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226 posts from February 2013

February 23, 2013

Phantom ballots, a mystery hacker and a grand jury: Miami-Dade's electoral whodunit

The first phantom absentee ballot request hit the Miami-Dade elections website at 9:11 p.m. Saturday, July 7.

The next one came at 9:14. Then 9:17. 9:22. 9:24. 9:25.

Within 2½ weeks, 2,552 online requests arrived from voters who had not applied for absentee ballots. They streamed in much too quickly for real people to be filling them out. They originated from only a handful of Internet Protocol addresses. And they were not random.

It had all the appearances of a political dirty trick, a high-tech effort by an unknown hacker to sway three key Aug. 14 primary elections, a Miami Herald investigation has found.

The plot failed. The elections department’s software flagged the requests as suspicious. The ballots weren’t sent out.

But who was behind it? And next time, would a more skilled hacker be able to rig an election?

Six months and a grand-jury probe later, there still are few answers about the phantom requests, which targeted Democratic voters in a congressional district and Republican voters in two Florida House districts.

The foreman of that grand jury, whose report made public the existence of the phantom requests, said jurors were eager to learn if a candidate or political consultant had succeeded in manipulating the voting system. But they didn’t get any answers.

“We were like, ‘Why didn’t anyone do something about it?’ ” foreman Jeffrey Pankey said.

Read the story here. View a map of the phantom requests here.

February 22, 2013

Another revolution of the Tallahassee revolving door: Haridopolos lobbyist


You guessed it. The latest to cash in on the executive lobbyist windfall in Tallahassee, former Senate President Mike Haridopolos. He's gone to work for Railex LLC, a company that manufactures refrigerated rail cars to transport fruits and vegetables.

He joins former House Speaker Dean Cannon on the growing list of former lawmakers cashing in their clout to lobby the executive branch and Florida's $50 billion cache of in vendor-driven contracts and grants. 

The former Merritt Island lawmaker appears to be wearing several hats these days. He's still teaching a political science class at the University of Florida -- and can be seen at the Capitol occasionally with his class. Those trips will also come in handy as a lobbyist and his next new job, executive vice president of racing giant The Stronach Group. That group, represented by Haridopolos' good friend Marc Dunbar, is hosting the 8th annual gaming Congress at the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Hollywood next week. 

Their keynote address? By Haridopolos. 

Federal charges against alleged ringer "a message to Rivera."

A one-time candidate whose suspicious campaign finances led to an FBI investigation of former Miami Congressman David Rivera was formally charged Friday in federal court with three crimes.

Shackled at the wrists, waist and feet, Justin Lamar Sternad pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, false-statement and illegal campaign-contribution charges.

Sternad is expected to strike a plea deal as he cooperates with federal authorities in their investigation of Rivera and the former representative’s close friend, Ana Alliegro, who managed Sternad’s disastrous Democratic primary campaign for a Kendall-to-Key West congressional seat.

Neither Rivera nor Alliegro is listed by name in the 10-page federal charging document, which lists Sternad’s nameless “co-conspirators” hand-delivering stacks of cash and checks to campaign vendors.

In all, Sternad received at least $81,486 in unreported cash and checks in less than three months last summer, the charging document said. The money helped pay for some fliers that attacked a Democratic rival of Rivera, a Republican.

“This was a message to Rivera. It’s a preview of what the indictment against Rivera will look like,” David S. Weinstein, who once led federal public-corruption prosecutions in the Southern District of Florida, told The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald after reviewing the case.

Rivera, who has maintained his innocence, refused comment but pointed to past statements in which he said he never has been informed by authorities of a federal investigation.

Weinstein pointed out that the charging document indicates prosecutors are hunting for a “big fish.” A sign of Sternad’s cooperation: he was charged by an “information” sheet filed directly by prosecutors, instead of an indictment by a grand jury.

The charging information against Sternad is about three times longer than typical information sheets and is filled with details — check numbers, bank account names, dates of transactions — that telegraph what Rivera is facing, Weinstein said.

Sternad faces a maximum five years imprisonment and $250,000 for each count, but he’ll probably get a far lighter sentence, Weinstein said, noting that the defendant could have faced more serious money-laundering charges.

“Sternad is clearly talking, he’s telling what happened and what he knows,” Weinstein said. “If this was a standard information, and not a shot across the bow at Rivera, this wouldn’t have all the detail you see.”

But, Weinstein said, Rivera could prove tough to prosecute because Alliegro’s whereabouts are unclear.

