St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Elections firm has ties to Pinellas

The county elections supervisor's husband worked for and consults for ES&S, a maker of voting equipment that the county may buy.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2001

The county elections supervisor's husband worked for and consults for ES&S, a maker of voting equipment that the county may buy.

While Deborah Clark worked as a top official in the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office, her husband's employer was awarded more than $400,000 in business with the office.

Now, Clark heads the office, and that company, Elections Systems & Software, is a leading contender to land a lucrative contract -- worth as much as $15-million -- to sell new voting machines to Pinellas County, records show.

Clark said Wednesday evening she sees no conflict of interest, and pointed out that the contracts were handled by her predecessor.

"Neither my husband nor I would ever do anything that would compromise the integrity of the elections office, or our own personal integrity," she said.

Her husband, Richard Clark, isn't involved in sales. He installs and fixes elections machines and says he has steered clear of business in Florida.

Yet the development, coming after Clark's controversial handling of the presidential election in Pinellas, raised some eyebrows this week. Some county commissioners say they weren't told about her husband's connection to the company.

County Commissioner John Morroni said it will be difficult for Clark to appear unbiased as the county decides what elections equipment to use.

"Ethically it isn't a problem, but perception-wise, it will be a problem," Morroni said. "The perception of the public might not be positive."

To complicate matters, Clark's deputy administrator, Karen Butler, is the sister of Sandra Mortham, Florida's former secretary of state and now a lobbyist for ES&S before the state Legislature. Butler is one of more than a dozen senior staff members helping to evaluate competing systems, but she told the Times that family ties won't matter.

"It has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on any opinion that I might have on systems," Butler said. "I think I would be very open to hearing each vendor separately and evaluating them fairly."

Conflict of interest?

It was almost a month ago that Clark notified county commissioners that ES&S was one of her top two choices for the voting-machine contract.

A memo written by Clark indicated ES&S had the edge on price, saying it could provide touch-screen machines for $14.8-million while rival Sequoia Pacific Systems would charge $21.4-million.

The day before she wrote the memo, Clark asked for a state ethics commission opinion on whether her husband's ties to ES&S posed a conflict. Richard Clark quit ES&S a year ago to become a full-time independent contractor, now working solely for ES&S in Alabama.

The ethics commission said no conflict of interest existed because Richard Clark does not own or manage the company and that, under state law, marriage does not constitute a "contractual relationship."

The county has made one move that could erase the potential appearance of bias.

Clark said commissioners first asked her to make a recommendation, but then last week county staff members told her that she would have to follow the county's usual process of asking for bids, which opens the field to other companies.

A committee will help evaluate the proposals, and commissioners will make the final decision.

Husband's role

Clark's husband, Richard Clark, 59, is a nationally known expert in installing new voting systems.

He worked as a project manager for ES&S for about five years, he said Wednesday, having joined the firm when it acquired the company that previously employed him, Business Records Corp.

But Clark said he quit ES&S just before his wife was named elections supervisor because he was worried that his employment with the firm could appear as a conflict.

So far, Clark's new company, Richard A. Clark Enterprises, works for just one company: ES&S. Clark is fine-tuning ES&S' hardware and software for Jefferson County, in Birmingham, Ala.

Clark had been working in Birmingham for ES&S for several months when he resigned from the company and stayed on as an independent contractor. "I have nothing whatsoever to do with that decision in Pinellas County. We don't talk about anything like that," Clark said from Birmingham on Wednesday. "We've been married 17 years. I love her too much to put her in any position like that."

In his combined decade of work for ES&S and its predecessor, Clark said, his only role in securing voting equipment anywhere in Florida was in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

Deborah Clark was appointed election supervisor in May 2000 by Gov. Jeb Bush after the death of Dorothy Ruggles. She won a four-year term last November.

That same November night, more than 900 Pinellas ballots were mistakenly counted twice, and another 1,400 weren't counted at all.

Those problems, and election problems statewide, led the Legislature to order counties to improve their voting systems.

That, in turn, has opened up a multimillion-dollar market for companies like Omaha-based ES&S, which had done business with Pinellas County since at least the mid-1990s.

Deborah Clark said that, as deputy elections supervisor, she had no involvement with ES&S. She and Ruggles made sure to keep it that way, she said.

"We didn't want to even create the appearance of a conflict," Clark said. "It was something we discussed. We both felt very strongly about it."

Ruggles signed a $186,000 contract with ES&S for voter registration software in 1995 with an annual renewal clause of $27,750. Since then, the office has paid ES&S at least $67,000 for voting machine repair and almost $35,000 for laser scanners, ballot cards and other equipment, as well as the almost $112,000 for the yearly software fees. Clark ended the annual renewal last year because she found someone else to do the work, she said.

Meanwhile, Clark said she expects Butler, her deputy and sister of Sandra Mortham, to be one of six staff members traveling to Osceola County next week to evaluate optical scanners in a special election.

Butler said she and Mortham have not discussed what company should get Pinellas County's contract.

Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd said she did not know about Richard Clark's employment but that it did not worry her.

"Deborah has been very open and honest about her relationships," Todd said. "She hasn't tried to hide anything."

Todd emphasized that commissioners, not Clark, will decide what equipment taxpayers will buy.

A Sequoia sales executive in Florida, John Krizka, said he did not think ES&S had any advantages in Pinellas.

"We're going to offer our product and our experience," Krizka said. "Deborah Clark has an extraordinary amount of integrity, and she holds an honorable position and upholds it. To me, it's not an issue."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.