year but then lost to him in 2012.

The FBI is now investigating Jeffrey Garcia and Arrojo. Rivera is also under criminal investigation for his possible ties to another ringer candidate, Democrat Justin Lamar Sternad, who ran against Garcia in 2012 and has pleaded guilty to federal campaign-finance crimes.

Both Rivera and Garcia have denied any connection to the phony candidates. And Garcia, whose 26th congressional district extends from Kendall to Key West, has not been implicated in the absentee-ballot scheme. The congressman did not respond to requests for comment Sunday.

Jeffrey Garcia was fired as the congressman’s chief of staff in May after investigators raided the homes of the cousin of Giancarlo Sopo, the congressman’s communications director, and the family of John Estes, the congressman’s 2012 campaign manager. Jeffrey Garcia admitted to his boss that he had directed the others to submit the online ballot requests. Sopo was placed on unpaid leave and resigned in July.

Shortly after Garcia’s dismissal, investigators — now on high alert for fraudulent online ballot requests — searched the home of a staffer for then-Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez in an unrelated case. The staffer, Juan Pablo Baggini, submitted ballot requests on behalf of 20 voters. But unlike Garcia’s campaign, the voters had given Suarez’s campaign permission to do so.

Baggini and Esteban “Steve” Suarez, the campaign’s manager, received probation in August. Francis Suarez, a sitting city commissioner, dropped out of the mayoral race a few days later.

A grand jury convened by State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle revealed in December that the Miami-Dade elections department had flagged thousands of fraudulent online ballot requests — the handiwork of an apparent computer hacker — during last year’s elections.

The Herald’s subsequent analysis found that 2,552 requests had been made over a 2½-week period during the summer. The origins of most of them, which targeted mostly Republican voters in two state House districts, were masked by foreign Internet Protocol addresses.

But 472 of them that targeted mostly Democratic voters in Garcia’s congressional district had come from IP addresses in Miami.

When prosecutors took another stab at the case, they linked those addresses to Estes and Sopo. Sopo’s attorney, Gus Lage, said Sunday that Sopo didn’t personally plug voters’ personal information into the online request forms — though his cousin, sister and friends did, after they learned from Sopo that Jeffrey Garcia was looking for people to do the time-intensive work.

“What happened was Jeffrey Garcia compiled the information which was then delivered to these individuals,” Lage said. “They put it [into the forms] independently.”

Last month, Joe Garcia released the results of an internal review conducted by an attorney and political donor who cleared the congressman’s remaining staff of any involvement in the absentee-ballot requests.

Last week, Republicans pounced on Garcia when a newly released campaign-finance report disclosed that the congressman had paid $25,000 to Jeffrey Garcia’s company, Palm Media, for consulting work. The consulting took place earlier in the year, but Garcia did not send the congressman an invoice until recently. Joe Garcia had already paid Jeffrey Garcia another $25,000 this year as a “bonus” for winning last year’s race.

The two men, graduates of Belen Jesuit High School, have been friends for more than a decade. Jeffrey Garcia, who is married, has been known as a loyal but hard-charging campaigner who earned the trust of his clients but also butted heads with Democratic Party honchos.