News Column

Florida Woman Charged With Absentee-ballot Fraud

Aug. 2, 2012

Patricia Mazzei and Charles Rabin

A Hialeah, Fla., woman was arrested and charged with absentee-ballot fraud Thursday after police say she fraudulently obtained a ballot from a terminally ill woman in a nursing home.

The arrest ended more than a week of speculation in a case that has roiled Hialeah and the races for Miami-Dade's state attorney and mayor.

Deisy Penton de Cabrera, 56, was charged with absentee-ballot fraud, a third-degree felony, and two misdemeanor counts of violating a county ordinance that makes it illegal for anyone to possess more than two ballots belonging to other voters. Investigators suspect Cabrera, a ballot broker known in Spanish as a boletera, of illegally collecting at least 31 absentee ballots.

Police detectives followed Cabrera over two days last week. On July 24, according to an arrest affidavit unsealed Thursday, she dropped off 19 absentee ballots at a Hialeah post office.

The next day, detectives followed Cabrera into a nursing home, where she went into the room of a woman identified by police as Z.G. The officers overheard Cabrera telling Z.G. that she was sent there by the woman's sister to get her signature. A few minutes later, Cabrera left.

When the detectives went into the room to speak to Z.G., they found she was unresponsive. The detective said hello and waved to Z.G., whose eyes were open, the warrant says, "but she (stared) off into space and did not respond to the greeting."

Cabrera then visited five more assisted-living facilities before police stopped her and found 12 absentee ballots in her possession. They also detained and questioned Matilde M. Rendueles, the woman driving Cabrera around in a red Toyota Corolla. (Rendueles had earlier been identified in reports as Matilde Martinez.)

Detectives visited the unresponsive woman at the nursing home two more times, according to the warrant. They also interviewed Z.G.'s sisters, one of whom said the woman is terminally ill and "cannot write, comprehend or communicate."

The second sister, Olga Gomez, said she recently had been assisted by Cabrera to fill out her absentee ballot. Gomez said Cabrera, whom Gomez said she has known for a couple of years, asked for and took her ill sister's blank absentee ballot.

El Nuevo Herald identified the ill woman as 81-year-old Zulema Gomez, who went into the Miami Springs nursing home five months go after suffering from a brain tumor.

Zulema Gomez's ballot included a handwritten, misspelled note in Spanish saying, "This lady is my sister. I sign like this because she has arthritis and she has difficulty signing. Thank you."

Olga Gomez denied filling out and signing her sister's ballot, or writing the note.

The 31 ballots linked to Cabrera have been segregated at the Miami-Dade elections department. According to the arrest warrant, detectives have attempted to interview all of the voters as part of the case.

A Miami Herald reporter inspected the 31 sealed envelopes containing the ballots at the elections department Thursday morning and found many of them filled out in similar handwriting. They all had similar stamps. And about half misspelled Hialeah on the return address as "Hialiah."

El Nuevo Herald reported that the alleged victims are all Hispanics whose ages range from 43 to 100. All but five of the voters are at least 70 years old. A few have said they cannot read or write, and that Cabrera filled out their ballots or pressured them to vote for candidates of her choice. Some said they did not remember whom they voted for or whether they signed their ballots.

Cabrera turned herself into authorities Thursday morning at the Miami-Dade state attorney's office. Investigators arrived at the office at 10:53 a.m., pulling up in a gray Dodge Challenger and a black Chevy Tahoe. The two cars were followed by a gray Honda. Cabrera stepped out of the Honda, got into the back seat of the Challenger, and the Challenger and the Tahoe sped off, presumably to the county jail.

Cabrera's lawyer, Eric Castillo, told reporters she would not be speaking to the media.

Miami-Dade prosecutors had held off on arresting Cabrera as they tried to build a stronger case than the misdemeanor charges Cabrera faced for violating the two-ballot county ordinance. The more-serious felony charge is a result of the evidence that suggests Zulema Gomez was misled, or her ballot was altered, by Cabrera.

The investigation was made public last week after a private investigator, Joe Carrillo, tipped off public-corruption investigators about Cabrera. Carrillo followed and videotaped Cabrera as she visited several Hialeah residences and the building housing the Hialeah campaign office of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is seeking re-election in the Aug. 14 primary. Cabrera has also been photographed at a Gimenez campaign event.

Gimenez has adamantly denied that he or any of his campaign consultants hired Cabrera; a dozen consultants have signed sworn affidavits to that effect. There are several other contested races in Hialeah.

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle came under pressure earlier this week from her Democratic primary opponent, defense attorney Rod Vereen, who called on her to step aside from the case because one of her campaign consultants, Al Lorenzo, also works on Gimenez's campaign - a relationship Vereen suggested was a conflict of interest.

Fernandez Rundle responded that police have found no evidence linking Lorenzo - who signed one of the Gimenez campaign affidavits - to the case.

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(Staff writers Daniel Chang and Christina Veiga, and staff photographer Tim Chapman, contributed to this report.)



Source: (c)2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.


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