Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

FDLE never interviewed GOP voter fraud whistle-blower

TALLAHASSEE — Criminal investigators couldn't find a better witness than Jeff Jewett.

Last year, Jewett was the field coordinator for a private vendor used by the Republican Party of Florida in Jacksonville, overseeing a staff of 32 people registering voters. He discovered that one of his employees turned in seven bogus forms: fake addresses, nonworking phone numbers, multiple signatures made in the same handwriting. He fired the employee, contacted elections officials and turned in the counterfeit forms.

Jewett's tip launched voter registration fraud case JA-32-0001, which would take Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents three months to close. The employee, a University of North Florida college student, admitted to investigators that he forged the forms. Because he had no criminal history, he got probation and was sentenced to 50 hours of community service.

Case closed, right?

Sure, except for one thing.

Jewett, the one who reported the crime, the one who supervised the employee and could best inform investigators if this was an isolated case or was more systemic, was never interviewed.

"I was surprised," Jewett said. "I figured they'd be interested in talking to me considering I was the one who turned him in."

Such a lack of initiative is baffling for an investigation into a crime that Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers had made a top priority in prosecuting and preventing. In the 18 months leading to last year's presidential campaign, they said the specter of voter registration fraud was so great that it was necessary to push for a purge of ineligible voters and a new law that made it harder to register voters.

Ironically, the only widespread incidents of voter registration fraud in last year's elections involved Republicans.

Jewett's case was one of five separate investigations involving Strategic Allied Consulting, a vendor hired by the Republican Party of Florida. While three remain open, investigators on Thursday closed a case involving at least 11 fraudulent applications filled out by the vendor in the Fort Myers area. No arrests were made because investigators concluded there was a lack of evidence.

According to FDLE records provided to the Times/Herald about the Jacksonville case, investigators interviewed the UNF student and another low-level staffer in a nearby office who admitted to forging applications. But they didn't follow up by interviewing the two staffers' supervisors, including Jewett.

"They never talked to the whistle-blower?" said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political scientist who analyzes state election laws, when told about Jewett. "That's unbelievable. You just wonder if the FDLE is sitting on this and hoping it withers away."

Strategic Allied Consulting was a largely unknown entity until Sept. 18, 2012, when Palm Beach County elections officials discovered fraudulent forms filed by the GOP vendor. The vendor said it fired two employees responsible, but a dozen other counties reported hundreds of similarly suspicious forms. The state Republican Party announced within days that it fired the vendor.

In October, the FDLE announced it would investigate Strategic Allied Consulting. From then on, news of the cases stopped.

Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the FDLE, said she can't discuss the open cases — in Pensacola, Miami and Tallahassee — until they're closed.

Jewett, 48, said the UNF student, Christian Davis Price, was lazy, and his fraud was easily detected. He said his staff was split evenly between college students and older, unemployed people looking for work. The jobs paid about $11 an hour, but Jewett said he was promoted quickly to field coordinator, where he earned $3,000 a month.

After the election, Jewett and his staff were let go. He said this week that he doesn't suspect any of his other employees turned in fraudulent forms.

But Ray Robbins, a 60-year-old unemployed salesman, worked for Jewett and said he believes at least a quarter of the staffers were turning in forged applications.

"Most of the people there were in their 20s, and they'd come in with big numbers," Robbins said. "I knew what side of town they were working on. Some would turn in 20 forms a day after working the Democratic side of town, and I would think, 'That's funny.' "

The pressure to fib was intense, Robbins said. He said Jewett demanded that staffers average 14 forms a day. If those numbers weren't reached, employees risked getting their pay cut, Robbins said.

"The pressure would cause you to do some funny business," said Robbins, who described himself as a staunch Republican. "I can see it. I'm too honest, but the kids these days want to work one day and get two days off."

Robbins didn't know about the fraud case that came from his office and said he was surprised Jewett wasn't interviewed.

"With Jeff, they could have gone up the ladder," Robbins said. "You'd think they'd want the biggest fish they could get."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]

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