Rios denies neighbor's accusation of 'ballot-forging'

Vice-chair Victor Rios participates in the City Council's Capital Budget Workshop on May 20.

Marco Island city councilor and vice-chair Victor Rios said Wednesday in an interview with the Marco Eagle that a neighbor's claim that he forged ballots to win a recent condominium board election is a "defamation of character" and denied he did anything unlawful.

"I swear on the Bible I have never committed an illegal act," Rios said.

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Joseph Fleming, a Belize at Cape Marco condo owner and neighbor of Rios, filed a complaint on April 26 with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) against Rios claiming that he "engaged in a fraudulent scheme of ballot-forging" in March to get another candidate and himself re-elected to the board of directors of the Belize Condominium Association. 

"Subsequent to the election, it was discovered that 16 of the ballots ... cast were submitted under the names of unit owners who did not cast such votes during the election," the complaint says. 

Fleming's complaint with the Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes of DBPR includes two key elements to try to prove that Rios forged ballots. 

Ten Belize at Cape Marco condo owners signed affidavits saying that they did not cast ballots in the March 22 annual election of the association despite the fact that ballots with their name and what may seem as their signatures were tallied.

The Belize at Cape Marco condominium is located on 970 Cape Marco Drive.

Copies of these affidavits are presented in the complaint as exhibit D.

In addition, the complaint includes a preliminary report prepared by a forensic document and handwriting examiner to determine whether the questioned handwriting in the ballots were executed by different authors or if it had possibly been forged.

The report was signed by Rosemarie Urbanski of the Drake Group, a company that provides private investigation services of many types, including forensic science, financial fraud investigations and counterintelligence, according to the Drake Group website.

Drake Investigations has been providing private investigation services for more than 40 years, according to its website.

"There are indications that Victor Rios authored the hand printing executed upon Items Q (1-15)," the Drake Group report says.

"Q (1-15)" refers to the 15 questioned items that were submitted for examination and comparison to one another. 

"Known samples of handwriting / printing of Victor Rios were also submitted for examination and comparison to the questioned items," the report says.

The Florida 2018 Statutes says that "forgery of a ballot envelope or voting certificate used in a condominium association election is punishable as provided in s. 831.01."

If proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal court, the individual accused shall be guilty of a felony of the third degree.

The complaint against Rios remains as a civil matter, not criminal, at least for now.

DBPR referred the complaint to Marco Island Police Department (MIPD) who then referred it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

In an email, Capt. Dave Baer confirmed that MIPD received a complaint from the DBPR.  "Upon receipt of DBPR’s complaint it immediately referred the complaint, and any investigation, to FDLE," wrote Baer. "Whenever possible, it is considered a best practice to refer complaints which involve sitting council persons to an outside law enforcement entity with relevant jurisdiction. Doing so removes any conflict of interest concerns."

A communications coordinator for FDLE, Jeremy Burns, confirmed that the state agency received the complaint against Rios.

"(We) are currently reviewing it to determine if a full investigation is warranted," Burns said.

Rios voluntarily resigned May 17 from Belize at Cape Marco's board of directors. The other candidate named in the complaint, Joseph Shady, also resigned.

Shady has been in the news before. In 2017, Rios provided Shady with a prefabricated letter to the editor criticizing two other councilors at the time.

Rios emailed the letter to Shady with instructions to copy and paste a prefabricated letter to the editor and submit it to the Naples Daily News, Marco Eagle and another local newspaper.

More:Marco Island Councilor Victor Rios promotes letter criticizing peers

Rios unintentionally sent the email to Marco Eagle editor Bill Green instead of Shady.

In a letter to the Belize board, Rios said the only reason he was resigning was because of a fairly recent Florida law amendment that seeks to prevent board members from serving more than 8 years unless the election meets certain requirements.

 "A board member may not serve more than 8 consecutive years unless approved by an affirmative vote of unit owners representing two-thirds of all votes cast in the election or unless there are not enough eligible candidates to fill the vacancies on the board at the time of the vacancy," the Florida Condominium Act says.

Rios said that he ran for the board of directors in 2019 believing this law did not apply retroactively.

"Since there are some on The Belize who believe the statute applies, I will resign in hopes the healing can begin in this wonderful place," Rios wrote in his resignation letter. 

Vice-chair Victor Rios participates in the City Council's Capital Budget Workshop on May 20.

Rios said he has been a board of directors member since 2006, running sometimes unopposed, and that the board has selected him as its president year after year ever since. 

Fleming's lawyer, Melissa S. Turra, said Wednesday in a phone call to the Eagle that no decision has been in regards to her client's next step.

"My client's primary concern is that the association is properly governed by a properly elected board of directors," Turra said.

During his interview, Rios said several times that he had nothing to do with the alleged fraud.

"When the investigation is completed by authorities I expect to be completely cleared," said Rios, who is on his second and last term as city councilor.