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Former Aide To Miami Rep. Joe Garcia Heading To Jail For Absentee-Ballot Case

MIAMI (CBSMiami/The Miami Herald) -- One of Congressman Joe Garcia's former chief of staff is going to jail for orchestrating a fraudulent, online absentee-ballot request.

The crime took place during last year's elections, according to CBS4 news partner, The Miami Herald.

Jeffrey Garcia, 41, no relation to Congressman Garcia, will spend 90 days in jail as part of a plea deal he reached with the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, the paper reported.

The deal, which is expected to be inked Monday, will require Garcia to plead guilty to requesting absentee ballots on behalf of voters, which is a felony.

His attorney, Henry Bell, declined to comment to the paper Sunday.

Prosecutors said phony ballot requests were submitted by Jeffrey Garcia on behalf of unsuspecting voters and without their permission.

According to the paper, none of those ballots were actually mailed, forged or cast.

Joe Garcia's campaign planned to target those infrequent voters with telephone calls, fliers and visits to try to persuade them to vote for the candidate.

In February, the Herald reported almost 500 of the August 2012 primary ballot requests in Garcia's congressional district were able to be traced through Internet Protocol addresses in Miami.

Investigators reopened their probe after the Herald report.

Florida elections law prohibits anyone other than voters or their immediate family members from submitting online ballot requests.

Continuing the investigation, the Herald reported, in June, Jeffrey Garcia might have secretly founded bogus tea party candidate Jose Rolando "Roly" Arrojo in 2010 to possibly siphon conservative votes from Republican David Rivera.

Rivera defeated Joe Garcia that year, but lost to him in 2012.

The FBI is now investigating Jeffrey Garcia and Arrojo, the paper reported.

Rivera is also under criminal investigation for his possible ties to another ringer candidate, Democrat Justin Lamar Sternad, who ran against Garcia in 2012 and has pleaded guilty to federal campaign-finance crimes.

Rivera and Garcia denied connection to the phony candidates.

Garcia has not been implicated in the absentee-ballot scheme. The congressman did not respond to the paper's requests for comment Sunday.

In May, Jeffrey Garcia was fired as chief of staff.  The firing came after investigators raided the homes of the congressman's communications director's cousin and the family of John Estes, the congressman's 2012 campaign manager.

Garcia admitted he had directed the others to submit the online ballot requests, the paper reported. His communications director was placed on unpaid leave, then resigned in July.

After Garcia's dismissal, investigators searched the home of a staffer for then-Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez in an unrelated case. That staffer, Juan Pablo Baggini, submitted ballot requests on behalf of 20 voters and it was determined the voters had given Suarez's campaign permission to do so.

Baggini and Esteban "Steve" Suarez, the campaign's manager, received probation in August. Francis Suarez, a sitting city commissioner, dropped out of the race a few days later.

In December, State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle convened a grand jury that managed to reveal the Miami-Dade elections department had flagged thousands of fraudulent online ballot requests, due to an apparent computer hacker during last year's elections.

Another analysis by CBS4 news partner, The Miami Herald, found 2,552 requests had been made over a 2 ½-week period during the summer.

Origins of most of them were masked by foreign IP addresses.

However, 472 of them targeted many Democratic voters in Garcia's congressional district and had come from IP addresses in Miami.

Prosecutors said they linked those addresses to Estes and the communications director.  They had apparently recruited his friends, sister and cousin to plug in voters' personal information into online request forms.

In September, the results of an internal review conducted by an attorney and political donor cleared the rest of Congressman Garcia's staff of any involvement in the absentee-ballot requests.

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald contributed material for this report.)


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