Florida police find no evidence of voter fraud in Bloomberg plan to pay court debts

The probe was requested by Gov. Ron DeSantis following a Washington Post article.
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks during a rally Feb. 27, 2020, in Houston.
Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speaks during a rally Feb. 27, 2020, in Houston. [ MICHAEL WYKE | AP ]
Published May 5, 2021|Updated May 5, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — State police have dropped their investigation into a program by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to pay off court debts for Floridians with felony convictions so they could vote in last year’s presidential election.

After devoting more than 700 man hours to the case, which included reviewing 7,600 records and trying to interview more than 100 people, agents found no evidence that anyone was told to vote for a specific political party as a condition of having their outstanding court fees and fines paid off, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Wednesday.

Agents didn’t find any evidence that Bloomberg had donated to the effort, either. A Washington Post article in September, two months before the presidential election, cited an internal memo claiming Bloomberg raised more than $16 million to help 32,000 Black and Hispanic voters with felony convictions vote in Florida.

Floridians are prevented from voting if they still owe court fees and fines from their felony convictions, part of a long-running battle since voters approved a 2018 amendment restoring felons’ right to vote, known as Amendment 4.

Related: Celebrities spent millions so Florida felons could vote. Will it make a difference?

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the Amendment 4 effort, has been taking donations to pay off people’s debts since 2019, but the Post article prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to request Attorney General Ashley Moody open an investigation.

Other top Republicans, including state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, echoed that call, implying fraud. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, claimed the program amounted to “cherry-picking votes,” which could be an illegal inducement to get someone to vote under state law.

No evidence of illegal activity was found, according to a memo from the Department of Law Enforcement’s public corruption team. The department’s decision to close the case was first reported by Politico.

In October, agents served a subpoena on the Rights Restoration Coalition for all communication with Bloomberg and “all information” on its program to pay off fines and fees, including “how participants were selected,” according to the memo.

The coalition turned over 7,614 pages of records, which found that many of the donations to county clerk coffers came from Tides Advocacy, a left-leaning advocacy group.

“After a review of the data, no donations from Bloomberg were identified nor were any violations of Florida election laws ... found,” agents wrote.

Agents also requested all county court clerks turn over records relating to the coalition or payments received. They tried to contact a random sample of 112 people with felony convictions whose court debts were paid off through the program, reaching 10.

All of the information they obtained was consistent, agents wrote: The coalition “did not give guidance as to what particular political party or candidate to vote for.”

In November, the Times/Herald found that the coalition does not require, or even ask, whether the people whose fees were paid were registered to vote. The analysis found about 32 percent of the recipients were registered to vote, and many were unaware their court debts were paid off. County clerks have praised the program as helping revive their sagging budgets.

A spokesperson for Moody stood by the decision to open an investigation.

“The referral to FDLE emanated from Washington Post reporting alleging that Michael Bloomberg was paying money to influence the election,” Moody spokesperson Lauren Cassedy said in an email. “After an initial legal analysis of Florida law, the allegations merited referral for a review by FDLE.”

In a statement, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Executive Director Desmond Meade said he was “appreciative” of the efforts by state police to end the inquiry.

“Our movement is focused on putting people over politics,” Meade said. “Expanding democracy and strengthening communities is at the heart of our Fines and Fees Program. We look forward to continuing to defend justice, freedom, and democracy across the state of Florida.”