Orlando, Florida Mayor Buddy Dyer is Indicted For Election Fraud
March 12, 2005
Orlando Mayor Is Indicted in Absentee Ballot Case
By ABBY GOODNOUGH, NY TIMES, March 11, 2005
RLANDO, Fla., March 11 - 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. Gov. 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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