Absentee Voting Practices Result In Felony Charges Against Orlando, Florida Mayor, Judge, Campaign Manager, And Others


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'Ballot king' was paid by Orlando Mayor Dyer, other politicians to collect absentee ballots in Florida by Mark Schlueb

© 2005 by Mark Schlueb, Orlando Sentinel

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use.

Gag order lifted, revealing claims about top officials

January 8, 2005 — The lawyer for Orlando, Florida's "ballot king" said Friday that his client was paid by Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and a who's who of Central Florida politicians to gather absentee votes, an allegation that if true means they may have broken the law.

Answering media questions at the Orange County Courthouse minutes after an unofficial gag order was lifted, attorney Dean Mosley for the first time described a statement that campaign consultant Ezzie Thomas gave prosecutors four months ago in exchange for immunity.

According to his lawyer, Thomas told prosecutors that he did the potentially illegal work for the campaigns of Dyer; former Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood; U.S. Senator Mel Martinez; state Senator Gary Siplin, D-Orlando; Circuit Judge Alan Apte and perhaps others.

"The problem is that you' re not supposed to be paid to collect absentee ballots," Mosley said.

That practice, which political experts say permeates elections throughout Florida, is emerging as the focus of an ongoing state criminal probe of possible fraud during last year's mayoral election.

Mosley said Thomas was known to specialize in gathering absentee votes, and that's why he was hired — even though paying ballot brokers became illegal when Florida lawmakers cracked down on election fraud six years ago.

In 1998, the Legislature tightened absentee-voting laws, a response to voter fraud in the 1997 Miami mayoral election that included paying residents for their votes, ballots cast by people who lived outside the city and much more. A judge eventually nullified that election.

The new law made it a crime to pay or accept money "for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, delivering or otherwise physically possessing absentee ballots."

Mosley's description of his client's statement to prosecutors provides the clearest picture yet of the 10-month-old probe of possible election fraud. The investigation began with questions about the 2004 election that kept Buddy Dyer in the Orlando mayor's office, but has since widened with Thomas' testimony to include other politicians.

The allegations center on Thomas, a retired businessman who for years has tried to increase voting in Orlando's black community. Thomas' election work, which often involved helping elderly residents vote by absentee ballot, was at first on a strictly volunteer basis as president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Orange County Voters League.

But in 1998, Thomas began profiting from his expertise at bringing in scores of absentee votes by hiring himself out to political campaigns looking for an edge on Election Day.

He has said he works only for candidates whom he supports. That has mostly been Democrats, but he also has worked for Republicans, including Glenda Hood — mayor of Orlando at the time but now responsible for ensuring the integrity of Florida elections as Florida secretary of state.

On Friday, Mosley verified that Thomas' statement to prosecutors — given with the promise of immunity — concerned ballot-collection work for Martinez when he ran for county chairman in 1998, Hood's 2000 mayoral campaign, Siplin's and Apte's campaigns in 2002, and Dyer's mayoral campaigns in 2003 and 2004.

None of those politicians returned calls seeking comment on Friday, though Dyer's lawyer said the mayor had done nothing wrong and is the victim of politically motivated attacks.

Thomas also has worked on the campaigns of state Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando; Orange County Commissioner Homer Hartage and judicial candidate Norberto Katz, but Mosley did not say whether those campaigns were discussed with prosecutors.

While Dyer and other politicians have never hidden the fact that they have hired Thomas to help on their campaigns, the mayor has denied that Thomas' only task was to gather absentee votes. Dyer's campaign treasurer reports, for instance, indicate Thomas was paid $10,000 for vague "get-out-the-vote" efforts.

But Mosley indicated that Thomas was hired only because of his work with absentee voters.

"His specialty was absentee-ballot work," Mosley said Friday. "It would be logical to conclude he was paid for the work he specializes in."

Dyer's criminal attorney, Robert Levanthal, called Mosley's comments "inappropriate and suspect." He said Thomas was hired for general campaign work in Orlando's black community — not to gather absentee ballots.

"People are taking potshots at Mayor Dyer for their own political purposes," said Levanthal, adding that Thomas was hired by other campaign managers, not by Dyer himself.

Even though political experts say it is common to pay campaigners to encourage absentee voting, no one has been prosecuted for it since lawmakers made it a third-degree felony. Most interpret the law to prohibit only paying ballot brokers per vote and paying voters directly.

"All the campaigns rely very heavily on absentee ballots," Levanthal said.

State investigators began looking into the 2004 mayor's race within several weeks of the March election, after receiving a complaint from Brian Mulvaney, whose brother, Ken Mulvaney, finished in second place.

At the same time, Ken Mulvaney filed a separate civil lawsuit, seeking to have the results thrown out. His initial allegations centered on whether Thomas mishandled or altered ballots for Dyer, but the investigation has now evolved to focus on the untested state statute governing so-called "ballot brokers" such as Thomas.

Mulvaney's lawsuit remains unresolved, and the candidate has been thwarted in attempts to get Thomas to testify about his role in the election. In a closed-door hearing in November, Thomas persuaded the court to protect him from having to testify in the civil case, lest his words be used against him in the state's ongoing criminal probe.

On Friday, the Orlando Sentinel successfully petitioned the court to have transcripts of that closed hearing released. That record, which describes the nature of Thomas' statement to prosecutors, has not yet been transcribed, but the judge's ruling left Mosley free to describe what was said.

Mulvaney said he will eventually prove his case.

"I'm very confident, and have been from Day One, that there was fraud in the mayoral election," Mulvaney said.

