Gimenez campaign consultants deny role in absentee-ballot fraud case

In a bid to stem the political fallout over potential absentee-ballot fraud, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has asked key campaign consultants to state in writing that they did not hire two women under investigation for illegally collecting ballots.

A dozen paid operatives began signing the notarized affidavits over the weekend, as questions remained over whom exactly the women were working for and why one of them, Daisy Cabrera, was found in possession of several ballots. A county ordinance prohibits anyone from holding more than two ballots belonging to other voters.

Joe Carrillo, a private eye who first alerted police to his suspected ballot-brokering by Cabrera, met on Monday with a public-corruption prosecutor at the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

The probe has become a stumbling block for Gimenez, who is seeking reelection Aug. 14 against six opponents, including County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, his chief rival. Last year, Gimenez ran on his character, portraying himself as a man of integrity.

Gimenez has emphatically said his campaign had nothing to do with Cabrera and Matilde Martinez, who were detained and questioned by Miami-Dade police last week in Hialeah. Prosecutors have not filed any charges.

“If I didn’t hire her, how am I blamed for something that I didn’t do?” Gimenez said in an interview on Monday. “These two ladies do not work for my campaign.”

But Cabrera has been photographed at Gimenez campaign events, at least once wearing a Gimenez T-shirt. And Carrillo, the private eye who tipped off police, videotaped her last week knocking on doors in a Hialeah neighborhood before visiting Gimenez’s campaign office.

An illiterate senior citizen told El Nuevo Herald over the weekend that Cabrera filled out her absentee ballot for her on July 22.

Carrillo said he was hired by “concerned citizens” upset by the ballot-collection practices in Hialeah, not by any political candidate.

“I was given the impression that the investigation is growing rapidly,” Carrillo said after his meeting at the state attorney’s office. “I just told them the truth. But I will not give up my client.”

Since coming forward, Carrillo said he has received spoof phone calls and his Internet accounts have been hacked. “Now it’s become personal,” he said.

State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said in a statement Monday afternoon that her office has begun interviewing absentee voters who may have had their ballots collected by Cabrera. Their unopened ballots have been turned over to the county elections department, but kept apart from all other ballots as part of the investigation.

“Rather than act prematurely and risk losing evidence of what could be more serious crimes beyond a municipal ordinance violation, our joint investigation will aim to bring all the facts and all of the evidence into the light of day for everyone to see,” she said.

Fernández Rundle added her office has also received complaints about ballot-brokering in other parts of Miami-Dade.

Fernández Rundle, who is also vying for reelection next month, did not directly respond to questions about whether she faces a potential conflict of interest in the case. Her longtime political consultant, Al Lorenzo, is also working for Gimenez.

Lorenzo and François Illas, both of Lorenzo’s consulting firm, Quantum Results, were among the 12 Gimenez operatives who signed the affidavits, which were shown Monday afternoon to a Miami Herald reporter. Illas is running Gimenez’s Hialeah campaign office. Neither Lorenzo nor Illas could be reached for comment.

The others who signed the statements include campaign manager Jesse Manzano-Plaza, fundraiser Brian Goldmeier and pollster Dario Moreno. The statements affirm the operatives did not hire the two women and did not solicit or retain “anyone who engages in the illegal procurement of absentee ballots” on behalf of the campaign.

“We have run a campaign of transparency and integrity, and this is an example of it,” Manzano-Plaza said of the affidavits, which he called “an extra step” to clear the air.

Several current and former Gimenez campaign advisors have said privately that they cautioned the campaign about venturing too deeply into Hialeah politics. Gimenez opened his campaign office in the heart of the city two weeks ago; five days later, Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, along with six of the city’s seven council members and several other Northwest Miami-Dade officials — many of them part of the city’s entrenched political machine — endorsed Gimenez.

The concerned advisors said they felt Gimenez could win the race without spending too many resources in Hialeah, and they worried that while the endorsements would be positive, outside political players — including absentee-ballot brokers — could join the fray.

The night before the Hialeah politicians publicly announced their endorsement, some of them held a private, banquet-hall event with some 600 people, including at least one well-known boletera, as ballot brokers are called in Spanish. At a news conference the next day, Gimenez dismissed questions about getting embroiled in Hialeah’s notoriously messy politics.

Gimenez has touted the Hialeah endorsements as part of an effort to unify an electorate fractured after his victory last year over former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina. Gimenez said Monday that no campaign advisors had voiced any concerns to him about opening an office in Hialeah.

“I wish they would have, but it probably wouldn’t have changed anything,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense, that we wouldn’t open a campaign headquarters in the second-largest city in the county.”

Even though Gimenez was elected last year despite losing the vote in Hialeah, Manzano-Plaza said the campaign wanted to deliberately reach out to the largely Cuban-American enclave this time around — and no insiders vocally disagreed.

“While we have many spirited debates about strategy within our campaign, I can’t recall anybody bringing this up,” Manzano-Plaza said. “Last year showed that you can win elections without Hialeah, but as the mayor of Dade County, I don’t think you can govern without Hialeah.”

Records show that Cabrera has worked for a handful of political campaigns since 2006. In 2006 and 2008, she worked for state Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah, who was photographed with Cabrera and Gimenez at a recent Gimenez political event. Garcia’s office is in the same building as Gimenez’s Hialeah campaign headquarters.

Garcia said Cabrera only worked on sending out mailers and making phone calls to voters — not collecting absentee ballots.

“I’ve never had an absentee ballot operation like other folks have had,” Garcia said. “There is a cottage industry of people trying to chase absentee ballots, and it’s wrong.”

Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.