Private eye’s tip led to absentee ballot fraud probe in Hialeah

The latest investigation of potential absentee ballot fraud in Miami-Dade County was triggered by a private investigator who went to police with his suspicions that a woman active in Hialeah politics was illegally collecting absentee ballots from voters.

Miami private investigator Joe Carrillo said he first went to Miami-Dade public corruption detectives last week about Daisy Cabrera, who Carrillo said had been handing out business cards to voters offering assistance with their ballots.

Carrillo obtained a copy of one of Cabrera’s cards, decorated with the stars and stripes and a handwritten message in Spanish on the back: “When the ballot arrives you call me. I work every election.”

Then, on Tuesday, Carrillo said he observed Cabrera knocking on doors in a Hialeah neighborhood before visiting the Hialeah campaign office of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is seeking re-election Aug. 14. Cabrera then went to the Miami-Dade Elections office, and finally the post office, he said. Carrillo videotaped some of Cabrera’s travels.

Cabrera was questioned Wednesday by detectives who found her in possession of several absentee ballots, sources said. Under a new county ordinance, it is a misdemeanor for anyone to possess more than two ballots belonging to other voters.

A second woman, Matilde Martinez, is also being investigated by police and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, the sources said.

Gimenez has strongly denied that Cabrera and Martinez were involved with his campaign, and said he has repeatedly instructed all campaign workers not to touch any voters’ ballots.

“Those ladies do not work for me,” Gimenez said Thursday. “I hate this kind of activity.”

Carrillo said he began investigating after he was contacted by a group of “concerned citizens” who asked for his help snuffing out voter fraud in the city. He said he was not working for any current campaigns. Carrillo said he also investigated absentee-ballot fraud in Hialeah in 2006.

“This is the first time that we actively caught them with ballots in hand,” Carrillo said Thursday. “This is par for the course for how they do things in Hialeah.”

Defense attorney Eric Castillo said he has “consulted” with both Cabrera and Martinez, but he does not formally represent either woman. He declined to comment further.

Last year, Cabrera and Martinez worked for the campaign of former state Sen. Rudy Garcia when Garcia ran for Hialeah mayor, records show. Cabrera also was seen ferrying voters to the polls for Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez in his run-off victory. However, Hernandez insists that Cabrera did not work for his campaign last fall.

Last week, Gimenez received the endorsement of Hernandez, along with several other members of the Hialeah City Council.

Absentee voting has long played an outsized role in Hialeah politics — almost half of the voters in last year’s city mayor’s race voted absentee — leading to chronic suspicions of ballot fraud. Stories of stolen or altered ballots inspired the Miami-Dade Commission last year to pass a new ordinance restricting absentee ballot collection.

In 2008, prosecutors investigated allegations that campaign workers for U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart were trying to collect ballots from supporters of Diaz-Balart’s opponent, former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. Among those investigated: Sasha Tirador, now the campaign manager for Miami-Dade Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, the chief rival to Gimenez in the county mayor’s race. Tirador denied wrongdoing, and no charges were ever filed.

In 1993, a special prosecutor also investigated Raul Martinez’s mayoral campaign over allegations of absentee ballot tampering. No evidence of wrongdoing was found involving his campaign, though a campaign worker for an opponent did plead guilty to voter fraud.

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Charles Rabin contributed to this story.