FDLE built case against former Marco Island City Councilor Victor Rios with neighbors' help

Marco Island City Councilor Victor Rios speaks during a Council meeting on Oct. 5, 2020.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to reflect that attorneys and condo board members say term limits cannot be applied retroactively.

Recently filed court records reveal how neighbors of former Marco Island City Councilor Victor N. Rios helped the Florida Department of Law Enforcement build a forgery case against him.

Rios, 78, is accused of forging ballot envelopes to try to keep his seat on the Belize condo association board in March 2019 after several condo owners reported having ballots cast in their names without their authorization or knowledge, court records show.

Ballot envelopes contained the personal identification information of the victims, including their names, condo numbers and forged signatures, and a lab analysis of envelopes discovered a DNA profile that matched Rios, according to an FDLE news release.

Rios turned himself into the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Department of Corrections on Feb. 5 on three counts of forgery of a ballot envelope and three counts of criminal use of personal identification information, according to the release.

Rios has declined to comment on the matter.

In case you missed it:Former Marco Island City Council vice chair charged with forging Belize condo votes

From 2019:Rios denies neighbor's accusation of 'ballot-forging'

In the affidavit for Rios' arrest warrant, FDLE special agent Philip B. Larkin wrote the board election was "contentious and very divisive" as there was discussion about the results and the high voter turnout in an election where four candidates ran for two seats.

Rios, who was board president, received 90 votes, and vice president Joseph Shady received 70, Larkin wrote.

Newcomers Tom Hansen and Charles Faruki received 68 and 65 votes, respectively, Larkin wrote.

In total, 144 ballots were received out of 148 units for a 97% participation rate, Joseph Fleming, a Belize condo resident, wrote in a complaint filed with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Florida Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes one month after the election. 

In contrast, 121 ballots were received in the 2018 election for an 82% participation rate, Fleming wrote.

Fleming declined to comment Tuesday.

Marco Island City Councilor Victor Rios speaks during a council meeting on Oct. 19, 2020.

Larkin wrote the condo's election rules stated that each condo owner could vote one time.

In order for the vote to be valid, the owner had to put the ballot inside the inner envelope and seal it, making no marks on the outside to ensure voter privacy, Larkin wrote. They had to place the inner envelope into the outer envelope and seal it, writing on it their name, condo unit number, date the vote was cast and signature.

Sometime after the election, condo residents Wendy Rubin and Kim Chulick requested that condo manager Richard Slattery allow them to inspect the ballots and the outer envelopes as they were entitled to do as members of the association, Larkin wrote.

Rubin and Chulick said they found similar handwriting on 18 outer envelopes, and Rubin took photos with her cellphone, Larkin wrote. They said they subsequently contacted the 18 owners and that all said they had not voted, he wrote.

Larkin wrote Rubin and Chulick turned their findings over to Fleming because they knew he had hired the law firm Holland and Knight to have Rios and Shady removed as directors. 

Rubin and Chulick declined to comment Tuesday.

Marco Island City Councilor Victor Rios speaks during a Council meeting on Sept. 9, 2020.

Holland and Knight requested and received sworn affidavits from 12 of the 18 owners who said they did not submit a ballot nor authorize anybody to vote on their behalf, Larkin wrote.

Because of amendments to state condo laws in recent years, condo owners cannot serve on a condo board for more than eight consecutive years unless approved by two-thirds of all votes cast in an election or unless there are not enough eligible candidates to fill the vacancies on the board at the time of the vacancy.

In 2018, DBPR issued a declaratory statement requested by a different Marco Island condo association saying that its board members' years of service prior to the effective date of the statute must be counted toward the term limit.

Rios and Shady had been serving on the board for about 12 years each, but various attorneys and condo board members say the term limit cannot be applied retroactively.

On April 17, 2019, Holland and Knight sent a letter to the association putting it on notice of the alleged ballot forging and election irregularities and demanded the resignation of Rios. The firm also demanded the resignation of Shady citing the recent amendments and DBPR's declaratory statement.

