Congressman Joe Garcia clears remaining staff in absentee ballot probe

With two of his former staffers under criminal investigation for allegedly submitting phony absentee-ballot requests, Miami Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia released his own internal review on Monday and concluded that no one else on his staff was aware of the ballot scheme.

Both former Chief of Staff Jeffrey Garcia and former Communications Director Giancarlo Sopo declined to participate in the review, which was carried out by attorney Brian Tannebaum, a political contributor to the congressman’s campaigns. The two staffers resigned after the Miami Herald reported prosecutors were looking into a plot last year to sign up hundreds of unsuspecting voters for absentee ballots.

“I could find no evidence that any one else knew of or participated in any illegality regarding absentee ballots,” Tannebaum concluded in his nine-page report released to the Herald.

Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, resigned on May 31 after admitting to the congressman that he orchestrated the ballot-request ploy. No charges have been filed yet by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. Joe Garcia has not been implicated.

“The report speaks for itself,” Garcia said in a statement Monday. “The moment I was informed of the situation, I took action. Our current congressional staff had no knowledge of any wrongdoings.”

Jeffrey Garcia, his longtime political strategist, stepped down hours after police and prosecutors from State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office raided the homes of Sopo’s cousin and the family of John Estes, the congressman’s campaign manager, as part of the ongoing investigation into the ballot requests.

Though prosecutors had initially concluded foreign Internet Protocol addresses masked the origin of the requests, the Herald found earlier this year that hundreds of them could be further traced to Miami. Florida elections law prohibits online requests to be filed by anyone other than voters or their immediate family.

The Herald revealed in September that federal authorities are also investigating Jeffrey Garcia’s ties to a bogus Tea Party candidate’s secretly funded mail campaign. A political consultant has said Jeffrey Garcia was behind fliers for Roly Arrojo, who attacked Joe Garcia’s 2010 congressional rival, Republican David Rivera. Joe Garcia has denied any knowledge or participation.

Garcia said in his statement Monday that he does not plan to launch his own probe into that case because none of his current staff worked on his 2010 campaign.

In the state case, Joe Garcia vowed to cooperate with prosecutors and carry out his own review. Garcia initially tapped William Barzee, another political supporter, but later gave the job to Tannebaum, who noted in his report that while he has contributed to Garcia’s past campaigns, he does not live in his district, has not played any role in his office and has not lobbied him. Federal records show Tannebaum has contributed $3,950 to Garcia’s campaigns since 2008.

As part of his probe, which lasted about three months, Tannebaum interviewed or attempted to interview eight of Garcia’s congressional staffers who either volunteered or were paid to work in his 2012 race, including the congressman himself. Tannebaum did not review any documents.

Through one of his defense attorneys, Henry Bell, Jeffrey Garcia declined to be interviewed by Tannebaum, according to the report. So did Estes, through his attorney, Sabrina Puglisi.

Sopo, whom Joe Garcia initially suspended without pay, resigned in July after Tannebaum reached out asking for an interview, calling Sopo’s potential cooperation “essential to this investigation.” Through his attorney, Gus Lage, Sopo declined to participate, Tannebaum wrote.

Joe Garcia told Tannebaum that no one on his campaign tasked with handling absentee ballots. Sometimes voters would come into the office and ask to have their absentee ballots filled in, Garcia said, according to the report.

“They were to be told that the campaign ‘didn’t do that,’” Tannebaum wrote, citing Garcia.

His staff told Tannebaum much of the same.