Local politicians call him the absentee ballot king.
Before each election, Ezzie Thomas appears at the homes of hundreds of black voters and picks up their absentee ballots.
In a predominately black Orlando neighborhood, it seems everyone knows the 73-year-old Thomas. He was the local television repair man for years, extending credit to black residents when no one else would.
But now Thomas' tactics in the spring Orlando mayoral election are at the center of a controversy that once again has put Florida elections in the national spotlight. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated Thomas, closed its case, then reopened it. Now the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are investigating the FDLE investigation.
Critics of Thomas' methods argue they are illegal and give Democrats an edge. Critics of the FDLE investigation say all candidates go after absentee ballots like Thomas does and call the probe an attempt to scare black residents into not voting in November, which would help Republicans.
"If there was evidence of widespread absentee ballot fraud, I don't think anyone would question their right to investigate," said Democratic lawyer Joseph Egan, who wonders why the FDLE would focus so hard on someone like Thomas.
Since the investigation began, writers from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Independent of London have weighed in. An international elections commission began interviewing witnesses last week.
How did something so local become so big?
It started on election night in March at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office. As results in the mayor's race trickled in, it appeared challenger Ken Mulvaney may have won enough votes to force a runoff election with Buddy Dyer.
But someone told Mulvaney's brother that Dyer had swept the absentee ballots. Brian Mulvaney was new to campaigns, but he could not see how that could happen.
The next day two black activists called Brian Mulvaney and told him to look at the absentee ballots. It turned out Thomas' signature was on about 265 absentee ballots as a witness. Other people who were paid $100 by Thomas witnessed another 100 ballots.
Mulvaney's group began knocking on voters' doors. Most voters whom Thomas helped were elderly. A few were blind.
Exactly what happened in some of those homes is in dispute. Thomas, who was paid $10,000 by the Dyer campaign, says he only showed voters how to properly fill out ballots. He also would take a ballot if people asked.
But others said Thomas did more.
Some voters handed Thomas blank ballots, without votes marked. Others didn't seal ballots in an envelope.
"He'll tell you where to sign it," said Rose Lee Jackson. "I never sealed none of them."
"He'd be the one to write it all out," said Martha Glenn. "He asked me who do I want to vote for. He had the people's names. He'd call them off and everything."
No one claimed Thomas gave them money. No one saw Thomas change a vote.
Democrats say minority voters accept the practice, which makes it easier to vote. Critics say it invites fraud. It also violates a seldom-enforced law against getting paid to request, collect or physically possess absentee ballots.
Republicans, who have mastered absentee ballot campaigns, say they don't collect voters' ballots by hand.
"I've never heard of that," said consultant Mark Proctor. "That's pretty aggressive."
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A week after the election, Brian Mulvaney called Orlando police. "What was happening was illegal," he said.
Months passed. Then he read in the Orlando Sentinel that Dyer had been cleared.
In a letter, FDLE regional director Joyce Dawley said the agency found no basis to charges that Dyer campaign staffers had illegally collected absentee ballots.
Dawley said later that someone _ she can't recall who _ asked her to issue the letter.
Mulvaney called FDLE and asked how agents could clear Dyer when they had not interviewed him.
Dawley apologized and said she only meant to clear Dyer, not close the entire case.
After she met with Mulvaney, the investigation began again. A week later, FDLE agents talked about big-time charges. Agent Wayne Ivey told the Sentinel the investigation could lead to racketeering charges.
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In early June, FDLE agents began knocking on voters' doors in Lake Mann Homes, a public housing complex on Orlando's west side.
When they first stopped by Hattie Bowman's house, she wasn't home. So agents questioned her 9-year-old daughter. They wanted to know where mom was, who she was with, what type of car she drove.
When Bowman returned, she could see firearms under the agents' coats. They told her they were conducting a criminal investigation.
"When they said "criminal,' I said, "Oh my God,' " Bowman said. They wanted to ask her 19 questions _ on tape.
"As scared as I was," she said, "I didn't believe it."
She knew it was legal to vote by absentee ballot. And she did that again during the Aug. 31 primary.
About a mile away, agents asked voter Annie Justice if Thomas bribed her.
"If he bought votes, I want my money," she joked.
The agents didn't frighten her either, she said.
"I am not easily intimidated _ believe me," she said.
In late June, Thomas called a news conference to decry the FDLE's tactics. Democratic activists claimed scores of voters were too scared to vote absentee.
"There are African-Americans who believe that if you vote absentee, you will have cops showing up at your door," said Egan, the Democratic lawyer.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert compared the FDLE to sheriffs who suppressed the black vote in the segregated South.
FDLE agents said they behaved professionally and will release tapes of the interviews at the end of the investigation to show it.
"The notion that anyone was intimidated is more of a political notion than a factual reality," spokesman Tom Berlinger said.
One thing is certain. Egan said Thomas "is scared to death."
Thomas' criminal defense lawyer has begun cooperating with prosecutors and now defends the FDLE's conduct. "They were just doing their job," attorney Dean Mosley said.
Prosecutors questioned Thomas under a subpoena that gave him immunity from prosecution, Mosley said.
"I can't believe they want to prosecute a 73-year-old man who thought he was doing a public service," Mosley said. "I think their target is some elected officials."
Meanwhile, Thomas spends his days behind the screen door of his ranch house. For November's general election, he doesn't plan to collect a single absentee ballot.
Times staff writer David Karp can be reached at karpsptimes.com or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8430.
Critics of Ezzie Thomas argue that his methods are illegal and give Democrats an edge. Critics of an FDLE investigation say all candidates go after absentee ballots like Thomas does and call the probe an attempt to scare black residents into not voting.