- Lawrence Mower Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Detectives with the State Attorney’s Office found clear-cut evidence of voter fraud in last year’s August election, with nearly two dozen people’s signatures forged on requests for absentee ballots.
But prosecutors are dropping the case.
Why? They can’t find a suspect.
In a bizarre 24-page memo, detectives described their efforts to get to the bottom of allegations of voter fraud in the primary election. State Sen. Bobby Powell, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard and state Rep. Al Jacquet, a tight-knit trio of rising stars in the Democratic Party, won their races by generating extraordinary turnout in absentee ballots, and their opponents and voters cried foul.
Detectives talked to 22 voters — 17 of whom were in all three candidates’ districts — who claimed their signatures were forged on request forms. Even a State Attorney’s Office employee and her three family members were victims.
But while as many as 14 Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office detectives were assigned to the case, the memo shows that when it came to finding a suspect, the investigation quickly fizzled.
Detectives didn’t follow up on basic leads, didn’t interview people who might have known about the fraud and waited eight months before following up with voters who made complaints, according to the memo. They apparently did not question Powell, Bernard or Jacquet.
Detectives did identify a “person of interest,” a man who was seen on video dropping off bundles of absentee ballot request forms at the Supervisor of Elections office, but he was never interviewed.
They also didn’t mention in the memo that the man, Delano Allen, was Powell’s longtime legislative aide.
The detectives also didn’t seek out any of the voters interviewed by The Palm Beach Post in its March investigation into the August election.
That story revealed that Bernard and Jacquet generated so many absentee votes because they stepped into voters’ homes and helped fill out voters’ ballots.
In one case, a blind man told The Post that Bernard filled out and signed his ballot. His vote counted. Other voters said Bernard, Jacquet or their campaign workers collected their ballots, which the memo states is a felony.
A spokesman for Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a fellow Democrat who has been rumored to be considering a run for a congressional seat next year, did not respond to questions about the memo or the office’s investigation.
Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, also a Democrat, said she was unaware that the investigation was finished even though she was the one who instigated it. When a reporter offered to send her the memo, she declined. She refused to comment.
Bernard and Jacquet did not respond to requests for comment. In the March story, they refused to answer specific questions but denied any wrongdoing.
Powell, in an email, did not respond to the fact that his legislative aide is mentioned in the memo.
“At no point in the investigation was it indicated that my Senate campaign was investigated, nor was myself or my campaign ever contacted,” Powell wrote. “At this point I would respectfully request that any attempts to tie me or my campaign to anything related to this investigation be discontinued.”
State attorney’s employee a victim
The people who lost to Bernard in the August race said they were disappointed with the investigation and questioned its veracity.
Former County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, who beat Bernard at the polls but ultimately lost because of Bernard’s edge in absentee turnout, said the investigation confirmed what she knew back in August: “We all felt that there was fraud going on.”
But she said the report didn’t mention the names of other people dropping off absentee ballot request forms, which she learned about from conversations she had with Bucher last year.
“It seems like a lot of things were left out,” she said. “I just don’t know how complete this investigation was.”
Taylor’s campaign consultant, Richard Giorgio, wondered why detectives waited so long to follow up with voters who claimed fraud.
“That was disappointing, too, because I’m sure (with) a delay of eight or nine months, of course people aren’t going to remember the person who came to their door, which I think was ridiculous,” Giorgio said.
What the public corruption unit did uncover was an orchestrated effort by someone to generate large numbers of absentee votes.
They found 22 people whose signatures were forged on the absentee ballot request forms.
All 22 voters were all in the boundaries of Powell’s sprawling Senate District 30, and 17 of the 22 were also in Bernard and Jacquet’s districts. On just one block of Silver Beach Road in Riviera Beach, for example, six people were sent absentee ballots based on signed paper request forms given to the elections supervisor.
But when shown the forms, each voter said the signature was not theirs.
Another voter, in West Palm Beach, was shown a form given to the elections office with his information on it. The form stated that a sibling — “Mark Robinson” — had filled it out on his behalf. But the voter was not related to anyone named Mark Robinson and had no siblings in West Palm Beach.
Each case amounted to forgery, a third-degree felony, according to the detectives’ memo. Requesting a ballot for someone who is not a family member is also a third-degree felony, but that is not mentioned in the report.
The only time Bernard’s name appears in the memo is when a voter mentioned that someone collected her ballot, and Bernard came by a week later to check on the “status” of her ballot. Detectives found no crime.
Jacquet is mentioned only once, by a voter who said he helped him fill out “several election forms” and took them with him. The voter’s ballot signature had been “rejected as illegal.” Detectives found no crime.
Powell is not named in the memo.
The detectives apparently did not canvass voters in Bernard and Jacquet’s overlapping districts in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, where some neighborhoods saw them winning nine out of every 10 absentee votes.
