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Ballots picked up, then disappear  (FL)

LAURA FIGUEROA AND SCOTT HIAASEN   Miami Herald   25 October 2008

Three Hialeah voters say they had an unusual visitor at their homes last week: a man who called himself Juan, offering to help them fill out their absentee ballots and deliver them to the elections office.

The voters, all supporters of Democratic congressional candidate Raul Martinez, said they gave their ballots to the man after he told them he worked for Martinez. But the Martinez campaign said he doesn't work for them.

Juan ''told me not to worry, that they normally collected all the ballots and waited until they had a stack big enough to hand-deliver to the elections department,'' said voter Jesus Hernandez, 73. 'He said, `Don't worry. This is not going to pass through the mail to get lost.' ''

Hernandez said he worries his ballot was stolen or destroyed. He and two other voters told The Miami Herald that the man was dispatched by a woman caller who also said she worked for Martinez. But the phone number cited by the voters traces back to a consultant working for Martinez's rival, Republican congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Martinez's campaign manager, Jeff Garcia, has asked the Miami-Dade state attorney's office to investigate.

Garcia has also spent the past week investigating the complaints, taking sworn statements from the three voters and mounting an ameteur sting operation at the home of an 84-year-old voter to try to catch the culprit.


''These are very serious allegations that could affect the outcome of an election,'' Garcia said. ``It is disturbing that in a win-at-any-cost election the congressman's campaign may be resorting to breaking the law.''

But the mystery only deepened after one complaining voter's ballot arrived at the elections office on Thursday, apparently unmolested.

The Diaz-Balart campaign denies collecting ballots and says it has no knowledge of any callers posing as the Martinez camp.

''What you are telling me is completely ludicrous. I denounce it under the strongest terms,'' said Ana Carbonell, Diaz-Balart's campaign manager. ``If someone is doing that, that's not authorized.''

Miami-Dade voters are supposed to deliver absentee ballots by mail or in person not through surrogates. Under a county ordinance, a third party can deliver only two ballots, and then only with a voter's permission and a note from the voter's doctor.

But Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino said there's nothing preventing campaigns from collecting ballots and mailing them in.

The three voters said they first spoke with a woman at a phone number that belongs to Sasha Tirador, a subcontractor who manages a phone bank operation for David Custin, a Diaz-Balart political consultant.

Tirador denied collecting ballots or posing as the Martinez campaign.

Carbonell said the phone bank is only supposed to encourage absentee voters to choose Diaz-Balart.

One of the complaining voters, 47-year-old Irene Perez, said she turned over her ballot to Juan after being contacted by a woman named Aliosha Castro who had called Perez about voting absentee in the past.

A man named Aliosha Castro works with Tirador on the campaign, Custin said, and records show he is her partner in a car-wash business. Castro could not be reached for comment.


On Monday, a Herald reporter listened and observed as a Martinez volunteer called Tirador's office. The voice on the other end said more than once that it was Martinez's office not Diaz-Balart's.

The Martinez camp then tried to set a trap after a supporter reported receiving a similar phone call from the same phone number.

Martinez's wife, Angela, hid in the bedroom of 84-year-old Clara Suarez and Garcia stood outside with a video camera when a man came to Suarez's Hialeah apartment following the call.

But Suarez whose niece is Martinez's longtime secretary said the caller she spoke with identified herself with the Diaz-Balart campaign, and the caller sent the man to bring stamps for her ballot, not to take it.

Custin said he doesn't believe Tirador's phone bank has done anything wrong, but he said he would look into the allegations. ''Nobody not on my watch goes and takes a ballot,'' he said.

In automated calls, Diaz-Balart has urged voters to put their absentee ballots in the mail and warned them not to give their ballots to anyone.

The ballots for Hernandez and his roommate, Felipa Gonzalez, have not been turned in. But they have not lost their votes: Angela Martinez said she drove Hernandez and Gonzalez to the polls herself to vote early.

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