Hialeah vote-fraud probe mirrors 2004 case

After one of his aides emerged two weeks ago as a key witness in the latest ballot-fraud probe in Hialeah, Miami-Dade Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo said he was “deeply disturbed” that his office was “mentioned in the same breath of an absentee ballot investigation.”

But it’s not the first time that a vote-fraud investigation has led to Bovo’s doorstep.

In 2004, in another ballot-fraud probe, detectives focused on a suspected boletero, or ballot-broker, who worked as a staffer for Bovo, at the time a Hialeah city councilman, police records show. The boletero, who was never charged, told investigators that he learned the finer points of ballot collecting from Sergio “El Tio” Robaina — who was arrested earlier this month on vote-fraud charges after a witness said he dropped off ballots at Bovo’s office, court records show.

That 2004 probe, which ended with no arrests, was in many ways a mirror image of the current investigation that has led to two arrests and roiled Miami-Dade’s political scene. That investigation eight years ago exposed many of the ballot-collecting practices facing renewed scrutiny today, and touched many of the same political players — including Bovo.

Bovo says he has never asked his campaign workers to collect ballots — not today, and not when he served on the Hialeah City Council. “I have always instructed my campaign staff to follow state, local and federal election laws,” Bovo said in a written statement.

Records show that four suspected ballot brokers have worked on Bovo’s past campaigns — including Deisy Cabrera, the Hialeah woman arrested last month on ballot-fraud charges.

Bovo said these workers performed other tasks for his campaigns — making phone calls, handing out campaign literature or preparing mailers — but they did not collect ballots for him.

A fifth boletero, Robaina, also helped with Bovo’s 1999 campaign, a longtime Bovo ally said in court papers. But Bovo said Robaina never worked for him.

“Any insinuation that my campaign hired any of the identified people as ‘ballot brokers’ or to do anything in violation of Florida law is just absolutely false,” Bovo said.

But police suspect that Bovo’s Hialeah office was a hub of absentee ballots before the Aug. 14 primary. According to court records, a Bovo aide, Anamary Pedrosa, told detectives that Robaina and other suspected boleteros delivered as many as 164 absentee ballots to Bovo’s Hialeah office — an apparent violation of a county ordinance that makes it a crime to possess more than two absentee ballots of other voters. Pedrosa said she later delivered the ballots to the post office.

Bovo insists that no ballots were collected at his office. He said neither he nor his staff knew what Pedrosa was doing “outside of the commission district office.” Pedrosa resigned from Bovo’s staff on July 27.

Pedrosa also named other suspected boleteros who delivered ballots, including 80-year-old Manuel Lago, who worked on Bovo’s 2011 political campaign, according to sources close to the investigation.

Lago has denied delivering any ballots to Bovo’s office. “No, man, no,” he told The Miami Herald. “I don’t have anything to do with absentee ballots. I tell people, vote for whoever you want, but vote.”

One Hialeah voter, 82-year-old Rosa Sanchez, told El Nuevo Herald that she gave both her ballot and her husband’s ballot to Lago, whom she described as her brother-in-law. She said Lago put the ballots in her mailbox. However, Sanchez’s ballot was among the 164 ballots that police believe Pedrosa took to the post office.

Lago, Robaina and Cabrera have also worked on campaigns for state Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah. Garcia did not respond to interview requests, but he has said that he did not use ballot-brokers in his campaigns.

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

Hialeah a hub

As in years past, the current vote-fraud investigation focuses on so-called ballot-brokers who go door-to-door on behalf of candidates offering to help voters, many of them elderly, cast their ballots and make sure the ballots get mailed.

This practice of ballot collection has long been criticized as an opportunity for fraud: A boletero could potentially alter a voter’s choice, or forge a voter’s signature. Cabrera, for example, is accused of casting a bogus ballot for an incompetent, terminally ill woman in a nursing home. She has pleaded not guilty.

Some ballot-brokers have also been suspected of trying to collect ballots from an opponent’s supporters to make those votes disappear.

“Over the years it’s been perfectly accepted or legal to collect absentee ballots, which is an invitation for fraud,” said Joe Centorino, the director of Miami-Dade’s Ethics Commission and former corruption prosecutor who led several vote-fraud investigations. “It’s fraught with problems. Here you have campaigns injecting themselves into what is supposed to be a very private process.”

These tactics have been seen all over Miami-Dade County, but nowhere more so than in Hialeah, where police have investigated vote-fraud allegations at least four times in the past 20 years. Despite the persistence of the complaints, criminal charges seldom stick.

“I told everyone including the state attorney 10 years ago and there has never been an attempt to go after the people who are running these things,” said Michael Pizzi, the Miami Lakes mayor and attorney who led an effort to overturn Hialeah’s 2003 elections.

In 1993, a judge tossed out the results of Hialeah’s mayoral race after finding rampant vote fraud and forgery tied to “unscrupulous” campaign workers — some of whom used tracing paper to forge voters’ signatures.. In that race, then-Mayor Raul Martinez beat challenger Nilo Juri by 273 votes, but he would have lost if not for a 2-to-1 advantage in absentee ballots.

