Miami-Dade County

Statute of limitations extended in cases of 2 former aides to Miami Rep. Joe Garcia

Giancarlo Sopo, left, and John Estes, right, worked on Rep. Joe Garcia’s 2012 campaign and were caught up in an unlawful absentee-ballot request scheme.
Giancarlo Sopo, left, and John Estes, right, worked on Rep. Joe Garcia’s 2012 campaign and were caught up in an unlawful absentee-ballot request scheme. MIAMI HERALD FILES

U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia fired his chief of staff last year for orchestrating an unlawful absentee-ballot request scheme in 2012. Jeffrey Garcia ended up serving 65 days in jail.

But the legal wrangling didn’t end with him.

Two more aides who prosecutors say helped submit hundreds of ballot requests online without voters’ permission still have pending cases with the Miami-Dade County state attorney’s office.

Prosecutors initially had two years to press misdemeanor charges against John Estes and Giancarlo Sopo. The statute of limitations was set to expire in July for Estes and this Sunday for Sopo. Had no charges been filed by then, the two men would have been in the clear. The congressman was not implicated in wrongdoing.

Yet prosecutors now have a third year to make their case — because Estes’ and Sopo’s defense attorneys have agreed to a limitations-statute extension, in a bid to try to talk the prosecution out of charging their clients with anything. The defense has maintained the aides were unwitting participants duped by Jeffrey Garcia, no relation to the congressman.

“Because they are still thinking about [filing charges], and deciding whether or not to do it, we decided to extend the statute of limitations,” said Sabrina Puglisi, Estes’ attorney. “We’re being cooperative with them and trying to come to a resolution.”

“We’ve always been trying to convince the state attorney’s office not to file any charges,” added Gus Lage, Sopo’s attorney.

Prosecutors agreed to various delays to accommodate Estes, who is a university student, and Sopo, who now lives in New York. By the time the limitations statute was set to expire, prosecutors would have had to wrap up the cases in the middle of the Democratic Miami congressman’s reelection campaign against Republican Carlos Curbelo.

Prosecutors try to steer clear of splashy political cases close to elections, so as not to be accused of trying to sway voters. State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle is a Democrat. Her office declined comment Friday.

The other consequence of keeping the cases open: Investigation records — other than those filed in court — have been kept secret. None will be made public until well after Election Day.

Giving the government more time to go after a client seems counter-intuitive. Yet lawyers sometimes agree to an extension to avoid imminent charges, said Miami defense attorney Dennis Kainen, who is not working on any of the cases.

“It’s not routine, but it’s not unusual,” he said. “The purpose is for the parties to see if they can work something out in lieu of the charge being filed.”

He did call a 12-month extension “very long.”

Estes was Joe Garcia’s 2012 campaign manager. Sopo was a volunteer who later became communications director for Garcia’s congressional office. Sopo resigned that position last year.

Prosecutors have indicated they could charge Estes, 27, and Sopo, 31, with misdemeanors for soliciting others — Estes’ brother and Sopo’s sister and cousin — to submit ballot requests on behalf of voters. Jeffrey Garcia pleaded guilty to three of those misdemeanor charges, and to a more serious felony charge.

Sopo and Estes recruited relatives to fill out the online ballot requests, though their attorneys have said the men wouldn’t have involved family had they known what they were doing was against the law. None of the relatives is an investigation target.

Curbelo has consistently brought up the criminal case as a reason for voters to distrust the incumbent. Joe Garcia won two years ago by pounding then-Rep. David Rivera as corrupt.

“Mr. Garcia’s campaign has been improving,” Curbelo quipped at a Spanish-language debate this week. “In 2010, they recruited a phantom candidate being investigated by the FBI. In 2012, they committed absentee-ballot fraud. This year, he’s only focused on lying.”

The freshman congressman counters his campaign took swift action by firing Jeffrey Garcia and cooperating with prosecutors. At Tuesday’s debate, Joe Garcia accused Curbelo of running a “defamation and misinformation” campaign.

“Let’s be clear: We found an error in our campaign. We parted ways with that person,” Garcia said. “We opened up to the investigation, and the prosecution found we were not involved in anything.”

Except it wasn’t Garcia or his office who revealed the staffers’ involvement. It was investigators who tracked down online ballot requests to computers in the homes of Estes’ and Sopo’s relatives. The state attorney’s office had relaunched the investigation after the Miami Herald found the requests could be traced to local addresses — contradicting what prosecutors had concluded earlier.

Even after the Herald report, Garcia staffers did not acknowledge taking part until investigators raided their relatives’ homes several months later searching for evidence.

Florida law requires voters themselves — or their immediate family members — to ask for ballots. The online form includes a box affirming that the requester is the voter or a relative.

The campaign hoped the ballots would reach infrequent voters that Garcia supporters could then target to solicit votes. Without the campaign’s knowledge, the elections department flagged the requests as suspicious, and the ballots were never mailed out.

At Tuesday’s debate, Garcia was also asked about an ongoing federal criminal investigation into a suspected straw candidate linked to his 2010 campaign.

But the congressman, as he has done repeatedly in public forums, didn’t address that investigation. He also didn’t say why he has hired a criminal defense attorney, David O. Markus, to represent his campaign this year.

“We haven’t hidden anything, and we’ve been honest,” Garcia said. “Our story hasn’t changed because that’s precisely the story.”

In prior interviews, Garcia has said he’s not worried about the federal investigation because he says he didn’t know about the supposed 2010 tea-party ringer candidate, Roly Arrojo. As for hiring Markus, Garcia has said he wants to ensure his campaign this year doesn’t run into any trouble.

The congressman has used Republicans’ attacks against him to draw attention to Curbelo’s refusal to make public his consulting company’s clients. A legal loophole allows Curbelo to do so because the firm, Capitol Gains, is owned by his wife.

“I understand the criticism [against me]. I accept it,” Curbelo said at the debate. “However, my campaign’s conduct has been legal, and my campaign is not under any investigation. My commitment is to keep following the law — and I invite Mr. Garcia’s campaign to start doing the same.”

Related stories from Miami Herald