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Rodrigo Garcia sits on a bench outside Evelyn Holland Hall, a pleasant clay-colored apartment building on East First Avenue in Hialeah. Though it's still several weeks before the November 3 election, the slender, fair-skinned 67-year-old has already made his decision.
A half-dozen campaigners have come to his door, and he has refused every one.
"They've offered to take my absentee ballot," Garcia says in a Cuban-flavored Spanish baritone. "But I told them I like to go to the polls. I don't want anyone messing with my vote."
Garcia has good reason for caution. The Hialeah Housing Authority (HHA), which owns his building, has been at the center of some of South Florida's worst Election Day controversies in the past few decades. Candidates and their lackeys have at times squeezed the approximately 8,000 adults who live in HHA-subsidized units for votes in ways that have raised the suspicions of lawmen and ethics cops.
This year's election includes a potential conflict of interest that could swing things toward Mayor Julio Robaina and his slate of candidates. HHA board chairman Julio Ponce, a Hialeah businessman, is campaigning aggressively for Robaina and his minion, council hopeful Katharine Cue. Indeed, HHA director Alex Morales told Miami New Times the board chairman has asked him "to do things I don't believe I should be doing." He declined to comment further.
Responds Ponce: "I am just a volunteer. And I am not raising money for the candidates."
The rotund 46-year-old Jersey City native moved to La Ciudad Que Progresa in 1983. A real estate and mortgage broker, Ponce has been a major player in Hialeah politics since 1995, when Robaina — then an unelected city power broker — sponsored his appointment as the unpaid chairman of the HHA board. At the time, the men were business partners in a company called Realty U.S.A. Group. "We've been friends for over 20 years," says Ponce, who declined to elaborate on his business dealings with Robaina.
Overseeing the HHA was a political hot seat. In the mid '90s, a judge had ordered a new election after determining both the winner and loser in a mayoral contest had collected forged absentee ballots. The allegations even included the office of then-Miami-Dade State Attorney and later U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Many of the problems cropped up in HHA facilities.
In 1999, Ponce ran for a seat on the city council. That year, his opponent complained to the Miami-Dade elections office that Ponce, as HHA board chairman, had the ability to sway elderly voters who depended on the city for housing. At the time, some city housing complexes that served as voting precincts had plaques bearing Ponce's name and photo.
The opponent's request to move those precincts to other locations was rejected. Ponce says he entered public housing buildings only on "official business." He won the election and resigned as HHA board chairman.
Ponce lost his re-election bid in 2003 amid another corruption claim. Private investigator Joe Carrillo, working on behalf of a failed candidate, interviewed dozens of public housing residents who claimed Ponce's wife had intimidated them into voting for her man.
One affidavit signed by a 75-year-old woman alleged Yadelkis Ponce had improperly instructed her to vote for Ponce. She did because, she says, "I feared that if I didn't vote for [him], I'd suffer the consequences."
Carrillo, who has investigated other claims of political chicanery in Hialeah, says that was just the beginning for Yadelkis Ponce: "She also had people signing as witnesses to absentee ballots after the ballots had already been collected from the voters."
Yadelkis Ponce denied those allegations. A subsequent criminal investigation by a special state prosecutor (the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office recused itself) uncovered several irregularities in how absentee ballots were collected, but did not find enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime.
"In Hialeah, elections are won and lost with absentee ballots," Carrillo opines. "Whoever controls access to Hialeah Housing Authority residents gets elected."
For the next few years, Ponce dabbled in real estate. Public records show he and his wife bought a house in Hialeah in 2002 for $117,000, and a two-bedroom condo in Doral for $184,000 four years later. In 2008, they purchased a single-story, three-bedroom home in west Hialeah, where they now live. It is worth $388,000.
Ponce re-entered politics in a big way in January last year, forming a political action committee associated with Robaina. Called the Truth for Our Community, it opposed slot machines in Miami-Dade. The Hialeah mayor had campaigned against the referendum because it did not include the Hialeah Park Race Track. As PAC chairman, Ponce collected $370,900 from anti-gambling interests. The measure passed anyway. (Gambling has since been approved for Hialeah.)
Later in 2008, Ponce raised another $100,000 through the PAC to eliminate term limits for the Hialeah mayor and city council — another measure that was supported by Robaina. Nearly 56 percent of voters rejected it, but absentee ballot tallies soundly supported the changes.
After Councilman Esteban Bovo gave up his seat last November to join the state legislature, Ponce was considered the frontrunner to replace him, says former Mayor Raul Martinez. Instead, the city council appointed Cue — perhaps because she is 22 years old and thus potentially more malleable.