Congressman Joe Garcia: ‘Flawed’ absentee-voting system, ‘reckless abandon’ in politics contributed to ballot scandal

Congressman Joe Garcia on Saturday attempted to control the damage inflicted on his office a day earlier, when he dismissed his chief of staff for apparently orchestrating a scheme to submit hundreds of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests.

Meanwhile, Republicans nationwide and closer to home pummeled Garcia, questioning whether the first-term congressman was coming clean on his campaign’s involvement in the ballot scandal.

In a news conference held at his West Miami-Dade office Saturday morning, Garcia, a Democrat, maintained that he had no knowledge of the failed plot during last year’s primary election. He said he learned about his campaign’s involvement only the previous afternoon from chief of staff Jeffrey Garcia, who is unrelated to the congressman and has long served as his top political strategist.

“I cannot stress how angry I am at these events,” Joe Garcia said Saturday.

He called the plot “ill-conceived” but added: “I think it was a well-intentioned attempt to maximize voter turnout.”

Garcia said he had been on stage early Friday afternoon at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in West Kendall, shaking the hands of hundreds of graduates, when he began to get word that something was amiss.

Earlier Friday, law enforcement officers had raided the family homes of his communications director, Giancarlo Sopo, 30, and his former campaign manager, John Estes, 26, searching for computers and other electronic equipment in connection with an ongoing criminal investigation by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office into the phantom ballot requests.

After the graduation ceremony, Garcia said he met with Jeffrey Garcia, 40, who took responsibility for the scheme. He then resigned at the congressman’s request.

Friday’s precipitous events came three months after a Miami Herald investigation found that hundreds of 2,552 fraudulent online requests for the Aug. 14 primaries originated from mystery hackers using Internet Protocol addresses in Miami. The Herald found those requests were clustered and targeted Democratic voters in the newly drawn Congressional District 26, which stretches from Kendall to Key West and where Garcia was competing against three other candidates.

The origin of the other requests, which targeted Republican voters in two Florida House of Representatives districts, was masked by foreign IP addresses. It is unclear if the requests from domestic and foreign IP addresses, which came in more than a week later, are related — or if they were two separate, if similar, ploys.

One key difference, the Herald analysis found: The requests from domestic IP addresses in some cases used voters’ real email addresses. The requests from foreign IP addresses were mostly formulaic and clearly fake. Political campaigns routinely compile voters’ email addresses.

State election law requires that absentee-ballot requests be submitted by voters themselves or their immediate family members or legal guardians. Violations may be considered third-degree felonies. A more serious, first-degree felony may also be considered when someone uses another person’s personal information, as required in online ballot-request forms.

The hackers behind the scheme appear to have been trying to expand the number of absentee voters to target with fliers, phone calls and visits from campaign workers. Win the support of enough of them and that might swing a close election.

Their attempt failed. The elections department’s software flagged the phantom requests as suspicious, and elections staff did not mail those voters any ballots — a point Garcia stressed.

“From my conversations thus far, no ballots were tampered with,” he told reporters.

The congressman laid some blame on what he called a “flawed” absentee-voting process. When asked how he could explain his campaign’s involvement, Garcia blamed the region’s rough-and-tumble politics, which had already marred the Congressional District 26 race.

“I explain it with the reckless abandon that we play politics in South Florida,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”

A separate, federal corruption investigation stemming from last year’s congressional primary has been examining whether Republican David Rivera, the incumbent Garcia ultimately defeated, had ties to the illegally funded primary campaign of Justin Lamar Sternad, one of Garcia’s primary opponents. Rivera has denied wrongdoing.

Republicans viewed Garcia as vulnerable even before his office was engulfed in the phantom-ballots investigation, with three potential opponents already lined up. Between Friday and Saturday, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party and Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo, who may challenge Garcia next year, questioned whether the congressman was revealing all he knew about campaign’s involvement in the ballot scandal.

“Floridians deserve to know what Congressman Joe Garcia knew about this voter fraud scheme and when did he know it,” NRCC spokeswoman Katie Prill said in a written statement.

Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, who slipped into Garcia’s news conference Saturday morning, also called for further investigating into the matter.

“I share in Congressman Garcia’s anger, and I’m disappointed,” she told the Herald. “I hope that what we get out of this is a thorough investigation of all the absentee-ballot tampering that has been going on for a long time.”

Garcia said he did not know that his staff was involved in the scheme because, in a campaign, “every person has a role to play.”

“You try to create compartments in a campaign,” he said.

Garcia said he had spoken to Sopo, who denied taking part in the plot. The congressman said he would likely reassign Sopo’s duties and place him on administrative leave. Garcia said he had not spoken to Estes. Sopo declined to comment Saturday. Estes could not be reached.

From the voters, Garcia asked for a chance to conduct an internal investigation and cooperate with authorities. He plans to hire attorney William Barzee for the internal review, and Garcia said he spoke late Friday to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle.

“If I’m upset, they must be even more upset,” Garcia said of voters. “I hope they give us an opportunity to explain this.”