Martinez’s campaign targeted nursing homes housing mentally ill patients to gather absentee votes, The Herald found at the time. And after Juri filed a court challenge to the vote, a dozen witnesses, including a Hialeah police officer, refused to testify in the case, invoking their Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The judge ordered a new election, where Martinez beat Juri again.

Despite the judge’s findings of fraud, only one campaign worker from that race was charged with ballot tampering — and she worked for Juri, not Martinez.

Ten years later, in 2003, another Hialeah election led to another court challenge, and another criminal investigation.

Once again, an imbalance in absentee votes cast doubt on the results: City council candidate Adriana Narvaez received the majority of the votes on Election Day, but her opponent, Eddy Gonzalez, won 73 percent of the absentee votes. Two other races were swayed by a similar bulge in absentee votes.

Narvaez filed a lawsuit challenging the election, and Miami-Dade corruption detectives began investigating a group of so-called boleteros who collected hundreds of absentee ballots on behalf of Gonzalez and a slate of allied candidates.

Narvaez complained that Gonzalez and other allies of Raul Martinez, who was still mayor at the time, were granted access to voters in Hialeah’s public housing complexes, while Narvaez and her team were blocked from the properties.

A confidential witness also told police that campaign workers held the hands of some elderly voters to guide their votes, and in some cases falsely claimed they witnessed voters casting their ballots, police records show. At the time, a witness was required for all absentee votes.

One of the targets of the criminal probe: Alfredo Llamedo, an aide who worked in Bovo’s Hialeah City Council office at the time.

Llamedo told police that he collected more than 400 absentee ballots from elderly voters in the days before the November 2003 election and delivered them to campaign offices at the Hialeah Race Track — where Bovo also had an office, according to police records.

In many cases, Llamedo helped the voters fill out the ballot envelope, using distinctive block lettering that caught the attention of detectives. And sometimes, he said, he would seal the envelopes for voters while sitting in his car. But Llamedo insisted that he never signed a voter’s signature or sought to influence how someone voted.

Llamedo said he learned the techniques of ballot collection from Sergio Robaina, when they worked together on Bovo’s 1999 campaign.

“You have to be very patient and you have to make sure you explain to them clearly how they have to vote and all that,” Llamedo said in a later deposition in the Narvaez lawsuit.

Llamedo was never charged with any crimes in the 2003-04 investigation.

“They offered me a deal which naturally I didn’t take because I told them I’m not guilty and don’t have to make deals if I’m not guilty,” Llamedo said in his May 17, 2004, deposition.

In the deposition, Llamedo said he worked for Gonzalez and his slate at the request of Bovo, and said Bovo supplied his lawyer during the civil deposition.

But in his own deposition, taken three months later, Bovo denied steering Llamedo to the other campaigns, and he denied providing Llamedo with a lawyer. Bovo, who was not on the ballot in 2003, said he did not hire any ballot -brokers in his prior political campaigns, though he also said Llamedo “may have” collected absentee ballots for him in 1999.

Bovo has continued to hire Llamedo as a campaign worker: in 2005, in 2008 and last year, paying Llamedo a total of $7,000, records show.

Llamedo could not be reached for comment for this story. Bovo said he has “never asked or encouraged Alfredo, nor any other campaign worker, to collect ballots for my or any other campaign.”

The investigation of the 2003 election fizzled as many vote-fraud cases do: Police could not find hard evidence that ballots were altered or voters were misled by ballot-brokers. A handwriting expert hired by Narvaez — the same expert who testified in the 1993 election contest — found little evidence of forgery.

Detectives did find evidence that campaign workers falsely claimed they had witnessed some ballots; however, in the middle of the investigation, the Legislature removed the witness requirement from the law.

“Even though it appears that a prima facie case existed that certain persons had falsely attested to absentee ballots in the November 2003 election, it would be difficult to sustain a prosecution based on that repealed statute,” special prosecutor John Countryman wrote in his final report on the case.

The new rules

The latest ballot-fraud investigation has unfolded differently — thanks to a new Miami-Dade ordinance that toughens up the elections law.

The new ordinance makes it a misdemeanor for any person to possess more than two absentee ballots belonging to other voters. A violation can result in a jail sentence of up to 60 days.

The new law makes ballot collection itself a crime, and gives investigators a better chance to find evidence of tampering or fraud if the ballots are seized before they get to the elections department.

That’s how police say they nabbed Cabrera, whom police discovered with 12 ballots on July 25. One of those ballots belonged to 81-year-old Zulema Gomez, a woman police observed just moments after Cabrera took her ballot; a detective described Gomez as “unresponsive” and unable to cast a ballot, court records show.

“The only reason we have anything going on right now is because of that ordinance,” said Centorino, who prosecuted several people in an infamous vote-fraud scandal in Miami’s 1997 municipal elections. “It really does put the ballot-brokers out of business.”

Bovo said he plans to introduce a new change to voting methods: He wants the county’s absentee ballot envelopes to include postage paid by the county, so voters won’t need help finding stamps.

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei, David Ovalle and Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.