Congressional inquiry into election on hold

Published March 21, 2007

After word surfaced last week that officials knew about a problem with Sarasota's touch screen machines before the election, it looked as if the U.S. House might launch an inquiry into the area's disputed congressional election.

Not so fast.

The Democratic-run committee has been talking about forming a three-person task force to investigate for weeks, but it still has not officially formed the group. Meanwhile, Republicans say nothing should be done until all the lawsuits are complete.

Republican Vern Buchanan has been sworn in but Democrat Christine Jennings is disputing the election in Florida courts and the U.S. House.

A Democratic staffer said Monday that a task force had been formed, composed of two Democrats Reps. Charles Gonzalez of Texas and Zoe Lofgren of California and one Republican (Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.) But that announcement was premature.

"There is no task force as of yet," Lofgren said. "I'm not sure, to be honest, when it will be formed."

Gonzalez, who is expected to lead the task force, confirmed Tuesday that Committee Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald asked him to be involved but said he didn't know when the official word would be made except to say he hoped it would be "very soon."

Last week, the nine Democratic House members from Florida urged the committee to create a task force.

But the committee's top Republican, Rep. Vernon Ehlers, said he hasn't asked any Republican to join the task force yet and doesn't feel one should be formed until after related lawsuits have been settled, as is its usual practice.

Late Tuesday, advocacy groups representing voters filed court papers accusing state officials and the voting machine maker of withholding information.

"It now appears that Sarasota election officials and the ES&S voting machine company misled us and the court," said Becky Steele, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0576.