In Hialeah Every Vote Counts

Especially if you're elderly and live in the city's public housing

Growing up in Hialeah, Adriana Narvaez was surrounded by the political myths of the self-contained town and the curiously unassailable powers of its charismatic mayor, Raul Martinez. At age 29 Narvaez and two other young novices were persuaded by a handful of disgruntled businessmen to run for a city council seat against Martinez's hand-picked slate of chummy yes-men. One graduate student, one first-grade school teacher, and one lawyer, las tres muchachitas, as they were sometimes derisively called, were all in their twenties, sweet-faced, and earnest. Against three incumbents backed by Martinez, few thought they had a chance.

But on November 4 all three garnered more votes at the precincts than their opponents. One of them won outright and one was victorious in a runoff, but Narvaez ultimately lost when a landslide of absentee ballots kept Eduardo Gonzalez in his council seat. "That night, when the results came in, I was looking at the screen," Narvaez recalls. "I was looking at the absentees and the precincts and it didn't make sense. I said, 'Something doesn't feel right.'" She turned to Ceferino Machado, one of the disgruntled bankrollers of the three campaigns. For weeks they'd heard that her opponent's allies were collecting a lot of absentee ballots in the city's dozen or so public-housing complexes, while the Hialeah Housing Authority (HHA) prohibited the three upstarts from knocking on doors at any of the buildings. Machado already had his cell phone out, dialing attorney Michael Pizzi's number. "Can you help her?" he pleaded with Pizzi.

Pizzi, an almost pathologically energetic Brooklyn native known for taking charity cases, was reluctant, but he agreed to meet Narvaez anyway. He started to make a few phone calls and examined the absentee ballots. Something immediately became clear, Pizzi says. The proportion of absentee ballots to precinct ballots didn't fit the usual pattern. Normally, he explains, absentee ballots make up ten to fifteen percent of the total votes. In this case it was more than 30 percent. "And everyone on the Martinez card got 70 percent of the absentee votes, while each of the girls got over 50 percent of the precinct votes," he says. "That's extraordinary. That can't be explained by chance -- or even chance and good organization."

So Pizzi filed a lawsuit on Narvaez's behalf, alleging that city leaders coerced residents of public housing to vote absentee for the three incumbents. (Council candidates run citywide.) As part of the strategy, the suit alleges, HHA director Alex Morales campaigned for Martinez-backed candidates and used his employees to collect absentee ballots from public-housing residents. The charge is nothing new. In past elections candidates outside the Martinez political family have accused HHA officials of using public housing as a vote factory.

Morales, a roly-poly former Hialeah councilman with close ties to Martinez, admits to campaigning, but only on his own time. He says his employees were not told to aid the campaigns. "It never happened!" he rages. "I'd have to be nuts to do that. That guy [Pizzi] is whacked. He's mean, vile, and wicked." In Morales's opinion, Narvaez is a sore loser and Pizzi is seeking name recognition in his bid to topple Katherine Fernandez Rundle from her State Attorney's perch next year. "I took time off," Morales allows. "If he doesn't like it, tough titties. I'm being defamed by a person who is a piece of shit."

Back in his Brickell Avenue lair, Pizzi set out to prove what he suspected. He hired handwriting expert Linda Hart, well known locally for her analysis in the City of Miami absentee-ballot-fraud case from the 1997 mayoral election. Her initial analysis of more than 400 Hialeah ballots showed that a handful of people were filling out the names and addresses on hundreds of absentee ballots, then having voters sign the ballots. These operatives included Alfredo Llamedo, an aide to councilman Esteban Bovo, and Zoe Prieto, sister of Eduardo Gonzalez. Not illegal, but indicative of a political machine at work. Also it was apparent that some of the absentee ballots had not been sealed until after witnesses signed the envelopes. "It opens the process to tampering," Pizzi complains, noting that workers picked up the ballots and took them to the campaign headquarters shared by all three incumbents before mailing them to the county elections department.

Pizzi also sent experienced private investigators to talk to people in the public housing-projects, plus employees at HHA and ex-campaign workers. One of the investigators, Joe Carrillo, says nearly a hundred people had been interviewed as of last week. About half of them were willing to sign statements attesting to their experience, although only a fraction of those indicate possible elections violations.

One 75-year-old woman who lives in an HHA building signed a statement that she had never voted absentee before Yadelkis Ponce, wife of candidate Julio Ponce, filled out the application for her. (Yadelkis was also the former manager of the elderly woman's apartment building, and Julio was a former HHA board chairman.) She said Mrs. Ponce then came to pick up the ballot after it was mailed to her, and told her to vote for the three incumbents, which she did because "tenía miedo que si no votaba por ellos, podía sufrir consequencias." She feared that if she didn't vote for the men, she would suffer consequences.

Significantly the woman also claimed she didn't know who witnessed her ballot, because Ponce allegedly left with it unsigned and unsealed. Yet the ballot made it to the elections department anyway, witnessed by another woman who lives in a different building. Carrillo and another investigator interviewed this woman as well. She wouldn't sign a statement, so Carrillo had his own notes notarized. According to Carrillo, the woman told him she was working with Yadelkis Ponce on the triple campaign. One day Ponce stopped at a building to pick up a ballot. She brought it back to the car and had this woman sign it as a witness, even though she had not been present when the voter signed. If true, that would be a felony. (Yadelkis Ponce denies the allegation. "I don't know what they're talking about," she says. "I didn't do that with anybody." She also denies instructing residents how to vote: "They know me and they know my husband. I'm a personal friend. If they voted for him, it was because of that.")

Last week a man who lives in public housing on West Twelfth Avenue provided an affidavit stating that he was approached by a man and a woman who asked him to vote absentee instead of going to the precinct as usual. They got him an application and came back to collect the ballot. "The man indicated where I should mark my vote," the elderly gentleman recalled in Spanish. "I didn't know for whom to vote." The voter marked his choices: "Aparentemente, marqué mal porque el hombre me dijo, 'Ese no.' Entonces le dijo a la mujer: 'Perdimos a Gonzalez.'" Translation: "Apparently I voted wrong because the man said, 'Not that one.' Then the woman said to him: "We lost Gonzalez."

Most of what the Pizzi's team has uncovered dances on the edge of legality. Many of the people they've talked to say that operatives such as Llamedo, wearing a shirt with a city logo, would ask them to vote absentee even if they usually went to the polls. Then they would come back to pick up the ballot, sometimes advising residents to vote for the incumbents. Alex Morales counters that Pizzi's investigators harass and intimidate his residents with threats of bringing in the authorities if they don't tell them what they want to know.

Several sources told investigators that Morales and the HHA were key influences upon the campaigns. One volunteer recalled an old political operative nicknamed Tio instructing workers to collect ballots from "cross-eyed, blind, mute, deaf, and paralyzed" people. Other volunteers described boxes of absentee ballots arriving for storage in the back office of the headquarters and hearing at least one candidate and an operative mention that it was common practice to throw out opened ballots they didn't like.

These tantalizing allegations are hardly proof of widespread election fraud, but they do suggest that the matter deserves further investigation. "Whereas the City of Miami fraud was like the Keystone Cops, this is harder to prove because it's not names taken off gravestones," Pizzi concedes. "But it's a lot scarier because it involves coercion and intimidation of vulnerable people that's condoned by the people in power."

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