Congressman Joe Garcia moved quickly to contain the fallout of an election-fraud scandal that rocked his office but said Monday he’s not going to fire a key staffer implicated in the case.
Garcia, a Miami Democrat, said Communications Director Giancarlo Sopo told him he was not involved in a plot last year to submit hundreds of fraudulent absentee-ballot requests — though investigators with the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office searched the home of one of Sopo’s relatives Friday in connection with the attempt to manipulate the Aug. 14 primary.
Sopo was placed on unpaid administrative leave late Monday.
“He said he did not do that, and I take him at his word,” Garcia told The Miami Herald. “If I find that’s not the case, he’s not going to be put on administrative leave — he’s going to be let go. Until that happens, I am neither the prosecutor nor the judge and jury.”
Garcia dismissed Jeffrey Garcia, his chief of staff and longtime political adviser, Friday after law enforcement raided the family homes of Sopo and former campaign manager John Estes seeking computers and other electronic equipment. Jeffrey Garcia, who is not related to his boss, admitted to the congressman that he directed the campaign to submit the phantom ballot requests, Joe Garcia said.
“I don’t know why,” he added, saying the operation — which ultimately failed — wasn’t needed. “During this entire election, we were polling. ... We thought we were ahead early on and from the get-go.”
Under state elections law, it may be considered third-degree felony fraud for a ballot request to be filled out by someone other than voters or their immediate family. Using people’s personal information as required in the requests may be considered a first-degree felony.
Miami-Dade commissioners had been scheduled ask the elections department Tuesday to make the online system for requesting absentee ballots more secure, but the measure will be deferred for two weeks while the department comes up with a plan and price tag.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle’s office has said there is no evidence Garcia had knowledge of the ballot operation.