More here

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/22/3248213/in-david-rivera-investigation.html#storylink=cpy

Board of Governors wants Polytechnic to explain grab for more cash

The Florida Polytechnic University Board of Trustees says it needs an extra $25 million to get its first building off the ground. Earlier this month, trustees indicated they will go directly to legislators to fulfill that request.

Now the state Board of Governors, which oversees all 12 universities, is asking questions, the Lakeland Ledger reports. Florida Poly's board chairman has been asked to appear in person at the Board of Governors' meeting next month to explain the cash grab and face a likely grilling.

From the Ledger article:

The State University System Board of Governors wants a detailed accounting of why Florida Polytechnic University's leaders intend to ask for an additional $25 million to set up the school.

Dean Colson, chair of the Board of Governors, mentioned during a Thursday meeting that he wrote to Florida Polytechnic Chairman Rob Gidel to ask that he attend next month's BOG meeting. The Ledger requested a copy of the missive, which is dated Wednesday.

"We are requesting you attend our next meeting, taking place March 27th and 28th, 2013 at Florida A&M University," Colson said. "Due to the time that has elapsed since the passage of SB 1994 and the subsequent appointment of the Florida Polytechnic Board of Trustees, it is important to update the (BOG) on Florida Polytechnic's progress toward the established benchmarks."

Read more here.

In defense of Rick Scott

Not many people (Republicans at least) are defending Rick Scott's endorsement of a proposed expansion of Medicaid in Florida. But today Sarasota GOP chairman Joe Gruters took a stab at it ... by blaming the media (and ignoring that all media really has done is quote prominent Republicans critical of Scott, while noting that Scott's actions directly contradict his previous statements).

But, hey...

Here's what Gruters wrote today:

Continue reading "In defense of Rick Scott" »

Stand Your Ground task force: It's a good law

A 19-member task force commissioned by Gov. Rick Scott to review Florida’s Stand Your Ground law has put out its final report, largely voicing its support for the law.

The task force made a handful of recommendations for the Legislature, but began the report by stating that, at its core, the self-defense law is fine as it is.

“All persons who are conducting themselves in a lawful manner have a fundamental right to stand their ground and defend themselves from attack with proportionate force in every place they have a lawful right to be,” the report reads.

The controversial law grants immunity to people who use force, including deadly force, in response to a perceived threat of bodily harm. It was thrust into the spotlight last year after Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford by a man who later claimed self-defense under Stand Your Ground. The shooter, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, was initially not charged, but now awaits trial on second-degree murder charges.

Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll chaired the task force, which held statewide hearings and consisted of two lawmakers who drafted the Stand Your Ground law and others who voted for it. Police, lawyers and neighborhood watch volunteers were also appointed. Critics blasted the group's makeup from the outset, predicting that it would not push for any significant changes to the law.

The recommendations the group did come up with include reconsidering the state’s 10-20-Life law, tightening standards for neighborhood watch groups and commissioning a study to look into issues of racial disparities and unintended consequences of Stand Your Ground.

The task force also urged the Legislature to consider whether Stand Your Ground should apply when an innocent bystander is caught in the crossfire and to clarify whether or not the law’s immunity provision prohibits police from detaining and questioning a shooter.

Two task force members -- Miami-Dade State attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Tallahassee-based pastor Rev. R.B. Holmes -- each submitted letters indicating they wished the group had pushed for more significant changes.

“I have also seen not only from the experiences in my Office, but from the testimony of our citizens and experts who came before our Task Force, that the law has had some consequences which I believe were unintended,” Fernandez-Rundle wrote in a letter attached to the report. She said the law’s “immunity” provision should be scrapped.

Continue reading "Stand Your Ground task force: It's a good law" »

Politically active Hialeah pain clinic owner to face campaign-related felony

A politically active Hialeah pain clinic owner will surrender Friday afternoon on allegations that he engineered illegal campaign contributions to candidates across the state, The Miami Herald has learned.

Investigators believe chiropractor Mark Cereceda, 44, made his clinic employees donate to candidates, then paid them back in cash and checks for their contributions.

Cereceda’s clinic, which specializes in treating traffic accident victims, and the man’s brother will also be charged with a felony count relating to illegal contributions. Cereceda’s defense attorney did not return a phone call for comment Friday morning.

By Florida law, an individual or company can only donate $500 to each candidate.

Investigators believe he got his employees to contribute more than $25,000 to candidates, including Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, State Sen. Joe Negron and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa.

Investigators do not believe any of the candidates knew of the illegal contributions.

Miami-Dade police public corruption detectives began investigating after news broke last year that a Hialeah-branch county court judge had penned a letter to state authorities — on official letterhead — asking that Cereceda’s company be reinstated.

