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Courts / Law

Elections office workers cleared of wrongdoing in voter fraud probe; 10 one-time inmates charged

Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office
Rachael Gregory
/
Fresh Take Florida
The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office in Gainesville, Fla., on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.

An investigation revealed a flawed voter registration system in Florida, nearly two years after dueling court battles over how to implement a state constitutional amendment that allowed felons to vote legally without going through a complex process to have their rights restored.

An eight-month, Florida criminal voter fraud investigation into jailhouse registration drives has cleared all current and former employees at the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office, prosecutors said.

The only people being charged in these cases are one-time inmates who registered to vote while ineligible to do so, said Darry Lloyd, chief of investigations at the state attorney’s office.

“Nobody from the supervisor‘s office will be charged,” he said Thursday.

The number of those charged now stands at 10 after four more indictments were revealed late Wednesday.

The four include a Democrat, a Republican and two not affiliated with a political party. Three of those charged Wednesday voted in the November 2020 presidential election, voting records showed. Cases opened earlier this week included two Democrats, one Republican and two who did not affiliate themselves with a political party.

The investigation revealed a flawed voter registration system in Florida, nearly two years after dueling court battles over how to implement a state constitutional amendment that allowed felons to vote legally without going through a complex process to have their rights restored. Felons, who prosecutors said were ineligible, registered to vote without being flagged by Tallahassee elections officials for years.

Three of the four men in the latest cases registered to vote from inside the county jail during registration drives organized by Alachua County’s Democratic elections supervisor, Kim A. Barton, in February and July 2020.

Two of the men indicted said they were surprised to learn they had been charged. Both men said they were told by investigators that the target of the investigation was an employee with the elections office.

Daniel Dion Roberts, 48, of Hawthorne said someone visited him in jail identifying themselves as a voting official. He said he did exactly what the official told him to do and even helped him fill out the registration form.

“I had officers come and speak with me about something about them investigating the man that came to the jail,” he wrote from prison. “I haven’t heard about charges. Now I’m worried I don’t have a lawyer and can’t afford one. I’m in prison for three more years at least.”

033022 Voter Registration RG 02.JPG
Rachael Gregory
/
Fresh Take Florida
The Alachua County Jail in Gainesville, Fla., on Wednesday, March 30, 2022.

John Rivers, 44, of Alachua, reached by phone Thursday morning, recounted a similar encounter. He said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told him it was investigating election officials.

“They were investigating the supervisor of elections, not the people that actually voted,” he said.

Rivers said a man — who identified himself as an elections office employee — visited the Alachua County Jail and encouraged felons to register to vote.

“They actually helped us fill out the voter rights registration forms. They came in and recruited us to vote, and then you know, told us that we could vote and now they're charging us for voting,” Rivers said.

Rivers said the man he did not identify informed him he could still vote as felon, as long as he wasn’t accused of burglary or murder, and did not mention anything about restrictions for owing court fines.

Rivers said he had not voted in the three previous elections because he knew he was ineligible. But after speaking to the elections worker, he believed that he was cleared and now blames the employee for his latest legal woes.

“He shouldn't have been in there signing people up and telling them stuff if he didn't know what he was talking about.”

Ongoing investigations have also focused on Duval, Gadsden, Lake and Leon counties. Although Lake County is reliably red, those others are among the few in Florida that lean heavily Democratic. Reliably blue, Alachua County — home to progressive Gainesville and the University of Florida — was among only 12 of Florida’s 67 counties that voted Democratic in that election.

All nine men charged this week completed their voter registrations in 2020, listing the Alachua County Jail as their home or mailing addresses. None was serving time in prison at the time of the election but all still owed fines from previous charges, according to court records.

Many of the voter registrations in question corresponded with visits to the jail on at least two occasions in 2020 by T.J. Pyche, the former director of communications and outreach for the county supervisor of elections. Pyche declined this week in a phone interview to discuss the case. He resigned from the agency in July, shortly after the state investigation began.

Pyche’s lawyer, Ron Kozlowski, said his client was not aware that any of the men charged this week were ineligible to vote.

Not all of those indicted blamed Pyche for their charges.

“I did vote and some people came to talk to me,” said Therris Lee Conney Jr., 33, of Gainesville, in an email from a Florida prison where he is serving a five-year sentence on unrelated drug and weapons convictions from October 2020, weeks after he registered to vote as a Democrat.

“About the guy who help us vote he did nothing wrong tho,” Conney wrote. He said he was unaware of the voter fraud charge levied against him this week until contacted by Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

Conney said he believed he was legally eligible to vote.

Florida’s rules place the burden on felons who have finished serving their prison sentences to research whether they still owe any unpaid court fees that would make them ineligible to register as voters or cast ballots.

In one of those legal disputes, a federal judge in Tallahassee noted there is no centralized office tracking fines and fees across courts in Florida’s 67 counties. Amounts owed in older court cases — or in felony cases in other states — can be especially difficult to determine because court records might not be immediately available.

If felons can’t determine on their own, they can request an advisory opinion from the Florida Division of Elections, where government lawyers would investigate to look for unpaid debts and tell a potential voter whether they can legally register.

“It’s really difficult to know if you’ve paid these things off,” said Daniel Smith, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Florida who has testified in voting rights cases against the DeSantis administration. “The system is a disaster. People think in good faith they’re eligible and find out they’re not.”

Those charged late Wednesday include:

  • Rivers was released in November 2021 after being sentenced to 53 weeks confinement for simple battery. He still owes at least $1,223 for the case, according to court records.
  • Roberts is serving a six-year sentence for domestic battery, aggravated assault, witness intimidation and various weapons charges. He was ordered to pay $1,742 in medical bills for his victim, plus $1,123 for overall fees related to the conviction.
  • Leroy James Ross, 63, of Gainesville, released from prison Sep. 2021 after serving a year and five months for cocaine possession and obstruction of a criminal investigation. He still owes $871 on that case and $549 for a 2020 charge of driving under the influence.
  • Christopher Timothy Wiggins, 54, of Gainesville, was convicted in June 2021 for robbery with a firearm and is now serving an eleven-year sentence in prison. He still owes $671 for the felony charge, according to court records.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at cilvento@freshtakeflorida.com and alugo2@freshtakeflorida.com.

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