That's what 5 th Circuit State Attorney Brad King is trying to determine. He inherited the case from Orange/Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar, who excused himself because Apte was once a prosecutor in his office.

King has remained tight-lipped about the investigation but said this week not to expect a resolution to the case for at least two to three months.


Mark Schlueb can be reached at mschlueb@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5417.


Orlando, Florida, mayor and judge indicted in absentee ballot case by Abby Goodnough


© 2005 by Abby Goodnough, New York Times

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC § 107 for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational use.

Also indicted with Mayor Buddy Dyer were Ezzie Thomas, who worked for the Dyer campaign; Orange County Circuit Court Judge Alan Apte; and Patricia Beatty Phillips, the campaign manager.

March 12, 2005 — Mayor Buddy Dyer turned himself in on Friday to face a felony charge of paying someone to collect absentee ballots before his election in a tight race last year. Governor Jeb Bush swiftly suspended Mr. Dyer, as required by Florida law, in a case that has roiled this city for months and even caused a brief firestorm in the presidential election.

A grand jury handed up sealed indictments on Thursday for Mr. Dyer and three others: Patricia Beatty Phillips, his campaign manager; Ezzie Thomas, who worked for the Dyer campaign as a get-out-the-vote consultant; and Judge Alan Apte of Orange County Circuit Court, who was charged with illegally paying Mr. Thomas to collect absentee ballots before his own 2002 campaign.

The indictments, unsealed on Friday, came after a long investigation that drew criticism from state and national Democrats during the re-election campaign of President Bush, Governor Bush's older brother. Some elderly black residents of Orlando said that agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which conducted the investigation and reports to Governor Bush, had intimidated them during interviews at their homes about the absentee ballots they cast in the mayoral race last March.

Democratic groups then accused Governor Bush's administration of trying to suppress the black vote in Orlando, a coveted swing city, before the presidential election, an accusation that Mr. Bush dismissed as outrageous.

Governor Bush suspended Mr. Dyer hours after the mayor surrendered at the Orange County Jail, where he was released on his own recognizance. Florida law calls for the governor to suspend public officials charged with felonies while their case is pending and to remove them if they are convicted. The charges - for Mr. Dyer, Ms. Phillips and Judge Apte, paying for absentee ballot collection, and for Mr. Thomas, receiving payment for such collection - are third-degree felonies that carry a potential sentence of up to five years.

Brad King, the special prosecutor who conducted the investigation, is a Republican.

"Orlando is obviously a very important government," said Jacob DiPietre, Mr. Bush's spokesman, "and the governor thought it important, for continuity, to act as soon as possible."

Mr. Dyer, who has said all along that his campaign paid Mr. Thomas $10,000 for get-out-the-vote work but that he was not aware of any illegal activity, held a brief news conference Friday to proclaim his innocence. He said the charges were "politically motivated." He then added, "I do not believe any employee of my campaigns intentionally violated any campaign laws while conducting the business of the campaign."

A city attorney said Councilman Ernest Page, the mayor pro tem and a Republican, would take over the mayoralty until a special election was held. He said the Orlando City Council would meet within 10 days to set the date for the election.

Mr. Dyer, a 47-year-old Democrat, vowed to fight the charges and return to his job, which pays $144,349 a year. He first won election to the nonpartisan mayoralty in 2003.

The indictments follow a civil suit filed by Ken Mulvaney, a local businessman who was Mr. Dyer's Republican opponent in last year's mayoral race. Though Mr. Dyer, a former state senator, defeated Mr. Mulvaney by nearly 5,000 votes, he avoided a runoff by only 234 votes. Mr. Mulvaney sued, charging that several thousand absentee ballots should be disqualified as fraudulent. The lawsuit is still pending. Mr. Mulvaney's brother, Brian, filed a criminal complaint with similar allegations.

At issue is whether Mr. Thomas, a retired television repairman and activist in Orlando's black community, mishandled absentee ballots while working for the Dyer campaign. A state law passed in 1998 prohibits providing or accepting "pecuniary gain" for "distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, delivering or otherwise physically possessing absentee ballots." The law was passed after the results of a Miami mayoral race were thrown out because of absentee ballot fraud. No one has been prosecuted under the law until now.

An initial state investigation last May found no evidence of wrongdoing, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reopened the case weeks later, saying it was acting on new information. The Orlando Sentinel has reported that some voters interviewed by the department said Mr. Thomas helped them fill out absentee ballots or collected their ballots while they were still unsealed.

Mr. Thomas's lawyer, Dean Mosley, said on Friday that his client was an "old man" — he is 74 — and was unfairly accused. Mr. Thomas testified Wednesday under limited immunity. He cannot be prosecuted for his own statements but can be based on evidence presented by others.

Politicians from both parties have paid Mr. Thomas to get out the vote, including Glenda Hood when she was running for mayor here and Senator Mel Martinez when he was seeking a county office. Both are Republicans.

Mr. Dyer, one of the state's more prominent Democrats, ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2002 before becoming mayor of this city of 186,000 in 2003. In a deposition earlier this year, he said he had no knowledge of what Mr. Thomas did for his campaign. On Friday, Mr. Dyer said that Mr. Thomas "simply helps older African-Americans participate in the voting process."


Dennis Blank contributed reporting for this article.



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| Chapter 5 — Lies, Damn Lies, and Mail In Elections |

| Next — Appalachia, Virginia, Ex-Mayor Pleads Guilty To Fixing Election by Rex Bowman |

| Back — Absentee Votes Worry Officials As November 2, 2004, Nears by Michael Moss |


Last modified 6/14/09