How a former FBI agent with a yen for computers became one of the most powerful men in Miami

The alliance disbanded after the 1993 ballot. A lawsuit filed by Unified Developers Inc., a group owned by builder Mario Ferro, contributed to the alliance's demise. It accused members of spreading rumors to damage Ferro's reputation and even claimed they threatened after a city council meeting to harm Ferro's son Mario Jr. (Cochran's wife, Lynea, was named in the suit. Cochran was not.) When the alliance disbanded, the suit was dismissed.

The setback did not dissuade Cochran from further political involvement. He helped document absentee ballot fraud in Hialeah's 1993 mayoral race. Loser Nilo Juri filed a lawsuit two weeks after the November election claiming Martinez, the incumbent, had benefited from the shenanigans. He wanted a new election. Juri learned that many of the bad ballots were cast at adult congregate living facilities (ACLFs). More than 50 came from voters who could barely remember their names.

Juri's camp consulted Cochran. "I was doubtful. You hear [about cheating] after every election," Cochran says. "But after reviewing the ballots, [I realized] something was wrong." Cochran helped educate campaign workers about the evidence needed to prove malfeasance. Although the federal agent's public role in the scandal was limited by the nature of his job, Juri campaign workers deemed his help essential. "[Cochran] had a huge role that was never made public," explains a former Juri volunteer, who declined to give his name. "He felt that it necessitated scrutiny." Later, the Miami Herald, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the Dade State Attorney's Office performed their own inquiries. In 1994 Dade Circuit Judge Sidney Shapiro ruled that overzealous campaign workers on both sides corrupted the absentee voting process and ordered a new election. Juri lost again.

Cochran's wife, Lynea, is also a partner in his business ventures
Steve Satterwhite
Cochran's wife, Lynea, is also a partner in his business ventures
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo (left) credits the retired agent with his return to office
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo (left) credits the retired agent with his return to office

In 1996 Cochran retired from the FBI and chose politics as a second career.

It's November 11, 1997. E-day in the city of Miami. Residents are choosing between Joe Carollo and Xavier Suarez in a runoff election. The winner will preside over a new era of centralized power. The first executive mayor will be able to hire and fire the city manager, veto commission votes, and preside over meetings.

In the midst of Carollo's get-out-the-vote drive, his political consultant Al Lorenzo invites Cochran to visit campaign headquarters. The former FBI agent arrives around lunchtime. A few minutes later Carollo drops by and invites Cochran to join him in a precinct-to-precinct blitz. Inside the mayor's black Lincoln Town Car, they find time to chat about family, politics, and law enforcement. Carollo mentions that he suspects some absentee ballots cast in the primary election were fraudulent. Cochran files the comment in his memory.

In the end Suarez won by 300 votes. About twelve hours after the polls closed, Lorenzo called Cochran, requesting information on the Hialeah vote-fraud case. Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, whom Carollo had hired to look into the affair, then offered Cochran $2000 to work on the case. Retired FBI agents average about $100 per hour for private detective work, yet Cochran took on the job. He felt it was his civic duty.

Cochran joined a team of lawyers who were examining absentee ballots at the elections office. They were finding irregularities. A woman named Lili Arce witnessed 25 votes, far more than usual. Eighteen people with no apparent relation to each other listed the same single-family house in Little Havana as their home address. Signatures on some ballots did not seem to match those on file at the elections office. The discoveries were interesting, but not nearly enough to overturn the election. On the Sunday following the election, Cochran joined about ten lawyers and campaign workers at the home of attorney Carlos Desias to discuss the findings. Carollo and Coffey were absent. The group divided into three teams to talk to thirty-six voters whose ballots appeared suspicious. It was a fruitful endeavor. One-quarter of them reported problems. Some said they had never voted. Others asserted they had not ordered ballots, yet the documents appeared in their mailboxes.

Carollo and his lieutenants decided to continue the court challenge. "Coffey said there was no more money," Cochran recalls. "I said I would donate as much time as needed."

The Herald had already reported some clear signs of election malfeasance, like the fact that a dead voter named Manuel Yip had cast a ballot in the election. But the method and magnitude of the problem was still unclear. It fell upon Cochran to prove that at least 100 ballots -- the amount necessary to nullify the election -- were fraudulent. He had three months before the assigned trial date. About fifteen volunteers went to work. "Hugh [Cochran] was the chief of staff for the investigation," Carollo recalls.

Cochran began the inquiry by creating a database of all voters who had cast absentee ballots. Then he compared the names to a list of all the county's registered voters and found a trend. Many had changed their addresses from locations outside Miami to listings within the municipality. The majority listed addresses in the district of City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez. Cochran found more than 900 suspicious ballots. He whittled that number to 300 by focusing on ones with multiple problems.

Next Cochran sent volunteers to the dubious addresses. "Did you vote absentee?" they asked the resident. "Did you request the ballot yourself?" "Were you paid for your vote?" If the purported voter did not live at the address listed on the ballot, they set out to locate the true residence. Cochran says he spent eight weeks working long days to collect the evidence. He analyzed it first on a computer at Carollo's house, then on his home machine. Meanwhile handwriting expert Linda Hart identified 50 fake signatures. By the time of the trial, the vote-fraud team had uncovered 150 undeniably faked ballots. "It was the most important investigation I have ever worked on, including my work in the FBI," Cochran comments. "That investigation had the biggest impact on the largest number of people."

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