Rep. Joe Garcia stands by staffer implicated in Miami-Dade absentee-ballot investigation

Congressman Joe Garcia moved quickly to contain the fallout of an election-fraud scandal that rocked his office, but said Monday he’s not going to fire a key staffer implicated in the case.

Garcia, a Miami Democrat, said Communications Director Giancarlo Sopo told him he was not involved in a plot last year to submit hundreds of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests — though investigators with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office searched the home of one of Sopo’s relatives Friday in connection with the attempt to manipulate the Aug. 14 primary.

Sopo was placed on unpaid administrative leave late Monday.

“He said he did not do that, and I take him at his word,” Garcia told The Miami Herald. “If I find that’s not the case, he’s not going to be put on administrative leave — he’s going to be let go. Until that happens, I am neither the prosecutor nor the judge and jury.”

Garcia dismissed Jeffrey Garcia, his chief of staff and longtime political advisor, Friday after law enforcement raided the family homes of Sopo and former campaign manager John Estes seeking computers and other electronic equipment. Jeffrey Garcia, who is not related to his boss, admitted to the congressman that he directed the campaign to submit the phantom ballot requests, Joe Garcia said.

“I don’t know why,” he added, saying the operation — which ultimately failed — wasn’t needed. “During this entire election, we were polling. ... We thought we were ahead early on and from the get-go.”

Under state elections law, it may be considered a third-degree felony fraud for a ballot request to be filled out by someone other than voters or their immediate family. Using people’s personal information as required in the requests may be considered a first-degree felony.

Miami-Dade commissioners had been scheduled to ask the elections department Tuesday to make the online absentee-ballots request system more secure, but the measure will be deferred for two weeks while the department comes up with a plan and price tag.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office has said there is no evidence Rep. Garcia had knowledge of the ballot operation.

Jeffrey Garcia’s consulting company, Palm Media, did at least $372,952 worth of work for Joe Garcia’s campaign in 2012. Jeffrey Garcia and his company did $122,796 worth of campaign work for Joe Garcia in 2010.

As chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia received a salary of $29,224.21 between Jan. 17 and March 31, congressional office records show.

Joe Garcia said Sopo wrote news releases, advertising scripts and speeches for his 2012 campaign. Sopo’s compensation does not appear in Garcia’s campaign reports, though he could have been paid by another consultant. Sopo and Jeffrey Garcia have declined to comment.

Joe Garcia, who has hired an attorney to conduct an internal investigation, was unable to say why Sopo was not paid directly: “That’s part of what we have to figure out.”

That Sopo remains on the congressman’s staff left an opening for Republicans to continue hammering Garcia over the scandal.

“Congressman Garcia needs to stop with the slippery double talk and finally explain why he is allowing one of his top staffers to remain on his taxpayer-funded salary while being investigated for breaking the law,” Katie Prill, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement Monday.

Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo, a likely Republican challenger to Garcia, called on the Monroe County state attorney to also investigate potential fraud. Congressional District 26 runs from Kendall to Key West.

“The voters of Monroe County deserve to know if they, too, were victimized by Mr. Garcia and his campaign,” Curbelo said in a statement.

No investigation is under way in Monroe, State Attorney Catherine Vogel’s office told The Herald, though the office on Monday offered to assist Fernández Rundle, if needed. Joe Garcia said his understanding from his conversation with Jeffrey Garcia was that the operation was limited to Miami-Dade.

Jeffrey Garcia’s company did web videos last year for Democrat Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, who ousted Republican Rep. Allen West in a district that stretches along Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

Garcia had nothing to do with voter outreach or absentee ballots for Murphy’s campaign, said Eric Johnson, Murphy’s lead campaign consultant and now his chief of staff.

In a statement, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee praised Joe Garcia’s dismissal of his chief of staff.

“Joe Garcia has taken quick action to hold these staffers responsible, and local investigators have stated they do not believe Joe Garcia was involved or even knew anything about this incident,” said David Bergstein, the DCCC’s southern regional press secretary. “Thankfully these ballots had zero impact on the election.”

The elections department’s software detected 2,552 fraudulent requests in the primary, and none of the ballots were sent. Nearly 500 requests were directed at Democrats in Garcia’s congressional district and came from traceable Internet Provider addresses — at least two of them in Miami, a Herald investigation revealed in February. That prompted prosecutors to reexamine the case.

More than 2,000 requests came in from computers masked by foreign IP addresses and targeted Republican voters in two Florida House of Representatives districts. It is unclear what, if any, relation exists between the domestic and foreign requests.

Since Friday, Garcia has been speaking with party leaders and their staffs, he acknowledged Monday, including Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, the national Democratic Party chairwoman.

“As you can imagine, my phone blew up,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.