Former Osceola County commission candidate alleges election fraud.

Armando Ramirez says fraud cost him the office of Osceola County commissioner last November.

KISSIMMEE – For years, Armando Ramirez worked in the New York City Police Department, where he was assigned to the New York Attorney’s Office. His job was to help root out corruption in high places.
“We locked up judges,” he said. “I did a lot of undercover work.”
Now retired and a resident of Kissimmee, Ramirez is working on an entirely new investigation – only it’s one much closer to home. He’s put together a team made up of family members and supporters to root out what he considers corruption within the halls of Osceola County’s municipal government. His main target: election fraud, particularly the election he lost last November when he challenged Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones. It turned out to be a race thin result: Ramirez got 4,213 votes to Quinones’ 4,269 votes — a margin of just 56 votes.
Ramirez said he went on bed on election night believing he had won.
“That night, I was getting good results from the TV networks,” he said. “By 11 o’clock, they had declared me the winner.”
But the next day, it was Quinones who was declared the winner by the Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Office.
“This is the reason why I was so shocked,” Ramirez said. “They claimed they found additional absentee ballots. I was astonished.”
Ramirez has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging fraud and irregularities in that election, and is asking the court to void the results and order a new election for Osceola County Commission District 2.
“My lawsuit claims lots of irregularities occurred,” he said. “It is like camouflaging fraud and outrageous conduct perpetrated by the Supervisor of Elections office. I know they had stolen my election.”
Ramirez said he now plans to fight back.
“I focus on finding justice to regain the seat I lost through fraudulent conduct,” he said.
Amber Smith, spokeswoman for the office of Osceola County Supervisor of Elections Mary Jane Arrington, said her office does not comment on pending litigation.
“At this point, because it’s an ongoing lawsuit, the office does not have a comment,” Smith said. “When everything is cleared up, we will definitely have a comment.”
Ramirez, who moved to Florida in 1989, is known as a community activist. He’s run for public office numerous times, including local offices in Kissimmee. Last year’s bid for the Osceola County commission seat was the closest race he ever ran.
“My platform was to be able to restore integrity for the county,” Ramirez said. “A lot of the small business owners came to me and said the commissioners were outsourcing contracts to outside vendors,” thus cutting local businesses out of the picture. Ramirez said he wanted to shake up what he considered to be a good old boy network operating county government.
He knew he was an underdog, having just $3,000 to spend on the campaign. Instead, he did an intensive door to door campaign, getting out and meeting the voters directly.
“The people were very receptive,” he said. “I never had to carry water with me. They gave me water. Occasionally they fed me. The people were very, very happy to see me. They were surprised I was knocking on their door.”
Although 2010 was a very bad year for his fellow Democrats, Ramirez said he had reason to believe he would win, although he believed the county’s top political leaders badly wanted him to lose.
“I’m dedicated to serving the people, I’m not doing this just for myself,” he said. “This is the reason why I am not a popular person in Osceola County. They accused me of being pro-Hispanic, and the rest of the people could go to hell, and that’s not true.”
After losing by a razor thin margin, Ramirez requested a recount, but four years ago the Florida Legislature overhauled the state’s elections law, making it harder to argue for a recount. That was a result of the 2000 presidential election, in which Democrat Al Gore lost this state to Republican George W. Bush by just 500 votes, leading to a lengthy recount battle.
“They said that ever since the great fiasco in the state of Florida in 2000, they made it more difficult for candidates to challenge election results,” Ramirez said. “I knew they had stolen my election, and I was trying to get an automatic recount that would resolve everything. They didn’t want to comply with my request.”
Ramirez also believes 304 votes didn’t get counted, possibly because election officials challenged the right of voters from the county’s minority-majority precincts, questioning whether they were legally registered at the right address.
“Usually the politicians who are in power target neighborhoods where they see minorities – it could be Hispanics, Haitians, whatever – and this is done very maliciously,” Ramirez said. “They look for ways to change their house numbers so they have a problem voting.
“This is so complex, I have been compelled to form a special team,” Ramirez added. “This is a team of volunteers using my son, my wife, and some of my supporters who have volunteered their time to help me.”
Ramirez said this isn’t a matter of being a sore loser in such a close election.
“I have never been a sore loser,” he said. “Winning is not everything, and failure is not the end of the road.
“I only want justice to be done,” Ramirez added. “I want a judge to give me a fair trial. A judge could examine my claims and be able to throw out those absentee ballots that were the culprit. I have the proof. I have the evidence. Believe me, this is not just empty talking.”

