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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Bracing for an Election Day scandal in South Florida is like preparing for a hurricane. You know one is coming, but you can't predict the damage. The 2000 recount was a Category 4. When hundreds of votes were mistakenly not counted five years later during a special election, it was maybe a Category 1. Then there was 1998, when dead voters cast ballots and a judge overturned the results of Miami's mayoral race, ruling that a "well-orchestrated absentee ballot fraud scheme" had given Xavier Suarez victory. An appeals court installed his opponent, Joe Carollo.
One person who understands election-related fraud with the precision of a Max Mayfield storm forecast is Nilo Juri, a Cuban-American former state legislator who has lost in five attempts to become Hialeah mayor, including a 1993 contest tainted by fake absentee ballots. Over the past two decades, Juri has accused his rivals of committing voter fraud and confronted allegations that he too broke election campaign laws.
The 59-year-old textile consultant is scheduled to go on trial November 17 on 10 felony counts for allegedly reimbursing six individuals, including his daughter Roxana Juri-Bermudez, with cash for bogus campaign contributions in a 2004 county commission race.
During a recent interview at his two-story townhouse in west Hialeah, Juri maintains his innocence, insisting he is a victim of his enemies' machinations. "When you run against a powerful political machine," he says, "you have to contend with rampant absentee ballot abuse and you also risk being investigated for crimes you didn't commit."
A tall man with a jet-black pompadour and thick mustache, Juri has figured prominently in Hialeah politics since 1985, when he backed several candidates for city council. His longtime rival is Raul Martinez, a fellow Cuban-American who is running for U.S. Congress against incumbent Lincoln Diaz-Balart. During 24 years as Hialeah mayor, Martinez was re-elected eight times. He beat Juri in four of those competitions — including the epic 1993 battle, decided by a scant 273 votes. (Juri ran a fifth time in 2005, losing to Martinez protégé Julio Robaina.)
In 1993, Juri won the votes cast at the polls by 51 to 49 percent. But Hialeah's mayor-for-life trounced Juri in absentee ballots cast, 70 to 30 percent. "I found that strange," Juri recalls. "So we started reviewing the absentee ballots and discovered that some of the signatures didn't match what was on record with the county clerk's office."
A year later, Juri contested the results in civil court. He didn't score the outcome he wanted. Circuit Court Judge Sidney Shapiro ruled both sides had participated in absentee ballot tampering and ordered a new election, which Martinez won decisively. A subsequent criminal investigation led to the arrest of Juri campaign volunteer Caridad Alonso, who confessed to forging voter signatures on more than 20 ballots in the runoff. She pleaded guilty to two felony counts and received six months' probation.
Juri claims he did not know Alonso had committed fraud, noting she had worked for Salvatore D'Angelo, another mayoral candidate, before coming to his campaign. "It was D'Angelo's people who were at fault," he insists.
In the upcoming election, the potential for rampant absentee ballot fraud is still there, Juri opines, pointing to what happened in the 2003 city elections. That year graduate student Adriana Narvaez beat city councilman Eduardo Gonzalez at the precincts. However, she lost the election when a landslide of absentee ballots secured Gonzalez's victory. Normally absentee ballots make up 10 to 15 percent of the total votes in an election. In Gonzalez's case, it was more than 30 percent.
Narvaez accused Gonzalez's volunteers of committing voter fraud, and a criminal investigation ensued, but no one was ever charged after state law was amended to relax absentee ballot collection rules.
"I can guarantee [absentee ballot tampering] will happen in Hialeah," Juri says. "I've already received calls from friends that [Mayor] Robaina's people are already working the Section 8 buildings for Raul." Martinez declined to comment, but Robaina denies Hialeah is ballot fraud central. "Ridiculous," he says, adding he has remained neutral in the congressional race. "If [Juri] has any proof ... he should bring it forward."
Juri suggests the only way to avoid absentee ballot fraud is to pass laws with stiff prison sentences for anyone caught tampering with absentee ballots.
He should know. Eight years after his absentee voter scandal, Juri found himself in the eye of another election maelstrom. Based on a tip from Martinez ally and county commissioner Natacha Seijas, public corruption detectives learned that Juri had persuaded his daughter and five others to contribute to the campaign of commission candidate Jorge Roque, who was challenging Seijas at the time.
In August 2004, they nailed him with five felony counts of breaking campaign finance laws and four other felonies, including grand theft and perjury, as well as a misdemeanor. Prosecutors say he coerced some of the witnesses to lie to investigators and helped Roque qualify for public campaign financial assistance by obtaining the donations to match taxpayer funding provided by the county.
Juri is sure a jury will clear him. "I'm innocent," he says.
Bogus or not, this sort of scandal would be impossible today, Juri says. For one, the county no longer provides financial assistance to candidates for office. Also, at least in the Hialeah city elections, all candidates are running unopposed, so fundraising is not a factor.
In Martinez's race against Diaz-Balart, campaign bundling is more sophisticated. Donors who give to federal campaigns are generally more careful about how they raise money for candidates, Juri says. "The bigger the election and the more territory a candidate has to cover, the harder it is to control any shenanigans," he says.
Even if authorities catch bad guys, prosecution can be subjective. To prove this, Juri says he has followed up on a 2004 New Times article about $40,000 in shady campaign donations from Puerto Rico to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. He learned that much of the money came from just a few addresses and that some of those were defunct.
And when Juri's investigation caught the attention of Joe Centorino, chief of the state attorney's public corruption division, he responded with a harsh letter. "This appears to be an attempt," Centorino wrote this past September 26, "to intimidate the chief executive officer of the prosecutorial office handling this case by harassing innocent parties who happened to make lawful contributions to her campaign."
Juri says he is perplexed by Centorino's correspondence. "It looks like he is trying to cover up something," he affirms. "Why else would he try and stop me from obtaining information every citizen is entitled to?"
State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith says the SAO received calls asking if Juri was conducting an official investigation. "We clearly felt [the letter] was directly related to his criminal prosecution," Griffith says.
Juri argues he planned to use the information for a book he wants to write about Miami-Dade politics: "It's going to ... let people know how the system works and show them the selective prosecution and favoritism."