Saturday, February 24, 2018
Politics

Scheme to intimidate Florida GOP voters results in plea deal for Seattle man

TALLAHASSEE — A plan to get back at Florida Republicans for a 2012 purge aimed at ineligible voters backfired on a Seattle man, who now faces up to six years in prison and more than $350,000 in fines.

According to a U.S. Attorney's Office plea agreement filed Monday in Tampa's U.S. District Court, James Webb Baker Jr., 58, sent about 200 letters a month before the 2012 presidential election to prominent Florida Republicans in an effort to intimidate them and interfere with their voting rights.

When contacted by phone in Seattle, Baker referred questions to his attorney, Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons.

"Mr. Baker regrets the events which led to these charges," Fitzgibbons said in a statement. "He has acknowledged and accepted responsibility for his actions, and we look forward to the conclusion of this matter."

Though he lives 3,000 miles away, Florida politics pulled Baker into his current legal troubles. About October 2012, Baker had read online articles about efforts by Gov. Rick Scott and Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to remove people from the official county lists of eligible voters. The stories reported that county officials were identifying registered voters whose eligibility was questioned, then sending them letters informing them that they may be ineligible to vote.

Baker believed this was being done to suppress voter turnout, according to the plea agreement.

"(Baker) believed that the efforts of (Scott) and (Detzner) were targeted at Hispanic voters who would likely vote for candidates of the Democratic Party," the plea agreement stated. "(Baker) believed that some of the recipients of such letters would not vote, and this belief angered him."

So Baker created "copycat" letters of the ones that were sent by county officials. He sent 200 of these letters to Republican Party donors in Florida. Using a Xerox Phaser 6180 printer he bought from Craigslist.com, Baker tried to avoid detection by wearing gloves and using a sponge to seal the envelopes.

"(Baker) knew his actions were unlawful, and he knew his actions were intimidating, threatening or coercive," the plea agreement stated. "The defendant sent the letters for the purpose of interfering with the recipients' right to vote."

Baker used his home computer to find what he believed to be an actual letter sent by a Florida county official. He created a template for his false letters, including the names and titles of relevant county officials.

Recipients including Lenny Curry, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, were chosen by Baker from a list of people who contributed to Scott's 2010 gubernatorial campaign. He whittled the donor list by eliminating corporations and partnerships and by selecting recipients from a range of Florida counties. He then created false letters that appeared to be written by each addressee's home county supervisor of elections.

The recipients were told that, to restore their eligibility, they had 15 days to fill out a voter registration form. Baker inserted a warning, in bold, that anyone who casts a vote without being properly registered may face criminal prosecution.

"(Baker) made these changes, in part, to stress the threat to the recipient that he or she was going to lose their right to vote and/or their liberty through imprisonment if they did not first document their citizenship and right to vote in person to the registrar," the plea agreement stated. "The defendant enclosed the same voter eligibility form without any changes that was enclosed in the actual letters sent by Florida county officials."

Baker sent the envelopes from a U.S. postal office in Seattle. He purchased a "Federal Way" postmark in hopes that it would be less conspicuous to the recipient. Letters were received by residents in 27 Florida counties.

Although he faces six years in prison, guidelines suggest he'll serve considerably less time than that. Baker's hearing is expected to take place in late May or June.

Times staff writer Patty Ryan contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]

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