When The Post went to those neighborhoods, speaking to voters in about 60 homes, they found a dozen people who said they were sent ballots without requesting them.
Others said the candidates or their volunteers watched over them while they filled out their ballots, then collected them. Collecting ballots is a felony, according to the memo.
One woman said she felt pressured by one candidate, who went inside her home and dug out her ballot from a stack of discarded mail. She couldn’t remember which candidate it was. Coercing voters is also a felony.
Money and gift cards for ballots
The investigation started nearly two months before the Aug. 30, 2016, Democratic primary, when Bucher told PBSO Sgt. Dan Boland and West Palm Beach Detective Justus Reid Jr., both assigned to the state attorney’s public corruption unit, that she suspected campaign workers with “certain political campaigns” were committing “voter fraud,” according to the memo.
She suspected they were getting voters’ absentee ballots or forms requesting the ballots by offering money or gift cards or were simply forging voters’ signatures.
The memo doesn’t name the campaigns.
Bucher believed about 2,000 absentee ballots or request forms were possibly fraudulent, and her concerns quickly got the attention of Aronberg and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, according to the memo.
On Aug. 23, seven days before the primary election, a meeting was held where Aronberg, spokesman Mike Edmondson, Bucher, Boland and Reid briefed 13 PBSO detectives, most of whom had been pulled away from their property crimes and sexual predator unit assignments to work the case.
At the meeting, the detectives were given a list of 108 voters whose absentee ballot request forms were believed to be fraudulent. The list was broken down by city and PBSO district, and the detectives were assigned voters to track down.
How many voters they reached is unclear. Of the roughly 40 voters they spoke to mentioned in the report, 22 gave sworn statements alleging fraud.
But some voters weren’t contacted for eight months, according to the memo. Powell’s opponent in the primary, lawyer Michael Steinger, was so incensed by what he believed was voter fraud that he dispatched his private investigator to talk to voters.
Around the time of the election, the investigator gave prosecutors affidavits from 22 voters who claimed fraud, the memo states.
But it wasn’t until late April, after The Post’s story ran, that Reid and Boland started contacting those people, the memo shows. Of the eight they talked to, seven confirmed that they had received ballots without ever signing up for them.
Steinger didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Powell’s longtime aide
The closest detectives came to finding a culprit was a man named Delano Allen, who was caught on video dumping off bundles of paper requests for absentee ballots at the Supervisor of Elections Office, the memo states.
Detectives went to his home in August, before the election. He wasn’t home, but a family friend was, and he called Allen. Allen spoke to detectives at the time and told them he would be willing to sit down for a sworn statement, the memo states.
But that didn’t happen. Detectives called him a second time seven months later, in April, and he didn’t answer. Detectives stopped by his house again in May, but he wasn’t home.
Detectives did ask two voters to identify Allen in a six-photo array, but they both circled someone else. The memo does not say if any other voters were given the photo lineup.
The lead detectives on the case apparently didn’t look any deeper.
They did not mention that Allen was Powell’s longtime legislative aide.
They did identify him, however, as a possible employee of Sky Administrations, a campaign consulting company owned by Darren Romelus. Detectives didn’t note that Romelus is Bernard’s county commission aide, though.
Romelus did not respond to requests for comment, but his wife, Boynton Beach City Commissioner Christina Romelus, strenuously denied that Allen was ever an employee of Sky.
“Delano Allen never worked for Sky Administrations,” she said. “He never worked for us.”
All three candidates gave Sky unusually large sums of money for campaign signs — $68,000 in total last year, which also is not mentioned in the report. Jacquet and Powell spent far more on campaign signs than Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and others who were running in countywide races, The Post revealed in March.
The memo does not show that detectives made any effort to contact the Romeluses.
Allen declined to comment, referring questions to Powell’s lawyer, Richard Ryles.
‘People should be held accountable’
This is the third voter fraud case in Palm Beach County in two years and none has yielded charges.
In March 2015, a Loxahatchee Groves candidate’s mother appeared to request more than 100 ballots for other people from their home computer in his town council race. Prosecutors declined to prosecute because they couldn’t prove that the mother was the one who used the computer.
In the March 2016 city elections, evidence of absentee ballot fraud in Riviera Beach was litigated in civil court, but the case never caught the attention of law enforcement.
Although Taylor said she felt that the state attorney’s investigation would at least put the issue on the radar, she noted that elsewhere, people have been prosecuted in Florida for the same actions.
In May, the mayor of Eatonville, a town outside Orlando, was convicted of three voting-related charges for pressuring a woman to fill out an absentee ballot and for collecting absentee ballots. He was sentenced to 400 hours of community service.
“In other areas of Florida, and Miami specifically, people were actually charged with crimes of the same nature,” Taylor said. “I do feel people should be held accountable.”