X Mayor

Legal experts and insider politicos agree: Voter fraud will soon force Xavier Suarez from office. Then What?

"I can tell you I walked the Three Kings parade with him," recalls Commissioner Hernandez, a Suarez ally. "I was very impressed by the way he was treated. He has the support of the people, and he's out there on the street every day. The other, former mayor [Carollo], is in his bunker. No one's even fucking seen the guy. He's not marching in the parades. He's not on TV. People are going to say, 'Where have you been the last 60 days?'"

Hernandez's support for Suarez is understandable; the commission chairman is a confirmed Carollo enemy who provided the boost Suarez needed to defeat Carollo in the runoff. (And in the process brought himself under equally intense scrutiny in the absentee ballot fraud investigation.)

But even those in Carollo's corner raise concerns about the former mayor's disappearance from the public eye. "Why don't we see him?" asks Commissioner Regalado, a radio commentator. "That's the question in Little Havana. That's what I hear from the people I talk to every day on my program. Why is he not coming out? Why doesn't he respond to telephone calls? Why doesn't he answer letters?"

Joe Carollo doesn't want to talk about the imminent court hearing. In fact, he doesn't want to talk about much of anything these days. At least not to the press. Just getting him on the phone required labored negotiations with his two attorneys, Kendall Coffey and Dade County Democratic Party chairman Joe Geller.

Why is the former mayor keeping such a low profile? "First of all, I'm putting all my time into the upcoming case," he explains, "in order for us to be successful, to win that case. That's what I need to be doing." And second of all? Carollo won't elaborate. He fears that any comments he makes to a reporter could anger the judge. Public appearances could give the impression of grandstanding, he worries.

Like Xavier Suarez, Carollo brags that he sleeps only a few hours each night. As soon as he awakens, he begins pouring over documents and ballots amassed at his Coconut Grove home and elsewhere, searching for the inconsistencies and patterns that could substantiate his voter fraud claim against Suarez.

His investigation resembles the one conducted by the Herald, though the newspaper has greater resources than does his small team of volunteers. Both parties are asking the same questions: Does this voter live in the city? Is that signature authentic? How many ballots did this particular person witness?

Former FBI agent Hugh Cochran quarterbacks Carollo's actual investigation, directing the team of field workers who physically track down voters to see if they live within city limits. (Cochran will likely testify at the hearing as an expert witness.) Documents expert Linda Hart analyzes ballot signatures; just one week after the November primary, she claimed in court documents to have found at least 197 suspicious ballots out of 895 examined. Overall, 4740 absentee ballots were cast in the primary.

Further help comes from Charles Intriago, the publisher of a respected national newsletter on money laundering and a friend and neighbor of Carollo. Intriago has been working the press, writing a Herald op-ed column, and encouraging 60 Minutes to undertake a story about Suarez. (Reporter Steve Kroft interviewed Suarez, Warshaw, and Hernandez last week.) "It's a small little army of dedicated people," Carollo says.

Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney, leads the legal team. He labors for free out of loyalty to Carollo, who gave him work with the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority after Coffey lost his previous job in a well-publicized strip club scandal. Along with Geller, he's hashed out a legal strategy that he hopes will return Carollo to office. "If we are right, then the wrong person is serving as mayor," Coffey explains. "We believe that the core remedy called for is a declaration that Carollo is the mayor, based on the machine count. That is overwhelmingly the remedy that is specified in successful absentee ballot challenges in Florida."

In a 1978 school board election in Liberty County, Florida, challenger Harrel Bolden won the machine count by eighteen votes but lost the election after his opponent clobbered him in absentee ballots by a two-to-one margin. Bolden proved in court that between 10 and 30 percent of the 381 absentee voters had sold their vote. Six years -- and numerous appeals -- later, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that Bolden's opponent had won unfairly and should be removed from office.

"When substantial fraudulent vote-buying practices are clearly shown to have been involved, the election must be declared void," Florida Supreme Court Justice Ben Overton wrote for the majority. "Failure to do so will cause the electorate to lose confidence in the electoral process, destroy the willingness of individuals to participate, and thereby allow our government to be controlled by corrupt influences."

That's the case law. If Judge Thomas determines that voter fraud has occurred, and if he bases his ruling strictly on the supreme court precedent, he will undoubtedly throw Suarez out of office and reinstate Carollo.

But at least one impartial lawyer has a problem with that scenario. "To remove an officeholder by court fiat really disenfranchises those good people who legitimately voted," argues Thomas Spencer, a Miami attorney. Spencer is particularly qualified to render an opinion. He represented Nilo Juri, the losing candidate in a Hialeah mayoral election also tainted by absentee ballot fraud. The similarities between his case and Carollo's are striking.

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