Gov. DeSantis has been avoiding election fraud in Florida, not pursuing it | Frank Cerabino

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reminds me of Capt. Louis Renault, the prefect of police in the movie "Casablanca."

DeSantis is about to “round up the usual suspects” this legislative session with a call for his own Office of Election Crime and Security.

The governor is claiming that he needs a 52-person unit that includes 45 investigators to root out election fraud in the state. And it sounds like he thinks they’ll find some, because he’s also proposing to hire six state prosecutors to handle nothing but election-crime cases.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis holds a press conference in West Palm Beach Thursday, January 6, 2022.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis holds a press conference in West Palm Beach Thursday, January 6, 2022.

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And it’s coming after an election year where more than 18 million ballots were cast in Florida and just 75 instances of fraud complaints were forwarded from the state's Secretary of State to local law-enforcement agencies.

The biggest examples of retail voter fraud in Florida’s 2020 elections were that four old men in The Villages thought they could get away with voting in two states. I guess they didn’t know that Florida is part of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a resource that shares Florida voter data with 30 other states.

Red flag for DeSantis power grab

The total annual cost for DeSantis’ very own election crimes unit will be about $6.6 million, which seems like a very expensive pretext for a campaign ad.

Maybe he can channel Claude Rains and do his best Capt. Renault impersonation while standing outside a polling place.

“I’m shocked — shocked! — to find that voting is going on in here.”

The biggest red flag in DeSantis’ power grab to create his own election crimes unit isn’t what the unit might do, but what he can make sure it won’t do.

A less-discussed feature of his Office of Election Crime and Security is that it would have the power to take control of any local investigation of voter fraud in the state.

That can go both ways.

Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino
Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino

So let’s say that there were three Florida Senate races in 2020 that featured ghost candidates who weren’t really running for the office, but just secretly financed by GOP operatives to confuse voters and help party candidates in those races.

And let’s say to make this work, some shady things had to happen. Bribes needed to be made. And shady campaign donations from undisclosed sources — maybe from deep corporate pockets — had to put up about $550,000 to pay for it all.

And in Miami-Dade County, the part of the state where the local prosecutor was a Democrat, this ghost-candidate scheme was investigated, charges were filed and the $45,000 bribe was exposed. But in Seminole County, the part of the state where the local prosecutor was a Republican, that same election-fraud scheme has been ignored.

More: Palm Beach County ghost candidate exposes 'lies' behind Florida election reform, voter groups say

More: Ghost candidates, dark money and a 'winning formula': Florida corruption case linked to Republican insiders

Now if DeSantis had his statewide election crime unit already in place, he could have quickly stepped in to take over the Miami-Dade investigation, ensuring that no charges would have been filed. Or he could have jumped into Seminole County to make sure that his own party was punished for its misdeeds there.

What do you think he would have done?

State looks other way in vote-fraud scheme

OK, that was a rhetorical question, because we already know the answer to this real scenario. Despite all his talk about election fraud, DeSantis has ignored his party’s wholesale effort to subvert fair elections through ghost candidates in 2020.

If he had been a champion of fair elections, DeSantis didn’t need his own crime unit to prosecute what was easily the biggest case of election fraud in Florida during the 2020 election.

In one race, the Republican candidate won by 32 votes, and the fake candidate, who was picked because he had the same last name as the Democrat, received 6,382 votes.

More: Real election fraud in Florida ... and it has nothing to do with the mail | Frank Cerabino

DeSantis could have dispatched the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to step in. That would have at least made him somewhat more credible than Capt. Renault.

But FDLE, the state’s existing campaign crime squad, was sidelined here.

Instead, it brought its prosecutorial might down on a Panhandle high school student, Emily Rose Grover, 17, for orchestrating voter fraud in her quest to be homecoming queen at J.M. Tate High School in the Pensacola suburb of Cantonment.

FDLE pursued felony charges against the girl, and the local prosecutor opted to charge her as an adult, even though she was still a minor when she and her mother used the school computer system to cast 246 votes for the girl in the homecoming-queen election.

Grover was expelled from school. And in a picture of her in her school’s yearbook, somebody imposed a horse’s rear end over her face. She is currently in a pre-trial intervention program to spare her being branded as a convicted felon for the rest of her life.

Florida’s really tough on election fraud when it comes to homecoming queens. But not so much when it’s a clumsy Republican plot financed by their deep-pocket donors.

At the same time the FDLE was bringing the hammer down on the high schooler, it passed up a chance to look into the 5,787 votes received by no-party candidate Jestine Iannotti, 35, in the District 9 Florida Senate race won by Republican State Sen. Jason Brodeur by 7,644 votes.

Iannotti did not do any campaigning, and according to The Miami Herald, eight months before the election, she filed to move to Sweden, which she did after the election.

Her campaign mailing, sent to district Democratic voters in the district northeast of Orlando, showed her as a Black woman, even though she was white. And it was paid for by the same anonymous source that funded two other ghost candidate campaigns in Miami-Dade County.

More: Charging wannabe homecoming queen as an adult: a Florida crime against minors | Frank Cerabino

The ads to the shadow candidates were traced to a political operative working out of the Tallahassee headquarters of the Associated Industries of Florida, a lobbying group that includes some of Florida’s biggest businesses, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

What we know of this comes from a Democratic prosecutor in Miami, and news media organizations in the state.

Recently, some Democratic lawmakers have written a letter, asking the Florida Public Service Commission to audit Florida Power & Light Co to see whether the power company has been hiding its political donations by directing them through a labyrinth of other entities.

“FPL ratepayers deserve to know whether the money they are forced to send the utility every month to pay their bills was used not only to influence elections, but also to undermine democracy through fake candidate schemes,” the letter said.

FPL has denied funding the state GOP’s ghost candidates. And Republican lawmakers, well, they’re more worried about the imaginary perils of unguarded drop boxes.

Meanwhile, that paragon of election integrity, Gov. DeSantis, is like Casablanca’s police chief, covering his tracks.

Or as Capt. Renault said in the movie:

“Realizing the importance of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects.”

fcerabino@gannett.com

@FranklyFlorida

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Will Ron DeSantis' election crimes unit ignore real voter fraud?

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