- Lawrence Mower Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
An outside agency should step in and look into voter fraud in the August 2016 primary election after the State Attorney’s Office found fraud but no suspect, a candidate who raised alarms before the election said this week.
Michael Steinger, who played a critical role in triggering the state attorney’s investigation last year when he hired private eyes and filed a complaint alleging fraud in the race between himself and state Sen. Bobby Powell, called the investigation’s report “bizarre.”
State Attorney Dave Aronberg, he said, might have been compromised by investigating his fellow Democrats.
“Somebody else should take a look at this investigation and begin to follow up,” said Steinger, speaking publicly for the first time since the August election. “Someone who is less attached … seems logical.”
Steinger, a West Palm Beach personal-injury lawyer, said he’s a supporter of Aronberg — he or his law firm, Steinger, Iscoe & Greene, have given Aronberg money in elections as far back as 2008. But he said the second-term state attorney, a former state senator, was placed in a difficult situation.
“Pursuing local Democrats over this issue is difficult for him,” Steinger said. “I understand that.”
The local Democrats he was referring to are Powell, County Commissioner Mack Bernard and state Rep. Al Jacquet, a close trio who combined forces to win their August races by generating unusually high turnout in absentee ballots. In some precincts, Bernard and Jacquet won nine of every 10 absentee ballots cast.
Bernard’s opponent, incumbent Priscilla Taylor, and Steinger came out publicly about potential fraud before the August election. Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, also a Democrat, also noticed something amiss and alerted Aronberg, turning over potential evidence.
Steinger found the state attorney’s investigation to be so unusual and so inadequate, that he said someone else, such as the FBI, should look into it.
“It was not a normal state attorney report,” Steinger said. “I have never seen a report where you find evidence of crimes, and yet, ‘We don’t know who did it and we’re not going to be bothered to figure it out.’”
The recently issued 24-page report revealed that over 10 months, 13 PBSO detectives were taken off their normal assignments to pursue election fraud, led by a PBSO sergeant and West Palm Beach detective assigned to the state attorney’s public corruption unit.
They found 22 people — including a State Attorney’s Office employee and her family — whose signatures were forged on absentee ballot request forms.
But the report shows that detectives waited months to follow up with voters who had complained of fraud. They didn’t follow up on basic leads. Nor did they interview any of the voters quoted in a March Palm Beach Post investigation who said that Bernard and Jacquet helped them fill out their absentee ballots and collected them.
Collecting ballots is a felony, according to the report.
One “person of interest” was seen on video dropping off bundles of ballot request forms at the elections office, but he wasn’t interviewed, either. The report doesn’t mention that that person was Powell’s legislative aide.
Steinger said he was never contacted by investigators.
“They didn’t interview anybody, any candidates of any kind, which seemed odd,” Steinger said. “I don’t understand that.”
A spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office could not be reached Friday for comment.
Powell was incensed by allegations that he or his campaign did anything wrong and called The Post’s report on the investigation “criminal.”
“It should be criminal that newspapers can print something like that and implicate,” he told an audience on Tuesday.
First warning signs
Steinger’s campaign knew a month before the election that something was wrong with the way absentee ballots were being handled.
He and his campaign manager, Rick Asnani, were watching daily updates from the Supervisor of Elections Office about who was requesting absentee ballots in his district.
Absentee ballots usually start being sent out 30 days before the election — in this case, July 30. Once they’re sent, campaign workers can knock on those voters’ doors and make their pitch.
From June 23 to July 23, the number of people requesting ballots was normal — about 1,700 people over four weeks, according to Steinger’s August letter to Aronberg.
But on July 25, the requests began pouring in. In the five days leading up to July 30, more than 1,700 voters requested ballots, the majority of them black. Asnani told The Post earlier this year that he was unaware of any big push in the black community to sign up absentee voters, like a church drive.
“We started seeing hundreds coming in in a day,” Steinger said. “Which is physically not possible. We knew something seemed really off.”
Never voted before
And there were other unusual trends in the data.
The people requesting the ballots had, by a two to one margin, never voted in a primary election before. They also didn’t vote absentee in the March presidential primary, which generated far more votes.
Steinger turned over that data and other analysis Asnani had done to the State Attorney’s Office.
It’s not mentioned in the state attorney’s report.
Steinger hired seven private investigators to talk to voters. In just a few days, they came back with 22 affidavits from voters claiming they had been sent ballots without requesting them. He turned those affidavits over to detectives in August.
Detectives didn’t follow up with those voters until April and May this year, the state attorney’s report states.
On Wednesday, Steinger for the first time made his private investigator’s report available to The Post.
Steinger emphasized that it took state attorney investigators months to come up with the same number of voters as his investigators found in just a few days.
“They claimed to devote the resources, but I don’t feel like it actually occurred,” he said.
For Steinger, the election was his first attempt at seeking office, and it left him embittered. In racking up a two-to-one-vote victory, Powell defeated Steinger both in absentee votes and votes cast at precincts.
“I put my trust as a lifelong Democrat, I put my trust in our democratic system and assumed that it functioned truthfully and honestly,” he said. “I feel that the system is clearly corrupted, and it was not operating in the manner in which the democratic process should.”