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Expressway Authority invites public feedback, and gets plenty.

ORLANDO – Meeting for the first time with its new membership – including Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs – on board, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority opened itself up for feedback from the public on Wednesday — and got plenty.

Those comments included calls for an end to both the tolls on roads the Expressway Authority has built, and an end to the board itself, as well a call for higher ethical standards and a major push for the construction of the Wekiva Parkway.

As Walter A. Ketcham Jr., the authority’s chairman, noted at the beginning of the public hearing, the board welcomes feedback from the public as long as people stayed within a three minute presentation.  While several of the speakers quickly surpassed that short time limit, they nevertheless brought along strong opinions on the region’s highways, tolls, construction jobs and economic future.

State Road 408 was completed by the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority in 1973, but the tolls never disappeared.

Charles Lee, representing the Florida Audubon, urged the board to move aggressively on the construction of the Wekiva Parkway, a 21-mile stretch of road connecting from where State Road 429 ends in Apopka to the 417/Interstate 4 interchange in Seminole County, connecting parts of Lake, Orange and Seminole counties.  It would essentially create a beltway around Orlando.

Seminole County officials signed on to the project last August, while Lake County commissioners gave the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority permission to build it last October.

“I believe that it is incumbent on this organization and the members who serve on this board to place the Wekiva Parkway at the top of its priorities list,” Lee said.  “We have a golden moment here.”

It’s been estimated, he said, that the project would create up to 11,000 construction jobs, much needed at a time when the region’s unemployment rate remains mired in double digits.

He also said the Expressway Authority could save even more money by moving quickly to purchase the land needed for the roadway, since the real estate market remains in a serious slump.

“We have an opportunity to save the toll payers of this region hundreds of millions of dollars by moving quickly to acquire the right of way while real estate prices are down,” Lee said. “We have the opportunity to save many millions of dollars turning dirt.”

Charlie Williams, the volunteer president of the League of Women Voters, noted that his organization supports the expansion of a multi-modal transportation system in Central Florida, which includes both a high speed train and the Wekiva Parkway.

“We all know and love our Orlando area airport,” he said.  “But when it comes to our land port, what do you think of?”

The region needs to invest in improved transportation systems, and to move quickly to get them built, he said.

“When it comes to transportation, what you need to remind the average citizen is it can take seven years to build a road,” Williams said.

But Doug Guetzloe, chairman of the anti-tax group Ax The tax, countered that the Expressway Authority should instead pursue a very different agenda: abolishing itself.

“The issue is not whether or not there should be toll increases,” Guetzloe said.  “The issue is whether this board should exist.”

Guetzloe noted that the Expressway Authority was created by the state Legislature back in the 1960s to build a limited access roadway from Orange to Brevard County, and then to build State Road 408, which was completed in 1973.  But rather than disband and remove the tolls from this highway, the authority stayed around and continued building new roads – and adding new tolls, Guetzloe said.

“I believe – and I think a lot of citizens believe – that your mission is really completed,” he said.  “What you continue to do is build more roads and pass more tolls … and build more roads and pass more tolls.”

Guetzloe noted that the authority’s executive director, Michael Synder, has successfully carried out their mission of creating a highway network that gets local residents to other locations across Central Florida, and quickly.

“Mike Synder has done exactly what you’ve asked him to do, which is build roads,” Guetzloe said.  “You guys do build great roads. But it’s time that they become freeways.”

That would mean ending the toll system, rather than look at future toll hikes. He noted that local motorists are still angry at the toll hikes approved by the authority in 2009, and said the board risked angering them even further by going along with a scheduled hike in 2012.

“There is a simmering discontent among a lot of toll payers,” Guetzloe said.  “I would urge you to consider declaring your mission is over. This can be done.”

Tom Powell of Windermere took the view that the Expressway Authority would be around for a long time, and should consider establishing a system of internal auditing to ensure public money is being spent wisely.

“I searched the web site to see if there was a charter for the internal audit function, and I couldn’t find it,” Powell said. “What makes an organization function properly? One of them was to establish an internal audit function with a charter. When you have certain things in place, you contribute to the ethical soundness of the organization. When I see millions of dollars flow through this organization, as a citizen I am concerned. I’m just eager to see a strong ethical climate play out.”

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Re-Entry program helps criminal offenders get back into society, and avoid being incarcerated again.

