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Broward elections chief ousted

Miriam Oliphant is suspended for mishandling elections, but the Senate must approve her removal.

Published November 21, 2003

[AP photo]
Miriam Oliphant's "continuing failures" led to her removal Thursday.

TALLAHASSEE - The chaotic reign of Miriam Oliphant ended Thursday with Gov. Jeb Bush suspending the Broward County elections supervisor for "neglect of duty, incompetence, and misfeasance."

In a seven-page executive order, Bush cited Oliphant's "proven, repeated and continuing failures" in office and "the substantial likelihood for greater harm" at the polls next year when his brother will be running for re-election as president.

"Voters have been ill served by her leadership," Bush said.

At her office in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a tearful Oliphant collected personal items and said goodbye to employees, hugging them one by one, an employee said. Then, at Bush's direction, sheriff's deputies escorted her out.

"I'm not happy about this, but at least it stops the twisting in the wind," said David Bogenschutz, Oliphant's attorney.

Bush carefully navigated racial politics in choosing a replacement.

The governor appointed another African-American Democratic woman, Brenda Snipes, 60, a retired elementary school principal with a doctorate in education leadership.

Ten months ago, Bush rejected a request from the Broward County Commission to suspend Oliphant, saying he saw no evidence of "intentional wrongdoing." But a second scathing analysis of Oliphant's performance by a state review team led Bush to conclude that her "neglect and denial" warranted her suspension.

Bush used a provision in Florida's Constitution that allows him to suspend an official for "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties of commission of a felony."

Oliphant had been on shaky ground for more than a year after a 2002 primary when some precincts opened late and others closed early because Oliphant didn't hire enough poll workers. Bush ordered the polls open an extra two hours. Thousands of ballots were uncounted for a week.

Bush also faulted her for keeping 268 uncounted absentee ballots from 2002 in a file cabinet, dismissing top staffers, leaving key jobs unfilled, running a budget deficit and conducting a flawed election last month in which 17,000 mail-in ballots were returned as "undeliverable." Fifteen of the agency's 69 positions are vacant.

Last week, three former election workers filed a federal whistle blower lawsuit, accusing Oliphant of pressuring them to lie to state investigators and then firing them for not following her orders.

Oliphant has eclipsed Theresa LePore, creator of the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County in 2000, as the symbol of Florida electoral ineptitude. Critics, including Bush, said Oliphant blamed others for her own mistakes.

Even hard-line Democrats loath to agree with Bush said the suspension was overdue.

"I'm sorry this day had to come, but somebody had to do it," said John Coleman, a Democratic activist in Hollywood.

Oliphant also lost the support of much of Broward's black political establishment. Those unwilling to publicly criticize kept their distance.

Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion said his support of Oliphant crumbled after she began dismissing hard-working staff members.

"Many of our ancestors died for the right to vote, and register to vote, and that right should never be abridged or tinkered with negatively in any way, even from one of your own," Eggelletion said last week, referring to African-Americans. "The issue of the right to vote is bigger than any one person."

Oliphant owed her political success to two Democrats: Broward's long-time public defender, Alan Schreiber, and the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.

In 1991, Chiles appointed Oliphant to fill a vacancy on the Broward School Board. She was immediately popular with students and teachers but board members said Oliphant didn't do enough homework before meetings.

When Republican Jane Carroll retired in 2000 after more than three decades of running Broward's elections, Oliphant won the race to succeed her with the help of the Schreiber political machine. Oliphant had been a witness coordinator for Schreiber.

The Oliphant saga is not over.

The state Senate must approve the suspension. Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, has 90 days to decide how to proceed. He vowed a "deliberate, thorough, and fair" review, but Oliphant will find few defenders in the Senate.

- Times staff writers Marcus Franklin and Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 21, 2003, 01:16:48]

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