Fraud Buster!

Want to know what makes Miami's mayor really mad? Voter fraud, that's what.

Probationary Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez loves to churn out initiatives. First came a five-point plan to clean up and beautify Miami. Then a proposal to light up Flagler Street. This week he is scheduled to debut his monthly "Faith in the City" prayer meetings. Leaders of several local churches have been asked to gather at city hall on January 8 for nondenominational prayers. "We'll have them say things like, 'Lord, bless the city; Lord, help the holders of different elective offices, and Lord, help the mayor,'" explains Rev. Josue Morales, a minister at the House of Praise in Little Havana and the mayor's liaison with Miami's religious community.

During an interview last week, Suarez revealed an even newer proposal: combatting voter fraud. "Voting is the most important right in a democracy," he proclaimed. "Certainly it's a civil right. We need to protect civil rights."

Some city hall observers might consider this latest initiative to be odd, especially in light of Suarez's close association with an ongoing criminal investigation into -- well, voter fraud. As is now well-known, Suarez (along with Commissioner Humberto Hernandez) collected absentee-ballot votes in the November election from people who live outside the City of Miami and from at least one person who doesn't live at all: Manuel Yip, four years dead.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators have already arrested Suarez campaign volunteer Miguel Amador because he allegedly offered to buy three absentee ballots from undercover agents. The Dade State Attorney's Office has convened a grand jury to look into the issue.

Defiantly, Suarez has fought the fraud charges since they surfaced after the November 4 election, when he clobbered then-Mayor Joe Carollo in the absentee vote. Soon after taking office, Suarez announced on Spanish-language radio his plans to create an investigative panel to probe voting impropriety and charges that FDLE agents entrapped Amador. "They prepared the evidence to alter the political process," the Miami Herald quoted the mayor as saying during his November 19 appearance on WQBA-AM (1140). "[Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor David Leahy] will respond verbally in front of the mikes in the commission chambers before an audience headed by the chairman of the commission, Mr. Humberto Hernandez, who is doing a wonderful job."

Suarez, in a November 21 letter to the Herald, denied appointing Hernandez to lead the investigation. "I am indeed going to initiate such a probe," the mayor wrote. "However, to the contrary of today's article, I intend to chair the commission investigation and not to delegate that power to anyone."

That would surprise Hernandez, who as recently as last week believed he had in fact been tapped to lead the investigation. "He appointed me," Hernandez declared flatly during a commission meeting recess. "But I've been so busy I think I need to pass the baton on that one -- maybe hand the investigation over to another commissioner." (If Hernandez is busy now, he'll likely be very busy in a few months as he prepares to defend himself against 23 felony charges of bank fraud and money laundering brought against him by the federal government. If convicted of all counts, he would face penalties of ten to twenty years in prison and at least $250,000 in fines, and he would be required to forfeit up to ten million dollars in personal assets, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.)

Suarez too seems to have lost enthusiasm for the investigative panel, which he now says he has no immediate plans to convene. "The truth is, I have not done anything in regard to that," Suarez said last week. "At some point I am going to do an investigation. Then again, I may not do an investigation."

In the meantime, he's turned his attention to an upcoming State Senate inquiry. To be conducted by Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Palm Harbor), a subcommittee "is charged with coming up with recommendations for the future and how we can change state law to prevent absentee-ballot abuse," Latvala elaborates. Suarez plans to use the hearing to unveil his new, three-point voter-fraud initiative. "I'm going to turn the tables by suggesting ways in which we can go in the opposite direction, by suggesting ways we can secure more ballots rather than disqualify more ballots," the mayor says. "It's a neat idea on that. To me, that's the way we should be going. We should not be trying to make it more difficult."

While Carollo tries to disqualify at least 155 absentee ballots (the margin by which Suarez eked into the runoff), Suarez is countering by trying to requalify some of the 321 absentee ballots rejected -- and so never counted -- by Miami City Clerk Walter Foeman. "We're going to take [the rejected ballots] and compare them and talk to the people who voted in that fashion in an attempt to revalidate the original ones," Suarez reports. "It's an interesting twist."

Foeman disqualifies ballots if they're not signed, if they lack an address, or if the signature fails to match the signature on file with the county elections office. "We scrutinize every ballot one by one," Foeman insists. "We look at the extenuating circumstances, such as the natural evolution of a person's signature over time. We don't want to disenfranchise anyone."

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