News Column

Ballot-fraud Probe Embroils Former Hialeah Mayor's Uncle

Aug. 10, 2012

Patricia Mazzei, Marc Caputo and Melissa Sanchez

ballot box

A ballot-fraud investigation that has already troubled two top Miami-Dade political campaigns has now embroiled the office of a county commissioner and could result in the arrest of the uncle of Hialeah's former mayor, The Miami Herald has learned.

As part of the widening probe, police identified 164 absentee ballots collected at Commissioner Esteban Bovo's Hialeah office, where an aide delivered them to a local post office, according to sources close to the investigation.

Bovo said he was shocked and knew nothing of the investigation, which has vexed the reelection campaigns of the county mayor and prosecutor.

Bovo's aide is cooperating with law-enforcement authorities and, sources said, identified Sergio " Tio" Robaina as one of the three brokers -- known as boleteros in Spanish -- who dropped off the ballots at the commissioner's Hialeah district office, which was used as a central-collection point last month.

Robaina denied dropping off ballots at Bovo's district office. He's the uncle of former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, who couldn't be reached.

"I never left anything there. I didn't leave a single ballot," Robaina, 74, said. But he admitted that "sometimes" he does collect ballots and mails them. "I have always collected ballots of different people, even for Esteban Bovo.

"People call and ask for ballots. Then, you go and they put a seal on it and they send it," Robaina said. "I've collected ballots because the person can't. But mostly they send them. They have to be very old or something. And the ballots have to be sealed."

Voter Barbara Pino, 52, who is deaf and mute and uses crutches to walk, cast one of the 164 ballots being examined by police. When asked by an El Nuevo Herald reporter who collected her ballot, she wrote on a notepad: "Sergio Robaina."

Voter Maria Pena, 52, also said Robaina came by recently to recommend candidates, though she did not remember which. She said she dropped her own ballot in a mailbox near a J.C. Penney.

Deisy Cabrera, 56, is the only ballot broker charged so far. She was arrested on charges of forging a voter's signature on a ballot and violating a county ordinance that prohibits third parties from possessing more than two absentee ballots of other voters.

Commissioner Bovo has not been questioned by police. Thursday night he said he was surprised by it all.

"Jesus, how am I supposed to comment on something like this?" Bovo said. "This is the first I've heard of any of this. Working for any other campaign on county time and in my office is prohibited. It shouldn't have happened."

Bovo's aide, Anamary Pedrosa, no longer works at his office.

She submitted her resignation July 23 and stopped working at the Hialeah office July 27, two days after investigators believe she delivered to the post office the 164 ballots that had been dropped off. Bovo said his aide quit because she wanted to go to law school.

Pedrosa, 25, could not be reached. Her attorney, J.C. Planas, said his client did nothing wrong.

"She contacted my office, she told me the police wanted to speak with her, and I advised her to speak with them and cooperate fully," said Planas, who served in the state House of Representatives with Bovo two years ago.

Pedrosa isn't expected to be charged with breaking any laws. But why Bovo's Hialeah office was used as a collection point is a mystery.

The voter-fraud investigation was made public two weeks ago when police detained and questioned Cabrera, the boletera, after trailing her for two days. She was spotted submitting absentee-ballot request forms at the county elections headquarters in Doral and visiting several Hialeah residences, including a nursing home and assisted-living facilities.

She also entered the building that houses Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez's Hialeah reelection campaign office. Gimenez has adamantly denied any connection to Cabrera and had a dozen campaign consultants sign affidavits to that effect.

Following Cabrera's arrest, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle recused herself from the case, citing a potential conflict of interest after one of her campaign workers was reportedly seen with Cabrera. Sources close to the investigation confirmed Thursday that the campaign worker was Gerardo Judas "Jerry" Ramos, a subcontractor for Fernandez Rundle campaign consultant Al Lorenzo.

Fernandez Rundle asked Lorenzo on Monday to keep Ramos away from her campaign. Gimenez, who also uses Lorenzo as a consultant, fired Lorenzo and his firm, Quantum Results, the same day after learning that Ramos has a lengthy criminal past -- including a 2009 conviction in a federal postage-fraud case linked to Lorenzo's political clients. Lorenzo has denied hiring Cabrera.

Cabrera had 12 ballots in her possession when police first detained her on July 25. She had mailed 19 more the previous day from the post office at 2200 NW 72nd Ave.

On July 25, at the same post office, Bovo's aide, Pedrosa, dropped off 164 other ballots that had been left at Bovo's Hialeah office. None appears to have been collected by Cabrera, sources close to the investigation said.

The 164 ballots, dated from July 12 to July 25, belonged to Hispanic voters mostly in Hialeah, though some were in Hialeah Gardens and Miami Lakes. The majority are elderly.

Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald reporters inspected the sealed ballots Thursday, comparing the voters' signatures on the absentee-ballot envelopes with those kept on file in the county elections department. Several signatures appeared quite different from those on file, though the majority seemed to match. In more than a few cases, the envelopes appeared to have been filled out in different handwriting -- and it at least one case, in a different pen and ink color -- than the person who signed.

The ballots remain in their envelopes and will be opened and reviewed by a canvassing board on Election Day on Tuesday.

The stack of 164 envelopes included the ballots of Pedrosa, the commissioner's aide, and of Milagros Guerrero, 64, who told El Nuevo Herald that she handed in three ballots. She also spoke to police.

On Thursday, Hialeah voter Juan Lopez, 82, said a man came to his house over several elections to collect his and his wife's ballots. But Lopez said he never knew the man's name or where he lived. Lopez said police officers visited his house over the past few days asking about the ballots.

Amanda Herbello, 59, and her daughter, Joana, 28, said they gave their ballots to a broker they know as "Beba." The two women told her they wanted to vote for Gimenez and allowed her to recommend other candidates as they filled out their ballots. Though the women wanted to mail the ballots themselves, they said, Beba told them she would take them with her.

Several voters interviewed by reporters late Thursday insisted they did not hand their ballots to any brokers.

Mercedes De La Vega, 67, of Hialeah, said she mailed the ballot herself -- even though authorities believe it was one of the 164 that Bovo's aide took to the post office. Nobody helped her fill out the ballot, she added, saying she knew of the investigation from listening to the radio.

Another of the 164 voters, 82-year-old Norma Fajardo, said her son-in-law helped her and her husband fill out their ballots, but the son-in-law is not associated with any political campaign. Fajardo and her husband both voted for Gimenez, she said.

Fajardo said she slipped the sealed ballots in the mailbox of her Hialeah apartment complex and didn't think about them again -- until investigators showed up at her door Wednesday afternoon.

"I told them I put the ballots in the mailbox here," she said. "We didn't want any trouble."

Miami Herald staff writers Kathleen McGrory, Charles Rabin and Christina Veiga and El Nuevo Herald staff writers Alfonso Chardy and Enrique Flor contributed to this report.

Source: (c)2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by MCT Information Services

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