On April 26, Fleming filed the DBPR complaint requesting that the agency remove Rios and Shady from the board and prevent Rios from seeking reelection. Fleming also requested that Faruki and Hansen be appointed to the board and for the agency to investigate the alleged crimes.

On May 15, DBPR forwarded the allegations to the Marco Island Police Department, a copy of an email provided by MIPD shows. To guarantee an impartial investigation, MIPD notified FDLE a day later because Rios was a sitting city councilor, a police report provided by MIPD shows.

Rios and Shady resigned from the condo's board of directors days later citing DBPR's declaratory statement, copies of the resignation letters provided by Holland and Knight in 2019 show.

Shady said Tuesday he was not involved in the alleged condo election fraud.

"If it was done, I had no knowledge of it whatsoever," Shady said.

"I do not have a case on anyone named Joseph Shady," Samantha Syoen, communications director with the State Attorney's Office, wrote in an email Wednesday.

As the investigation ran its course, Faruki and Hansen replaced Rios and Shady on the board, and Slattery, the condo manager, voluntarily turned over all ballots and envelopes to FDLE, Larkin wrote. 

Denise Minacapelli, administrator at Belize, said Faruki and Hansen are the president and vice president, respectively, of the board of directors.

The Marco Eagle was unable to contact Faruki and Hansen.

Larkin wrote FDLE conducted numerous interviews with condo owners, board members and administrators, and the 12 owners who signed the affidavits confirmed to FDLE they did not vote.

FDLE selected the outer ballot envelopes of Rios and purported ballots from condo owners Veronica Lang, Diane Shottenkirk and John Vella for DNA comparison, according to Larkin.

"The DNA samples were collected from the area of the outer ballot envelope seal," Larkin wrote.

DNA results showed the outer envelopes containing the purported ballots of Vella and Lang and Rios' ballot contained the same DNA profile of an unknown male, Larkin wrote. The outer envelope of Shottenkirk's ballot contained the DNA profile of an unknown female. 

Shottenkirk said Tuesday her signature was not forged and that she voted herself.

It is unclear why Rios faces three counts of forgery and three counts of criminal use of personal identification information instead of two of each given Shottenkirk's statement that she is not a victim in the case.

FDLE spokeswoman Jessica Cary wrote in an email Wednesday the agency cannot discuss evidence or details of the case.

The Marco Eagle was unable to contact Lang and Vella.

Councilor Victor Rios speaks during a Marco Island City Council meeting on March 2, 2020.

More than a year after the condo election, Collier Circuit Judge Blake Adams issued a search warrant on May 29, 2020, to compel Rios to submit to the collection of DNA samples, Larkin wrote.

On June 1, FDLE special agents Larkin and Kendall Norman served the search warrant, taking two DNA samples from Rios' mouth in Cabana C of the condo, Larkin wrote.

"Rios was represented by Ron Campbell, Esq. of the firm Cole, Scott and Kissan during the DNA sample collection process," Larkin wrote.

On July 7, a crime laboratory analyst of the Fort Myers Regional Operations Center issued a report stating that Rios' DNA from the swabs matched the DNA found on the outer envelopes containing purported ballots from Vella and Lang and Rios' ballot.

Larkin wrote he found probable cause that Rios committed the alleged crimes to try to alter the results of the election in order to remain on the board.

From 2020:Marco Island City Councilor Victor Rios to resign for 'personal reasons'

In October of last year, Rios resigned as councilor, citing personal reasons, and announced he was moving away from Marco Island.

Rios told the Marco Eagle at the time of his resignation that he did not want to go into detail about why he resigned.

"It's personal family issues that I have to deal with," Rios said.

The Rios family owns a house in Jacksonville that was built last year, public records show.

In an interview with the Marco Eagle in 2019, Rios characterized the complaint filed against him as a "defamation of character" and denied he did anything unlawful.

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

Rios was first elected to City Council in 2014 and was reelected in 2018, serving as vice chairman in 2019. His second term was set to expire in 2022.

Prior to his time as councilor, Rios volunteered with the city's beach advisory committee for three years and Collier County's coastal advisory committee for eight years, according to the city's website.

Rios' court arraignment is scheduled for March 8 in Naples, a court document shows.

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.