HIALEAH, Fla. – State Rep. Ralph Arza resigned Wednesday and was charged with two felonies in connection with leaving obscenity-filled messages and a racial slur on a colleague's voice mail.
State prosecutors charged Hialeah Republican Arza, 46, with one felony count each of retaliating against and tampering with a witness. Arza's cousin, 25-year-old Paulino Barbon Jr., was also charged with the same two counts. Both men could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
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Arza had been urged to resign by House Republicans and Gov. Jeb Bush after the messages left on Rep. Gus Barreiro's voice mail became public.
Authorities said a total of ten phone calls were made between Oct. 21 and Oct. 22 to Barreiro from phones belonging to Arza and Barbon. Five threatening calls were recorded, two from Arza's cell phone and three from Barbon's phone.
The men were expected to turn themselves in Thursday, according to the Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle.
"What he did was reduce himself from a respected state lawmaker to the level of nothing more than a common street thug," Rundle said.
Earlier in the day, Arza apologized for his actions, asked for forgiveness and said he hoped his resignation would show he accepted the consequences of the messages. He said he didn't want to distract from the work of the Republican-dominated Legislature.
"I did something that obviously I wish I could go back and erase," the former high school football coach and history teacher told reporters as he stood flanked by family and supporters.
"It's not really a happy day for anybody, I don't think," said Barreiro, R-Miami Beach. "I think he made the right decision, the right decision, not only for himself, but I thought he looked at the bigger picture, which is the institution he represents. I wish him the best."
Arza's resignation came just an hour before a special House panel was set to begin hearings on the case in Tallahassee. House Speaker Allan Bense appointed the panel to consider whether Arza should be expelled or suffer a lighter punishment. Arza had been expected to attend the hearings.
Rundle said his resignation would have no bearing on the criminal case.
Arza previously acknowledged leaving the messages last month but said he was drunk.
He said he had learned that Barreiro had filed a complaint alleging he had earlier used a racial epithet when referring to Miami-Dade County school superintendent Rudy Crew, who is black. He used the same epithet in his phone message to Barreiro, who is Hispanic.
Arza said Wednesday his calls to Barreiro were made out of "frustration of eight months of being attacked unfairly for being a racist."
Arza has vehemently denied that he ever used a racial slur to refer to Crew and said in an interview last week with The Associated Press that the controversy has exposed him to unfair scorn in the black community, and that that was one of his biggest regrets.
Crew on Wednesday called the situation "a tragedy all the way around," but said Arza was right to leave the Legislature.
"I believe now we can get back to essentially mending and healing the community around these issues, and I can get back to work," Crew told reporters.
Bush also said resigning was the right thing. But he said he adamantly believed that the messages Arza left were out of character, and lamented that a mistake would unfairly define his legacy as a politician.
"The Ralph Arza I knew is a person of person of honor, of intelligence, of passion and he was a partner in our education reform efforts and I think that people should remember that Ralph Arza, not the one that made a big mistake," Bush said.
Incoming House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-Miami, also praised Arza's record before the incident.
"This chapter is now closed, it is time for all of us to begin the healing process and work together," Rubio said.
State Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, who is black, said Arza should have resigned sooner.
"I think it took so long because a lot of times when people are elected officials, they are covered with Teflon and nothing is going to happen to them," Wilson told WSVN-TV.
The Republican Party will choose a replacement for Arza for the general election less than a week away, but his name will still be on the ballot. The situation will be similar to what has happened in former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley's district, when the GOP replaced him with Joe Negron.
"Any vote for Arza would be contributed to the new nominee," said state Division of Elections spokeswoman Jenny Nash.