A laurel for The Miami Herald

The FBI has been busy in Miami, thanks to the Herald--and to shenanigans in Florida's 26th Congressional District

MIAMI, FL — As Florida Gov. Rick Scott prepares for a second attempt to purge the voter rolls of non-citizens—despite a lack of evidence that non-citizen voting is a serious problem—The Miami Herald continues to dig up actual election-related mischief. The paper’s impressive reporting, on problems going back to 2010, has been crucial in law enforcement efforts here and merits a CJR Laurel.

Last week, the Herald’s Marc Caputo reported that the FBI has opened a probe into Jeffrey Garcia, a former aide of Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia (no relation). The investigation is focused on ties between Jeffrey Garcia and the campaign of a political unknown, Roly Arrojo, who challenged Rep. David Rivera in the 2010 Republican primary. Arrojo sent out thousands of mailers attacking Rivera but didn’t report raising any money. The Herald’s Patricia Mazzei initially uncovered a relationship between Jeffrey Garcia and Arrojo back in 2010. (The aide and the candidate had a business together, owned property together and went to high school together.) The Herald’s reporting prompted an investigation in 2010 from the Federal Election Commission, which slapped Arrojo on the wrist with a letter warning him he had broken campaign finance rules by not reporting anything, though he clearly spent money.

Mazzei and Caputo went back at it in June of this year, finding that Arrojo had mailers done at a print shop traditionally used by Democrats, a union shop that doesn’t get a lot of self-proclaimed Tea Party candidates (as Arrojo was).

That story finally got some attention. The FBI has been busy in Miami, thanks in large part to the Herald, and in no small part to shenanigans in Florida’s 26th Congressional District.

Last year, the Herald and its Spanish-language partner, El Nuevo Herald, (Caputo and Manny Garcia) unraveled the ties between an apparent ringer candidate the Republicans ran in the 2012 rematch between Rivera and now-Congressman Joe Garcia. Garcia won that time and the Feds moved a little more quickly, charging the stealth candidate, Justin Lamar Sternad. Sternad has already pleaded guilty and is cooperating with authorities in a larger investigation into Rivera and a top former aide.

To date, Garcia and Rivera have both denied any knowledge of the unusual candidates who ran against their opponents.

The Herald has also done fine work this year reporting on attempted absentee ballot fraud, tracking down in February a smoking gun. Elections officials knew someone had used computers in 2012 to request more than 2,000 absentee ballots that the voters hadn’t actually asked for. But because some of the requests were done from foreign Internet Protocol addresses, state investigators said there was nothing they could do.

They were wrong, as the Herald proved. Per the paper’s report:

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office could not find the hacker because most of his or her actions were masked by foreign IP addresses. But at least some of the ballot requests originated in Miami and could have been further traced.

Prosecutors did not obtain that information as part of their initial inquiry, due to a miscommunication with the elections department.

On Friday, a day after The Miami Herald brought the domestic IP addresses to its attention, the office of State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said it is reviewing them.

It didn’t take long for that review to lead to Rep. Joe Garcia’s campaign and Jeffrey Garcia, the same aide tied to the ringer candidate in 2010—and who, soon after, resigned. The ballot requests that could be traced to a local IP address were for Democrats in District 26. The ones that were hidden behind foreign addresses targeted Republican voters in two state legislature races. That investigation appears to have gone cold.

These are complicated stories to unravel, and sometimes they’re even more complicated to explain. No one actually received the absentee ballots that were fraudulently requested, so no fraudulent votes were ever cast. Caputo told me he thinks it’s unlikely that was ever even the point, because the signatures on absentee ballots are hand checked against the signatures on file. He thinks whoever requested the ballots was trying to bring in voters who otherwise wouldn’t have made it to the polls. The requests asked that the ballots be sent to the voters’ addresses. The only reason to do that would be so the campaigns could then target those voters with phone calls or mailers, increasing their likelihood of voting. But those votes would still be legal votes, in theory.

“Voter fraud is not easy to do, but if you are going to commit voter fraud, absentee ballots are the easiest way to do it,” Caputo said.

In theory, the Republican-led Florida legislature cares about making sure votes are legal. But in practice, it’s hard to understand their actions.

“They passed bills that restricted the opportunity for voting early under the guise of preventing voter fraud, even though there’s no evidence that early voting is any more vulnerable to fraud than regular voting and it’s less vulnerable than absentee voting, which they didn’t touch,” Caputo explained. In Florida, absentee ballots tend to swing Republican and early voters tend to swing Democratic.

And the scary thing is, there is nothing in Florida’s laws or procedures that would have stopped someone from requesting an absentee ballot be sent to an address that isn’t the voter’s. As an experiment, Caputo last year decided to try to get his own ballot mailed to a co-worker’s home—and it worked.

But that very clear vulnerability was never addressed.

Mazzei worries that the attempted fraud in Miami-Dade might not be caught in other counties.

“Not every county is like Miami-Dade, where staff signs off on every absentee ballot request,” she explained. “Some smaller places might be vulnerable. It could be a big deal if someone tries to do this on a large scale and gets away with it.”

So now Gov. Scott is focused on purging the voter rolls of non-citizens, again. The last time Scott tried this, the effort was so bungled, with a purge list so rife with errors, county elections supervisors finally refused to go along. And who found some of those early errors? The Herald.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , , , ,