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Miami-Dade investigators widen absentee ballot-fraud probe

By Scott Hiaasen and Patricia Mazzei, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — Investigators looking into possible vote fraud in Hialeah, Fla., are now examining at least 31 absentee ballots collected by a suspected ballot broker in two separate instances last week, according to sources familiar with the expanding probe.

Last week, Miami-Dade detectives questioned a Hialeah woman named Daisy Cabrera, who was found in possession of at least a dozen absentee ballots belonging to other voters. Detectives have also learned of another instance in which Cabrera collected ballots from voters, the sources said.

In all, 31 ballots have been segregated at the Miami-Dade elections department, where the ballots are set aside along with their envelopes bearing the names and addresses of the voters who cast the ballots. Miami-Dade detectives have interviewed many of those voters over the past few days to determine if the ballots correspond to the voters’ intentions, the sources said.

Cabrera could face charges under a municipal ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor for anyone to possess more than two ballots of other voters. But police and prosecutors are investigating further to determine if voters were misled, or if their ballots were altered — which could be evidence of felony vote fraud, a charge with harsher penalties.

One elderly voter told El Nuevo Herald that Cabrera filled out her absentee ballot for her on July 22. Another voter told El Nuevo Herald that Cabrera filled out ballots for her and her husband twice last year in local elections — and offered to help the voter move up a public housing waiting list. Cabrera has declined to comment.

The investigation was triggered by a Miami private investigator, Joe Carrillo, who followed Cabrera last week as she visited several Hialeah apartment buildings and homes and 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 with the mayor at his campaign events in recent weeks.

Gimenez reiterated Tuesday that Cabrera did not work for his campaign, and he asked a dozen of his campaign aides to swear in affidavits that they did not hire Cabrera or any other ballot brokers. “If one of them had refused to sign, that person would have been fired on the spot,” Gimenez said at a candidate forum.

In the past, Cabrera has worked for state Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah, and for former state Sen. Rudy Garcia (no relation), who ran for Hialeah mayor last year.

The controversy from the politically charged investigation has also seeped into the race for Miami-Dade state attorney. Miami-Dade detectives are being assisted in the probe by corruption prosecutors working for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who will also be on the Aug. 14 ballot in the Democratic primary.

Fernandez Rundle’s opponent, defense attorney Rod Vereen, held a news conference Tuesday asking the governor to remove Fernandez Rundle’s office from the case because one of her campaign consultants, Al Lorenzo, also works on Gimenez’s campaign — what Vereen called an “obvious” conflict of interest.

“She has begun an investigation that potentially affects her own campaign machine two weeks before the election,” Vereen said. “The citizens of Miami-Dade are beginning to question the sanctity of the August primary election.”

In response, Fernandez Rundle issued a statement saying detectives have found no evidence that Lorenzo was involved in the ballot-collection practices, so there is no reason for her to turn the case over to another prosecutor. Lorenzo submitted an affidavit to Gimenez saying he did not hire Cabrera.

“There is no truth to this rumor whatsoever,” Fernandez Rundle said. She said she would declare a conflict of interest if investigators find evidence that anyone assisting her campaign was involved.

Late Tuesday, Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Florida Gov. Rick Scott, said the governor received a letter from Vereen seeking Fernandez Rundle’s recusal, but determined “there is no reason to proceed further at this time.”

Speaking at a candidates forum on Tuesday, Gimenez said he supported the state attorney’s efforts to try to seek heftier charges than misdemeanors in the ballot probe. Gimenez’s chief rival in the mayoral election, Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez, said he believed absentee voter lists should not be released publicly, so campaigns can’t identify voters with ballots and try to influence them.

“You won’t have anybody knocking on your door, because they won’t know you got an absentee ballot,” Martinez said.

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