Miami Candidate's Campaign Workers Might Have Tampered With Absentee Ballots UPDATED

Alex Diaz de la Portilla / YouTube

An explosive, 150-page WhatsApp chat leaked to Miami New Times appears to show members of Miami-Dade County Commission District 5 candidate Alex Diaz de la Portilla's 2018 campaign team discussing destroying or stealing absentee ballots from voters who selected one of Diaz de la Portilla's opponents, Zoraida Barreiro.

In one message, a campaign worker posted an image of a ballot and joked it had been stolen. In another text, someone took a photo of a ballot and wrote, "Byebye." In a third message, someone instructed a campaign worker to "tear up the ballot good."

Diaz de la Portilla did not initially respond to messages from New Times this afternoon, including two left on his personal cell phone. He is currently running for City of Miami Commission.

But after this story was published, Diaz de la Portilla texted New Times and claimed the chat logs were not associated with him in any way.

"None of this is from my campaign or my campaign workers," he said. "Your article is libelous."

The WhatsApp chat, which includes names and multiple working phone numbers, began April 19, 2018. Whoever started the group named the thread "Alex Diaz de la Portilla." The candidate is referenced consistently throughout the discussion. The vast majority of the chat appears to show various campaign volunteers coordinating meeting points and canvassing plans throughout the county. Most of the file is mundane — the volunteers spent a lot of time discussing lunch plans, for example.

At one point in the thread — while the group was discussing voter outreach efforts — someone wrote, "Alex le gusto la estrategia," or "Alex liked the strategy." In a different section of the thread, the group repeatedly claims it's phone-banking on Diaz de la Portilla's behalf. One woman consistently says she's acting as a point person between Diaz de la Portilla and the group. (She did not respond to multiple phone calls and text messages today.) On a different day, someone else asked if any of the volunteers were able to stop by Diaz de la Portilla's office to help deal with some computer data.

A source with knowledge of the thread said the people involved, who are in most cases identified only by phone numbers, had been gathered by a local campaign consultant to canvass District 5, which stretches across Spanish-speaking parts of mainland Miami and onto Miami Beach. Like Diaz de la Portilla, multiple people in the text thread did not answer phone calls. New Times also asked the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office whether prosecutors are looking into the leaked images but did not receive a response.

On May 11, 2018, someone posted an image of a vote-by-mail ballot that had been sent to an address on NW First Street. The worker then wrote in Spanish: "Stolen, hahahaa. The lady gave it to us, but what do we do if she voted for Zoraida????"

New Times reached a woman at that phone number. When the woman was asked about the text thread, she hung up.
After the campaign worker posted the image above, someone responded that the volunteer should shred the document. A campaign worker proposed the ballot be taken to a local towing company. (New Times is not naming the towing company because its role in the matter is unclear and no response was immediately. Most of those involved in the thread are identified only by phone numbers, which are being withheld for privacy's sake.)

One of the campaign workers even suggested the document be concealed.
Person 1: Tear up the ballot and throw it away good.

Person 2: Are you sure?

Person 1: Take it to [NAME REDACTED].

Person 2: Take it better.

Person 3: She will know what to do.

Person 3: Okay, perfect!

Person 4: [Thumbs up and happy-face emojis]

Person 5: Take it to [TOWING COMPANY] at the end. Make sure that nobody sees it please.

Person 2: Nooo

Person 2: I already have it super hidden.

Person 5: [Thumbs-up emoji]

Person 2: Ready!

Person 2: Thank God we took away votes from two Democrats, hahaha

Below is a transcript of the WhatsApp thread with phone numbers blacked out by New Times.

Later in the thread, someone congratulated the volunteer by telling the person: "Good work."

In another photo from May 16, 2018, a worker texted the group an image of a ballot that had been checked off for Barreiro. The worker then wrote, "Byebye." (That volunteer did not respond to a call from New Times.)
After the volunteer posted the image, another member texted, "Eliminada." The volunteer then responded by simply writing, "Hahahaha."

In Florida, disposing of a ballot is illegal. Even the act of photographing a ballot is a first-degree misdemeanor. Florida Statute 104.20 states:
Any elector who, except as provided by law, allows his or her ballot to be seen by any person; takes or removes, or attempts to take or remove, any ballot from the polling place before the close of the polls; places any mark on his or her ballot by which it may be identified; endeavors to induce any elector to show how he or she voted; aids or attempts to aid any elector unlawfully; or prints or procures to be printed, or has in his or her possession, any copies of any ballot prepared to be voted is guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
Blogger Al Crespo first published some of the documents on his website over the weekend. In response, Zoraida Barreiro's husband, former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, expressed outrage.

"Proof they will do anything to steal an election!" he exclaimed on Facebook.
Diaz de la Portilla has a long history of alleged misdeeds: In 1994, his then-opponent in the Florida House of Representatives revealed that his driver's license had been suspended 16 times in 12 years. In 2001, the Florida Division of Elections fined him a whopping $311,000 after he allegedly violated election-reporting laws "several hundred times." (He was also charged with several misdemeanor crimes but maintained his innocence and was ultimately acquitted.) In 2010, he was accused of stalking his former spouse. In 2012, he was arrested in Boston after police said he was "belligerent" and refused to stop smoking cigarettes inside his hotel room.

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office is investigating Diaz de la Portilla and Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo after Carollo allegedly used public money to buy paella and other favors for one of Diaz de la Portilla's campaign events. According to the Miami Herald, Carollo's spending records showed he spent $3,702.72 in taxpayer funds on 525 servings of "farmer's paella" and other items for events at multiple senior centers in District 5. Diaz de la Portilla maintains he's innocent. "There is not a shred of truth to it," he told the Herald.

If Diaz de la Portilla's campaign really did engage in ballot fraud, it didn't work. The former Republican state senator came in third behind Zoraida Barreiro and progressive candidate Eileen Higgins. Higgins later beat Barreiro in a runoff and became the first non-Hispanic candidate in decades to represent the area. The Herald endorsed Diaz de la Portilla in that race.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.