Everybody agreed: When Gladys Coego covertly filled in other people’s absentee ballots while working at the Miami-Dade elections headquarters, she chipped away at the integrity of the voting system.
But at 74, Coego is elderly, diabetic and depressed, her relatives told a judge on Wednesday.
She had no previous criminal record. And nobody — not detectives, prosecutors or even Coego herself — could say why she filled in the ballots. She had no known ties to any campaign, there was no evidence anyone paid her and she illegally filled only a few ballots before being spotted. Yet her small-time case led to bigly national headlines, coming as then-candidate Donald Trump railed about widespread national voter fraud.
“Emotionally, I am destroyed,” Coego said in Spanish. “I have no explanation for what I have done. … No one offered me anything in exchange for what I did.”
For those reasons, a Miami-Dade judge on Wednesday declined to sentence Coego to jail, instead ordering her to serve two years of house arrest, plus three years of probation.
Circuit Judge Alberto Milián acknowledged that “there is a perception in this community that there is a lack of integrity in the election process, especially in the issue of absentee ballots.”
“This appears to be an isolated incident,” Milián said, adding: “I don't want to make this defendant a poster child or scapegoat for the perceived inequities of the system.”
Coego’s arrest just weeks before the November election day was widely publicized, coming during the thick of a presidential campaign marked by now-President Trump’s repeated allegations of a rigged election. There's never been any evidence of widespread voter fraud in the United States, although Trump has continued to repeat his claims, creating a controversial commission to investigate the issue.
Coego was arrested along with another low-level campaigner, Tomika Curgil, in an unrelated case. Curgil, an out-of-work security guard campaigning for a pro-medical marijuana campaign, was accused of filling out forged voter registration forms. She got probation, with no felony conviction appearing on her record.
Coego was charged with two felony counts of filling out somebody else’s absentee ballot.
She was hired by a temp agency to work as an elections support specialist, to be paid $14.69 an hour. Her job was to open, count and sort vote-by-mail absentee ballots at the Miami-Dade election office in Doral.
According to police, fellow workers saw her marking absentee ballots for Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado, who failed in her bid to oust incumbent Carlos Gimenez. She used a pen smuggled into the ballot-sorting room inside her purse.
She did not have any connection to the Regalado campaign. When confronted by police, Coego cooperated but could offer no explanation.
“It does bother me that I don’t know why she did it,” Miami public-corruption detective Sergio Diez told the judge.
Coego pleaded guilty with no plea deal. She was never going to get a lengthy sentence, but there have been few similar cases to use as a road map for sentencing. One woman in Oregon did the exact same crime and got 90 days in jail as part of a plea deal.
Miami-Dade public-corruption prosecutor Devon Helfmeyer argued for six months behind bars.
“She was entrusted to oversee a small portion of our democratic institution,” Helfmeyer said. “She violated that trust.”
Although Judge Milián opted not to send Coego to jail, he noted she is now a convicted felon in Florida.
“She will lose her ability to vote and participate in the democratic system,” Milián said.