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Specialist says he was paid for ballots

A campaign consultant at the center of an investigation into alleged ballot fraud in a disputed mayor's race has told prosecutors that the campaigns of many central Florida politicians, including newly elected Sen. Mel Martinez, paid him to gather absentee ballots, according to his attorney.

Ezzie Thomas, who has been given immunity, is a specialist in getting out the absentee vote and has been hired for this service since 1998, attorney Dean Mosley said Friday.

"The problem is that you're not supposed to be paid to collect absentee ballots," Mosley said.

Thomas worked on the campaigns of Martinez when he served as Orange County chairman; Glenda Hood, former mayor of Orlando and current Florida secretary of state; Democratic Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer; state Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando; and Circuit Judge Alan Apte.

Thomas gave his statement to prosecutors four months ago as part of the investigation into Dyer's re-election in March.

Dyer received just over 50 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff.

Dyer and other politicians have not denied hiring Thomas, but the mayor said Thomas had tasks other than gathering absentee votes.

Thomas was paid $10,000 for "get-out-the-vote" efforts, according to campaign finance reports.

But Mosley indicated Thomas was hired only because of his work with absentee voters.

"His specialty was absentee-ballot work," Mosley said. "It would be logical to conclude he was paid for the work he specializes in."

Martinez was traveling in Israel and unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Kerry Feehery said Saturday.

The practice of paying ballot brokers was outlawed in 1998 when Florida cracked down on election fraud in the wake of a Miami mayor's race that was nullified by a judge, primarily due to fraudulent absentee ballots.

The law made it a third-degree felony to pay or accept money "for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting, delivering or otherwise physically possessing absentee ballots."

Thomas' statement to state prosecutors concerned ballot-collection work for Martinez when he ran for county chairman in 1998, Hood's 2000 mayoral campaign, Siplin's and Apte's campaigns in 2002, and Dyer's mayoral campaigns in 2003 and 2004, Mosley said.

Calls for comment Saturday to Dyer, Hood, Apte and Siplin were not returned or not answered.

Dyer's attorney, Robert Levanthal, called Mosley's comments "inappropriate and suspect."