TAVARES – Not long ago, the Florida Department of Corrections had a clear message for anyone who had been convicted of a crime, placed on probation, and then violated those rules: no second chances.

“In the past, their view was zero tolerance,” said Tony Deaton, probation director for the Lake County Department of Conservation and Compliance’s Probation Services Division.

Zero tolerance, though, eventually ran into a difficult reality: too many inmates were falling back into the prison system, leaving it overcrowded and increasingly expensive to maintain.  What prison officials discovered, Deaton said, is that a number of offenders wanted to obey the rules of probation and keep their noses clean and stay out of trouble, but they were coping with personal problems that made that a struggle.  What they really needed was a little help. That’s where Deaton and his office comes in.

“Their new philosophy,” Deaton said of the state Department of Corrections, “is re-entry into society.  When people get out of prison, we don’t want to keep filtering them through the system.”

“We haven’t had zero tolerance for years,” added Susan Kowalski, correctional probation officer for the Florida Department of Corrections, Probation and Parole in Lake County.  “Now we want to give them the tools to be successful. It’s about giving back to the community.”

The Lake County Probation Division and the Florida Department of Corrections and  Probation and Parole Offices partnered on Monday to hold a Re-entry Fair  at the Lake County Agricultural Center in Tavares.  It brought together more than thirty agencies ready to assist offenders returning to the community from jail.  The fair was a recognition that offenders face a complex number of challenges as they try to straighten out their lives, and introducing them to social service providers can be beneficial in the long run if it helps the offenders and their families.

Local residents take part in a Re-Entry Fair at the Lake County Agricultural Center in Tavares.

There were agencies at the fair representing a wide variety of programs and services, including assistance getting health care benefits, driver’s licenses, job development and education, housing, and restoration of their civil rights if they’ve been convicted of a felony.

“It’s a one stop shop where all the services are here,” Kowalski said.   “We try to get all the services at once.”

Deaton noted that the Lake County Corrections Department in Tavares houses thousands of offenders each year.

“We’ve got 13,000 people who get booked at our local jail,” he said, adding that the way to keep them from returning to jail is to give them to tools to become successful on the outside.

“What we find is certainly there’s a tremendous need for services in our county,” he said.  “And what we’re finding is when people are coming through the system and getting out of jail, they have a lot of issues to deal with.”

For some, the problem is substance abuse, and for others, mental health issues.  Other inmates lack an education or job skills.  They find it a struggle to readjust to life outside of jail.

“Sometimes they don’t even have an I.D.,” Deaton said.

Community corrections agencies alone can’t respond to the complex needs of people returning from jail and prison, Deaton said, so the offender re-entry program is designed to help them become productive, tax-paying citizens.

A bus brought to the Re-Entry Fair by the state agency Workforce Central Florida was staffed by people ready to help offenders find employment.

“We’ve got a tremendous representation of community resources here,” Deaton said.  “We wanted to bring the service providers together, and offenders can walk right in here and get assistance with a job, or education, or housing.  They families can come in here, too. This is open to the public.”

Assisting offenders, he said, save taxpayer dollars by lowering the cost of incarceration if it helps keep an inmate from re-offending.

“When offenders are successful, we’re successful,” Deaton said.  “We know that has an impact on crime reduction.  We can’t just rely on incarceration.”

One of the programs the fair’s hosts were promoting was the Federal Bonding Program. To help ex-prisoners who have a tough time finding a job after being in prison, the U.S. Department of Labor created the Federal Bonding Program to insure employees for up to a year.  FBP guarantees the trustworthiness of the worker and, in turns, provides incentives for businesses to hire ex-prisoners.

The fair also provided a list of local employers known to hire ex-offenders, and information on the state agency Workforce Central Florida, which helps job seekers – including ex-prisoners – put together a resume and find a job.

“We’re really pushing the Federal Bonding Program,” said Kowalski.  “When they get released from prison or come up for work release, the federal government can bond them, and it’s up to the offender to sell the program to an employer, to say ‘If you hire me, I will be bonded for six months to a year.’ This is for all the offenders in the Department of Corrections.”

To learn more about the Lake County Department of Conservation & Compliance’s Probation Services Division and future Re-Entry Fairs, call 352-742-6565.

To learn about the Federal Bonding Program, call 800-233-2258.

To contact Workforce Central Florida, call 407-531-1227 (East Orange County), 407-705-1555 (Osceola County) or 352-360-6280 (Lake or Sumter counties).

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