MADISON — Florida's longest-running case of absentee voter fraud reads almost like a novel.
Call it The Ballots of Madison County.
The FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents swooped into this tight-knit North Florida town after a 2010 election in which a winning School Board candidate reaped a suspicious-looking bounty of absentee votes.
The trouble began when School Board candidate Ricky Henderson beat rival Abra "Tina" Johnson at the polls and in early voting. But she topped him in absentee votes by nearly a 3-1 ratio and won the election by 28 votes.
Henderson filed a fraud complaint with the state, citing a "gross disparity" in absentee ballot voting. Investigators picked up the trail.
"Odd circumstances and intelligence information suggested fraudulent activity may have played a part in Johnson's victory," an FDLE report said.
After a yearlong investigation, eight people were charged with multiple counts of elections fraud, a third-degree felony. County Elections Supervisor Jada Woods Williams was charged with 17 counts of willful neglect of duty and was suspended from office by Gov. Rick Scott.
Johnson also was suspended from office and Scott appointed a replacement. She and her husband, Ernest, a local firefighter, are accused of asking voters to get absentee ballot request forms and then writing in different mailing addresses where the ballots were to be mailed.
Agents found that people were allowed to pick up more absentees for nonrelatives than the two allowed by law and that 80 ballots were mailed to nine addresses, including the apartment of Judy Ann Crumitie, a friend of Johnson's, who faces four fraud counts.
Four voters said their ballots were mailed to Crumitie's home without their consent.
"People were allowed to pick up more ballots than they were supposed to," FDLE agent Craig Riley said in a deposition.
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Madison, near the Georgia border about 60 miles east of Tallahassee, is a picturesque place that exudes history with its gently rolling fields, elegant homes with wrap-around porches and towering oak trees. What matters here is family, God and football — and not always in that order.
Official business came to a halt one recent morning as Madison held its homecoming high school football parade, and smiling cheerleaders rode on the hoods of shiny new Dodges.
Madison is home to Colin P. Kelly, America's first World War II hero. A stately granite monument in the center of town is dedicated to "Our Confederate soldiers."
The voter fraud case is the talk of Madison — no other such case in the state involves so many people — and has taken on racial overtones. (The county population is about 40 percent black.)
All nine defendants are African-American and all but one are women. They've been fingerprinted, photographed and had their police mug shots shown on local TV. The local NAACP held a rally on the steps of the county courthouse, protesting the arrests.
"A lot of these women had no criminal history whatsoever. They never felt they committed a crime," said attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Crumitie. "It has turned their lives upside down."
In a motion to dismiss the charges against his client, Crump argued that Crumitie did not demonstrate fraudulent intent because the four voters whose absentee votes she procured all wanted to vote for Johnson.
"The evidence presented in this case does not support a finding of fraud," Crump argued.
Crumitie, like other defendants, declined to comment. "I don't want to," she said.
In January, Crump and Crumitie summoned the media to the governor's office and said they were suing FDLE, accusing the state of a "violent voter suppression campaign" aimed at blacks in Madison. But no lawsuit has been filed.
"We want to deal with the criminal case first," Crump said.
"Their employers and their preachers are telling them to go ahead and admit their crime and do the time," said Crump, who also represents the family of Trayvon Martin. "But they say, 'We didn't do anything wrong.' "
Crump said prosecutor Willie Meggs tried to negotiate plea deals, but they refused and have filed motions to dismiss all charges.
The motions cite the fact that the Republican-controlled Legislature changed the law last year to allow absentee ballots to be sent to any address specified by the voter.
Meggs, who was assigned the case by the governor, declined to discuss it in detail, but said fraud is always a possibility when one person can obtain multiple absentee ballots.
"I'm convinced that the election laws were violated," Meggs said.
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The voter fraud case has yet to be tried — every defendant has asked for a separate trial — but life goes on.
In a recent edition of the Madison Enterprise-Recorder, a front-page headline said: "Pre-trial Hearings Continued Until December."
Henderson, the losing candidate whose fraud complaint broke open the case, often sees the defendants around town.
"It's no problem, to be honest," he said. "I wave at them and they wave back at me."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.