North Miami raid marks third investigation of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests

Investigators raided the private business office of North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau on Friday seeking evidence linking her to unlawful absentee-ballot requests that her political campaign may have submitted online earlier this year.

The search marked the third investigation in six months by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office into bulk requests filed in violation of Florida law, which allows only voters or their family members to submit the forms online.

Tondreau, who was elected in June, denied any involvement in the fraudulent ballot requests.

“I don’t get involved in those types of things,” she said. “Let them search. We don’t have anything to hide.”

Prosecutors working with Miami-Dade and Miami Beach police and the county inspector general’s office executed a search warrant early Friday at the North Miami office of Tondreau and Associates, the mayor’s public-affairs consulting company. An Internet Protocol computer address that was used to submit the suspect requests was apparently traced to Tondreau’s office.

“This was a lead we received and needed to look into,” said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle. The tip came into her absentee-ballot fraud task force, he added.

The search warrant for computers and other electronic equipment also allowed law enforcement to seize any campaign, financial or address-book records related to Tondreau, her mayoral campaign and Nacivre Charles, her campaign treasurer. In 2011, he was also listed as her firm’s vice president.

Charles, who goes by “Charlie,” was arrested Friday on charges of driving with a suspended license, according to the state attorney’s office. It’s unclear if that arrest was related to the search of Tondreau’s business. Calls to Charles went directly to a voice mailbox that was full.

The search warrant also identified 60 people, presumably the voters whose personal information was used in the online ballot requests. The Miami Herald has learned the requests were submitted for both the June mayoral runoff and the first round of the municipal election, which took place in May and featured seven mayoral candidates. None of the ballots were mailed because the Miami-Dade Elections Department flagged them as suspicious.

One voter, 68-year-old Sinmilia Jean-Louis, said she and her husband, Lismond, requested absentee ballots themselves, as they have for years.

Another voter, 24-year-old Mark Fils-Aime, said he has never requested an absentee ballot but has received them for multiple elections without ever knowing why — suggesting the practice of submitting ballot requests without voters’ permission has been going on for some time.

Counting Tondreau, three Miami-Dade politicians have been embroiled since May in separate investigations into phony online absentee-ballot requests, which seem to have become commonplace among campaigns to increase the number of voters who cast ballots by mail. Campaign workers can target those voters with fliers, phone calls and personal visits to persuade them to choose their candidate.

The first case, reopened following a Miami Herald investigation, resulted in the conviction of Miami congressman Joe Garcia’s former chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, who is serving a 90-day jail sentence. The second led to misdemeanor charges and probation for two aides to Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez, who then dropped out of the city mayor’s race.

Tondreau, 53, said she first heard allegations of absentee-ballot shenanigans in North Miami after the election from opponent Kevin Burns, who is suing to have her removed from office for allegedly not meeting the city’s residency requirement.

Burns denied tipping off prosecutors but confirmed that he heard rumblings about wrongdoing.

“We had nothing to do with the investigation,” he said.

Tondreau, a registered Democrat in a nonpartisan post, said she is cooperating with investigators.

No one was present at the offices of Tondreau and Associates after the raid. Former North Miami Mayor Frank Wolland, who has an office nearby, said a van arrived with eight men from the state attorney’s office who took a computer and a box of records from Tondreau’s office.

Wolland remains supportive of the mayor.

“I know the mayor has no knowledge of any improper actions dealing with absentee ballots,” Wolland said. “She’s acted totally within the law.”

No one else from Tondreau’s camp commented Friday. One of her most ardent supporters, Democratic state Rep. Daphne Campbell, whose 2010 campaign was run by Tondreau, answered a call Friday but handed the phone to an assistant who declined comment.

Tondreau, who ran unsuccessfully for the Miami-Dade County Commission 11 years ago, became North Miami’s first Haitian-American female mayor on June 4. Her short tenure has already been tainted by controversy.

Her rival in the runoff, former Mayor Burns, sued after the election, claiming Tondreau didn’t live in North Miami for a year before running for office as required by city rules. A judge dismissed the lawsuit last month, saying he didn’t have jurisdiction over Tondreau’s qualifications after she had been elected. Burns has appealed.

When Tondreau traveled to Haiti on vacation in July, she received security protection from the city’s police chief, whose trip was paid for by city taxpayers. He also met with Haitian police to assist with a couple of their initiatives. After receiving threatening phone calls at City Hall, Tondreau also enlisted a police officer to chauffeur her to city functions. The police chief once drove Tondreau’s daughter to school.