Hialeah absentee-ballot broker Cabrera arrested; state attorney recuses herself from ongoing case

A Hialeah boletera at the center of a weeklong absentee-ballot investigation that muddied the Miami-Dade mayor’s race was arrested Thursday after police say she fraudulently obtained an absentee ballot from a terminally ill woman in a nursing home.

Deisy Penton de Cabrera, 56, was charged with absentee-ballot fraud, a third-degree felony, and two misdemeanor counts of violating a county ordinance that makes it illegal for anyone to possess more than two ballots belonging to other voters. Investigators say Cabrera illegally collected at least 31 absentee ballots for the Aug. 14 primary election.

Hours after her office made the arrest, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, who is seeking reelection, announced she would recuse herself from any further involvement in the case to avoid a potential conflict of interest with an unnamed person who may be linked to both Cabrera and her campaign.

The arrest quelled some of the speculation in the case, which for a week has roiled Hialeah and the races for Miami-Dade’s state attorney and mayor — though for whom Cabrera was working is still unknown.

Accounts from elected officials and others who have known Cabrera for years indicate she is a small-time ballot broker, known in Spanish as a boletera, based in Hialeah and working for one or more candidate or campaign consultants. Though candidates and political committees are required to disclose what they pay consultants, the way consultants then spend the money is not publicly reported.

With Fernández Rundle stepping aside, it will fall to Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to handle the ongoing case. Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said the governor will review Fernández Rundle’s request on Friday and make a decision.

“Unsubstantiated allegations have recently been brought to my attention that a person who has been assisting in my campaign was alleged to have been seen in the company of this defendant,” Fernández Rundle said in a statement, without naming the person. “I am therefore taking this action to avoid even the possibility that my pending election will cause any distraction to the prosecution of this case.”

Cabrera was released from jail Thursday evening after posting a nominal bond.

The investigation against Cabrera began last week, when police followed her over two days. On July 24, according to an arrest affidavit unsealed Thursday, she carried an orange shopping bag to the Miami-Dade elections department in Hialeah and submitted “a small stack of absentee ballot request forms.” Then she dropped off 19 absentee ballots at a Hialeah post office.

The next day, detectives followed Cabrera into a nursing home, where she went into the room of a woman identified by police as Z.G. The officers overheard Cabrera telling Z.G. that she was sent there by the woman’s sister to get her signature. A few minutes later, Cabrera left.

When the detectives went into the room to speak to Z.G., they found she was unresponsive. The detective said hello and waved to Z.G., whose eyes were open, the warrant says, “but she [stared] off into space and did not respond to the greeting.”

Cabrera then visited five more assisted-living facilities before police stopped her and found 12 absentee ballots in her possession. They also detained and questioned Matilde M. Rendueles, the woman driving Cabrera around in a red Toyota Corolla. (Rendueles had earlier been identified in reports as Matilde Martinez.)

Detectives visited the unresponsive woman at the nursing home two more times, according to the warrant. They also interviewed Z.G.’s sisters, one of whom said the woman is terminally ill and “cannot write, comprehend or communicate.”

The second sister, Olga Gomez, said she had recently been helped by Cabrera to fill out her absentee ballot. Gomez said Cabrera, whom Gomez said she has known for a couple of years, asked for and took her ill sister’s blank absentee ballot.

El Nuevo Herald identified Z.G. as 81-year-old Zulema Gomez, who went into the Miami Springs nursing home five months ago after suffering from a brain tumor.

Zulema Gomez’s ballot included a handwritten, misspelled note in Spanish saying, “This lady is my sister. I sign like this because she has arthritis and she has difficulty signing. Thank you.”

Olga Gomez denied filling out and signing her sister’s ballot, or writing the note.

The 31 ballots linked to Cabrera have been segregated at the Miami-Dade elections department. According to the arrest warrant, detectives have attempted to interview all of the voters involved.

