Police, prosecutors investigate Homestead absentee-ballot fraud case

Miami-Dade police and prosecutors are investigating as potential fraud the case of four absentee ballots a Homestead family says campaign workers filled out against their wishes, the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald have learned.

One of those workers, James Brady, is now a commission candidate in Florida City, which holds a municipal election next month.

Detectives from the police department’s public-corruption unit and prosecutors from the state attorney’s office have visited the Brockington household three times since October, Betty Brockington said, when Brady and an unidentified man knocked on her door and offered to help the family vote.

The men filled out the ballots out of the family’s sight and had three of four family members sign them without reviewing them, according to 54-year-old Betty Brockington. When they tried to get one of her nieces, 22-year-old Robkevia Scott, to do the same, she refused.

Scott took her ballot back and noticed the men had chosen the candidates the family had specifically said it opposed in the Nov. 5 election: mayoral candidate Mark Bell and council candidate Norman Hodge Jr.

The family suspected that the unidentified man and Brady, who worked on Bell’s campaign, had filled out all the ballots against their wishes. The men took three ballots with them. The family reported the incident to authorities.

It is illegal for people to possess absentee ballots that do not belong to them or their immediate family.

Last year, law enforcement arrested two Hialeah ballot brokers, known as boleteros. Both Deisy Cabrera and Sergio “ El Tío” Robaina pleaded no contest and received probation.

A separate investigation prompted by a Miami Herald report traced hundreds of unlawful absentee-ballot requests, submitted online, to U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia’s former chief of staff and campaign adviser Jeffrey Garcia, no relation, who is serving a 90-day jail sentence.

Neither prosecutors nor the police department would comment specifically about the ongoing Homestead investigation.

“The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and the Absentee Ballot Task Force have been vigorously investigating the allegations of absentee ballot fraud in the recent Homestead elections,” Ed Griffith, a spokesman for State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, said in an email Friday. “All complaints and allegations are being reviewed.”

Brady, 31, declined to comment to a reporter who tried to speak to him in person Saturday. He said only that looking into an incident is not the same as placing someone under investigation, suggesting that he may not consider himself a target of the probe.

He continues to serve as the Miami-Dade Republican Party’s corresponding secretary, a position he has held since before the absentee-ballot incident. He has filed to run in Florida City’s Jan. 28 election.

In October, Brady initially said a Haitian man named “Emmanuel” told him to go to the Brockington home because the family had received its blank ballots. Brady then denied dropping by the house at all and claimed he didn’t work directly for Bell but for another man named “Tyrone.” He later denied “Tyrone” existed.

Campaign finance reports show Mark Bell paid Brady $1,560 between Sept. 7 and Oct. 11. Brady was the first of 19 people Bell listed in a form disclosing paid campaign workers participating in “absentee ballot activities.”

Bell, who lost the mayor’s race, said Friday no investigators have contacted him. Brady resigned from the campaign hours after Bell learned of the Brockington family’s allegations and told Brady he would have to suspend him.

“Mr. Brady told me he had nothing to do with it. I have to go with his word until the state attorney or whoever investigates,” said Bell, a hotel and restaurant owner and the husband of County Commissioner Lynda Bell.

“We’ve done nothing wrong, so they can look into it if they want,” he added. “That’s what their job is. They need to do their job — I have nothing to hide.”

The first time detectives visited her house, Brockington said they collected her niece’s ballot — the only one Brady and the other man didn’t take — and said they would try to dust it for fingerprints. They did not fingerprint the family.

The second time, a prosecutor and a court reporter took sworn statements from Brockington, her husband and her two nieces, Brockington said.

The third time, investigators came by about a month ago, Brockington said, with pictures of several black men. One of them was Brady, who went to school with one of Brockington’s sons.

Another one of the men in the photographs looked like Brady’s unidentified colleague, whom the Brockington family described as Haitian.

A third man in the photographs was Timothy Milton, a well known South Miami-Dade political operative who worked for the candidates the family did want to vote for, Councilman Jimmie Williams III and Jeff Porter, who was ultimately elected mayor.

Bell, Porter’s opponent, had accused Brockington and her niece of lying about the absentee-ballot incident at Milton’s behest, as part of a dirty political trick. Milton dismissed that accusation.

Brockington said she identified Brady and Milton from investigators’ photographs. She described Milton as a longtime acquaintance who had come by the house after the absentee-ballot incident. The family showed him the only remaining ballot, the one Brockington’s niece snatched back.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I ain’t heard from them since,” Brockington said of the investigators. “I don’t know if they are going to prosecute them or do anything.”

Brockington ended up voting by provisional ballot, according to the county elections department. Scott, her niece, also voted.

Brockington hopes for some sort of punishment to deter other campaigns from absentee-ballot shenanigans.

“They do this a lot, especially to older people that can’t read good. They probably have taken advantage of a lot of people,” she said. “They don’t have to send them to prison for a long time, but they can punish them.”

She said she was shocked last week to see Brady’s campaign poster at a store near her house (“Expect more, do more,” one of them says). He is running for office for the third time, after losing Florida City commission races in 2010 and 2012.

“I said, ‘What kind of mess is this?’” Brockington said. “If he did that with our ballots, what will he be doing in office?”

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.