Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition

Delray Beach man enters plea deal in voter fraud case

- By Angie DiMichele Informatio­n from the Associated Press contribute­d to this report.

One of the 20 convicted felons arrested in August by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office of Election Crimes and Security for illegally voting entered a plea agreement with statewide prosecutor­s this week.

Luis Villaran, 64, of Delray Beach, pleaded guilty to charges of false affirmatio­n and voting as an unqualifie­d elector, both third-degree felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He was sentenced to time served — one day in jail — and six months of probation.

Villaran must pay a total of $1,500 for prosecutio­n and investigat­ion costs by Aug. 8, according to court records. Failure to pay could result in the debt being sent to collection­s, Villaran’s driver’s license being suspended or his arrest.

Villaran, who was convicted of a felony sexual offense in 2014, registered to vote in February 2020 and voted in the 2020 primary and general elections. He and the other Florida residents who were arrested in August had each been convicted of murder or sex offenses, excluding them from the constituti­onal amendment approved by voters in 2018 that restored voting rights for convicted felons.

The arrests were made by state officers shortly after DeSantis created the Office of Election Crimes and Security, designed to ensure election integrity. It was seen by some Democrats as a political move.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcemen­t agent interviewe­d Villaran at his home several days before he was arrested. He acknowledg­ed that he had checked the box on his voter registrati­on applicatio­n that indicated he was a convicted felon who had his voting rights restored, a probable cause affidavit said.

Villaran said he checked the box by “mistake” and said to the agent, “Maybe I am confused,” the affidavit said. A second box on the applicatio­n asked whether Villaran had his rights restored by the Board of Executive Clemency, which he left blank. He told the agent he never received any documents that said his voting rights were restored.

Villaran’s sister was in the room when her brother spoke to the agent. Villaran asked her a question in Spanish, and his sister answered to the agent, “Are you asking if he voted in November 2020, if we voted for Trump or Biden, yes we did vote,” the affidavit said.

Villaran’s attorney declined to be interviewe­d Thursday. Emails to the Office of the Attorney General seeking comment about Villaran’s case were not returned.

Annual report

DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidenti­al candidate, pushed the state Legislatur­e to create the election police unit to address voter fraud concerns that have proliferat­ed in the GOP following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his reelection was stolen.

Voter fraud is rare, typically occurs in isolated instances and is generally detected. An Associated Press investigat­ion of the 2020 presidenti­al election found fewer than 475 potential cases of voter fraud out of 25.5 million ballots cast in the six states where Trump and his allies disputed his loss to Democratic President Joe Biden. DeSantis has previously praised Florida for carrying out a smooth election in 2020.

The Office of Election Crimes and Security released its first annual report in January, touting the 20 arrests and the arrests of two others on similar charges but who were not convicted felons.

The office investigat­ed Alford Nelson, 57, of Lauderhill, and forwarded their findings to the Florida Department of Law Enforcemen­t. Nelson, who was born in Jamaica, allegedly registered to vote using a fraudulent birth certificat­e and voted illegally in the 2020 elections despite not being a U.S. citizen.

He was arrested in October on two counts of voting as an unqualifie­d elector. His case is pending.

The report also cited the November arrest of Cheryl Ann Leslie, 55, of Loxahatche­e, who was accused of voting in 2020 elections in both Florida and Alaska. Her case is also pending.

The Office of Election Crimes and Security received over 2,000 complaints of alleged election law violations or “irregulari­ties,” according to the report. The office has “conducted hundreds of preliminar­y investigat­ions” since its inception “with many resulting in criminal referrals to law enforcemen­t,” the report said, and “a number of criminal conviction­s have been secured” while others are pending.

Nearly 300 instances of alleged election law violations or “irregulari­ties” were investigat­ed in Broward County in 2020, according to the office’s report. Nearly 250 instances were investigat­ed in Palm Beach County and about 230 in Miami-Dade County.

Some of those cases were referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcemen­t or the Office of the Attorney General. Many of the cases were closed after the Office of Election Crimes and Security’s preliminar­y investigat­ion determined there was not enough evidence to refer it to law enforcemen­t or law enforcemen­t declined to pursue the case, the report showed.

“Enforcing Florida election law has the primary effect of punishing violators, but also and equally as important, acts as a deterrent to those who may consider voting illegally or committing other election related crimes,” the report said.

Other cases

Villaran was one of eight South Florida residents arrested in August. Judges in Broward and Miami-Dade County have dismissed cases against three others.

In late December, a Broward County judge signed an order dismissing the case against Terry Hubbard, 63, of Pompano Beach. Cases in Miami-Dade County against Ronald Lee Miller, 57, of Miami, and Robert Lee Wood, 56, of Opa-locka, have also been dismissed.

In all three, the judges determined that the Office of Statewide Prosecutio­n did not have jurisdicti­on to prosecute. The statewide office can only prosecute crimes that occurred in two or more counties. In Hillsborou­gh County, a jury found Nathan Hart, 49, of Gibsonton, guilty of false affirmatio­n but not guilty of voting as an unqualifie­d elector Tuesday night, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Hart will be sentenced on Feb. 27.

Hart was offered a plea deal that would result in two years of probation, but he rejected it, the newspaper reported. A judge offered Hart no punishment aside from the time he served in jail in exchange for pleading guilty, but he rejected that as well.

Among the South Florida residents whose cases are still pending: Palm Beach County

Leo Grant Jr., 55, of South Bay; Robert Simpson, 64, of Pahokee. Broward County

Nathaniel Singleton, 71, of Fort Lauderdale;

Eugene Suggs, 65, of Miami.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States