Several of those voters, interviewed Thursday by Miami Herald reporters, said they had spoken to police officers, who in some cases showed them their ballots and photographs of Cabrera.

Bernarda Sosa, 90, initially told a reporter that she filled out, signed and mailed her ballot herself. When pressed, however, she admitted she watched Cabrera fill out the ballot.

“She filled out the ballot, but I voted for who I wanted, not who she wanted,” Sosa said. Then, Sosa said, she closed her own envelope. “I put it in the mailbox,” she insisted.

But somehow, the ballot ended up in Cabrera’s hands.

Another voter, 88-year-old Blas Hernandez, said Cabrera has long assisted him in voting. He said he marked his ballot for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and let Cabrera fill out the rest because the other races “didn’t interest” him. He told her to vote for Republican candidates — though some races are nonpartisan, and others pit two Republicans against each other in a primary.

He signed his own ballot, Hernandez said.

“She said, ‘Since you can’t walk, if you want, I’ll take it and put it in the mail,’” he said. “She put it in an envelope, and she took it. Since she has been doing this for years, I thought she was doing this legally.”

A third voter, Ana M. Perez, 56, said she filled out and signed her ballot, and put a stamp on it, before Cabrera came to pick it up.

Cabrera, whom Perez said she knows as an acquaintance from Cuba, approached her about a month ago, offering to collect the ballot. Perez, who said she does not drive and suffers from a variety of ailments — including a brain tumor, high blood pressure and nerves — agreed as a matter of convenience.

Now, however, Perez said she feels betrayed and regrets trusting Cabrera with her ballot.

“How could she do this to me?” Perez said. “She did me wrong. What a mess.... I don’t even want to see her face anymore.”

A Herald reporter inspected the 31 sealed envelopes containing the ballots at the elections department Thursday morning and found many of them filled out in similar handwriting. They all had similar stamps. And about half misspelled Hialeah on the return address as “Hialiah.”

Cabrera, accompanied by her lawyer, Eric Castillo, turned herself in to authorities Thursday morning at the state attorney’s office. She did not speak to reporters. Castillo did not return a call seeking comment.

Miami-Dade prosecutors had held off on arresting Cabrera as they tried to build a case for the more-serious felony charge. The arrest warrant suggests Zulema Gomez, the woman in the nursing home, was misled, or her ballot was altered, by Cabrera.

The investigation was made public last week after a private investigator, Joe Carrillo, tipped off public-corruption investigators about Cabrera. Carrillo obtained one of Cabrera’s business cards, in which she identified herself as “Daisy Cabrera” and included a handwritten message in Spanish on the back: “When the ballot arrives you call me. I work every election.”

Carrillo followed and videotaped Cabrera as she visited several Hialeah residences and the building where the Hialeah campaign office of Gimenez, who is seeking reelection, is based. Cabrera has also been photographed at a Gimenez campaign event.

Gimenez has adamantly denied that he or any of his campaign consultants hired Cabrera; a dozen of his consultants have signed sworn affidavits to that effect. There are several other contested races in Hialeah.

“Believe me, I don’t need this kind of support,” Gimenez said Thursday at the taping of a mayoral debate moderated by WFOR-CBS 4 investigative reporter Jim DeFede. “This, to me, is a cardinal sin of our electoral process.”

At the debate, which will air at 8:30 a.m. Sunday on Facing South Florida, Gimenez’s chief rival, County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, said he doesn’t know Cabrera and believes that Gimenez doesn’t, either.

“If I were a politician, this would be the perfect position to jump all over him,” Martinez said. “I don’t believe she works for him. I do believe she knows him.”

Fernández Rundle, the state attorney, came under pressure earlier this week from her Democratic primary opponent, defense attorney Rod Vereen, who called on her to remove herself from the case because one of her campaign consultants, Al Lorenzo, also works for Gimenez.

Fernández Rundle had responded by saying that police have found no evidence linking Lorenzo — who signed one of the Gimenez campaign affidavits — to the case.

Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report from Tallahassee.