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The petition drive aimed at repealing Miami-Dade County's human-rights ordinance, which protects homosexuals from discrimination, is a time bomb capable of ripping apart the community if it is certified by county elections officials. So say members of SAVE Dade, the nonprofit political organization that worked for passage of the ordinance two years ago. With that threat in mind, volunteers are determinedly trying to defuse it before it can explode.
About 150 SAVE Dade members have been poring over 10,000 pages of signatures collected by Take Back Miami-Dade, the group that organized the petition drive. According to spokesmen for SAVE Dade (Safeguarding American Values for Everyone), the results are disturbing. The petition forms, they assert, are riddled with discrepancies serious enough to merit criminal charges. Thousands of irregularities -- from allegedly forged signatures to fraudulent notarizations to duplicate names -- raise suspicions about Take Back Miami-Dade's tactics. "We did not expect to find anything close to what we found," says Jerome Baker, a SAVE Dade spokesman. "When you add it all up, I'm telling you it stinks."
Eladio Armesto-Garcia, chairman of Take Back Miami-Dade and a former Republican state representative, admits to errors but scoffs at the suggestion of criminal intent. Petition circulators, he says, did not ask those who signed to show voter identification cards, nor did they check driver licenses to verify identities. They were in no position to authenticate identification or determine whether someone had signed more than once. "People who signed at the Orange Bowl may have forgotten that they also signed at church," Armesto-Garcia speculates. "After all, we're humans, not machines."
SAVE Dade leaders are not persuaded. The exceptionally large number of alleged errors, and their persistence throughout the tens of thousands of collected signatures, has led them to believe that petition circulators knowingly committed fraud in an effort to pad the petition and reach the minimum number needed for a referendum. In fact the organization is asking that the State Attorney's Office launch a criminal investigation of Take Back Miami-Dade and its petition drive. "We just want to make sure the process was fair," says Jorge Mursuli, chairman of SAVE Dade. "We know that mistakes are made, but how do you explain the trends that are starting to show, and the high rate of discrepancies?"
Among the questions raised by SAVE Dade's examination:
•As volunteers were checking signatures against those on file with the elections department, they discovered that as many as 1400 people had signed the petition more than once, sometimes employing noticeably different handwriting. Among the duplicates was Armesto-Garcia's son Eladio José Armesto, who along with his wife, Rosa, signed twice, two days apart.
•Take Back Miami-Dade filed entire pages of voters' names that also appeared on other signature sheets in a different order.
•At the bottom of at least 800 petition pages, where circulators are supposed to certify they witnessed each signature, SAVE Dade found evidence that dates had been changed to match actual collection dates, implying that circulators had "certified" pages before gathering signatures.
•In repeated instances clusters of names were all signed using the same handwriting.
•Some notaries allegedly certified their own petition signatures, an apparent violation of state election laws.
•Some petition circulators themselves signed multiple times, another apparent violation of state laws.
SAVE Dade contends that organizers of the petition drive violated a number of Florida Statutes that govern elections, one of them being FS 104.185, which deems it a crime "if a person signs another person's name or a fictitious name to any petition to secure ballot position for a candidate, minor political party, or an issue." Says Miami lawyer Alicia Apfel, who has been assisting in the examination of Take Back Miami-Dade's petition drive: "Basically they are cheating every voter in the county. They ought to be ashamed of themselves."
Armesto-Garcia counters that his group has nothing to hide and welcomes a full inquiry. "They can do what they like. We have done nothing wrong," he declares. "Everything is fine and dandy -- nothing bad has been done."
Take Back Miami-Dade aims to repeal the county's human-rights ordinance, which commissioners amended in December 1998 by adding "sexual orientation" to existing laws prohibiting discrimination based on age, race, religion, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, family status, or disability. The group wants voters -- not county commissioners -- to decide whether the measure should include protection of gays and lesbians. If the county validates 34,991 signatures (four percent of registered Miami-Dade County voters), the question could appear on the next countywide ballot.
Hundreds of Take Back Miami-Dade supporters canvassed polling places last November 7 wearing T-shirts that read, "Save the Boy Scouts tradition," an apparent effort to link the county's human-rights ordinance with the Boy Scouts' policy of barring homosexuals. The petition gatherers included Cuban exiles in Hialeah and well-to-do Coral Gables retirees as well as farmers from Homestead.
Although SAVE Dade observers stood shoulder to shoulder with the petition circulators, encouraging voters not to sign, the conservative Take Back Miami-Dade group appeared to be successful. By December 1 they had gathered more than 51,000 signatures, which they wheeled into the county clerk's office just minutes before the deadline.
After SAVE Dade challenged the validity of the petition, county election officials examined 200 signatures in two samplings. The results showed that 67 individuals either were not registered voters (a requirement for petition-signers) or their signatures did not match the handwriting sample the county maintains for every voter. In the opinion of elections supervisor David Leahy, that was enough to warrant an examination of all 51,000 signatures.
The Miami Herald, however, contacted a number of people whose signatures had been disqualified for handwriting discrepancies and discovered that some of them had indeed signed the petition. Take Back Miami-Dade leaders later produced 23 affidavits from voters who said they had signed; the group's leaders demanded that the valid signatures be reinstated. Leahy forwarded the issue to the County Attorney's Office for review. If the signatures are reinstated, the petition could be certified.
Leahy says he does not expect to hear from the County Attorney until late this week, but regardless of the legal advice he receives, he does not expect the matter to be settled with his decision. "Whether it's certified good or bad," he predicts, "it's going to end up in court."
Leahy acknowledges that he alerted law-enforcement authorities after finding some of the same problems SAVE Dade discovered. "I don't know if they are all violations," he says, "but there are certainly things that look like they might be." Prosecutors at the State Attorney's Office confirm that they, along with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, are investigating the petition. "We're taking a serious look at all the allegations," says Joe Centorino, head of the office's public-corruption unit. "We are certainly reviewing all the documents in connection with it." He would not elaborate on the inquiry except to note that investigators recently met with SAVE Dade representatives to review their findings.
While criminal charges against Take Back Miami-Dade and its leaders may be a remote possibility, SAVE Dade's Jorge Mursuli vows a vigorous pursuit of the fraud allegations. "We are not going to go home without a clear explanation of what happened," he assures. "We are not going to walk away from someone who hurts our community and breaks the law. We are going to be the biggest pains in the butts in the county."
Eladio Armesto-Garcia remains unfazed. "They are using the courts for a frivolous cause," he says. "The real McCoy is they don't want the issue to go to an election. They want to keep the people out of it."