The company, Florida Wellness & Rehabilitation Center, had let its business license lapse. The Florida Division of Corporations treated the judge’s letter as a court order, and reinstated the company for free.

The Miami-Dade judge, Ana Maria Pando, was investigated for a slew of ethics violations, a probe eventually dropped when voters booted her from office and she agreed not to run again.

Judge: Miami-Dade has power to enact absentee-ballot law

In its effort to crack down on voter fraud, Miami-Dade County has the authority to limit how many absentee ballots a voter can possess, a judge ruled Friday.

The ruling came in the case of Sergio “El Tio” Robaina, whose lawyers had challenged a county ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor to collect multiple absentee ballots.

Prosecutors say Robaina, 74, illegally collected absentee ballots and filled out two against the wishes of two voters, one of them a woman with dementia. He faces two felony counts of voter fraud, and two misdemeanor counts of illegally possessing absentee ballots.

The Miami-Dade County Commission, worried about the perception of election fraud, passed the ordinance two years ago. A person may turn in only two absentee ballots in addition to their own: one belonging to an immediate family member and another belonging to a voter who has signed a sworn statement designating that person as responsible.

Friday’s order by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch was his second ruling against Robaina.

February 21, 2013

Suspect in David Rivera campaign-finance scandal to be charged Friday with federal crimes


A former candidate under FBI investigation with former U.S. Rep David Rivera is scheduled to be charged Friday with federal crimes over his campaign finances, sources tell The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.

The charges against Justin Lamar Sternad stem from an investigation by The Herald, which first found discrepancies in his congressional campaign finance reports last August.

The FBI then began investigating Sternad, whose reports could have concealed as much as $100,000 in services and mailers, some of which attacked a Democratic rival of Rivera, who is a Republican.

Sternad is scheduled to surrender Friday morning in federal court, charged with lying on his federal campaign reports to hide the source of secret money funneled into his run for congress. Sternad is also charged with conspiring with others as part of the alleged scheme to defraud the United States.

Sternad, cooperating with authorities, is expected to plead not guilty. His lawyer, Enrique “Rick” Yabor refused comment.

Though Rivera is a target of the investigation, his name is nowhere in the indictment of Sternad, a source told The Herald.

Sternad and two campaign vendors who performed work for him have talked to the FBI and a federal grand jury to describe Rivera’s involvement in Sternad’s mercurial bid for Congress, which ended Aug. 14 when he lost the Democratic primary to Joe Garcia, who later beat Rivera in the general election.

A close friend of Rivera’s, Ana Alliegro, worked as Sternad’s campaign manager and repeatedly delivered fat stacks of cash to Rapid Mail & Computer Service, owner John Borrero told The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and then the FBI.

Another vendor, Hugh Cochran of Campaign Data, told The Herald and FBI agents that he spoke with Rivera about running computer queries to identify voters to whom the different mailers were sent.

A third vendor, Expert Printing, produced the mailers but has refused to talk to the Herald.

Rivera has denied wrongdoing. Rivera couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday.

“No federal agency has ever stated or confirmed that I am under investigation for anything,” Rivera has said in a prior statement about the case.

Alliegro, who was supposed to talk to the FBI in September, skipped out on her meeting with federal agents and is rumored to be overseas. Initially, Alliegro’s parents and lawyer didn’t know her whereabouts. Now she has been in contact with them.

Without Alliegro’s testimony, federal authorities could have trouble determining Rivera’s actual links to the unreported stacks of cash that funded Sternad’s campaign.

More here.

Weatherford's dance card getting full

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s star continues to glisten in conservative circles.

The American Conservative Union announced today that Weatherford is a “rising elected leader” and will speak at its annual conference from March 14 to March 16 in National Harbor, Md.

The 33-year-old Wesley Chapel Republican, Florida’s youngest House Speaker in 55 years, will join eight other “featured speakers who will introduce what they are doing in their states to promote the conservative movement and agenda.”

They include:

 -- New Hampshire Rep. Marilinda Garcia

 -- Connecticut Senator Art Linares

 -- Michigan Rep. and assistant majority leader Lisa Posthumus Lyons

 -- New York State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis

 -- Nebraska Senator Beau McCoy

 -- West Virginia Delegate John B. McCuskey

 -- Franklin County, OH., auditor Clarence Mingo

 -- Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon

Other speakers at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC,  include Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, UT and U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-WI, and his wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, who were on MTV’s The Real World.

“We are thrilled to welcome these young elected leaders to the CPAC, as they represent the bright future of the conservative movement,” said ACU chairman Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “This year in particular, we are focused on ensuring young conservatives have the tools they need to succeed.”