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Harris employs systems expert

She intends to show public records on two computers weren't purged. Newspapers hire their own expert.

By STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2001


She intends to show public records on two computers weren't purged. Newspapers hire their own expert.

TALLAHASSEE -- By hiring an expert to examine two computer hard drives for missing files, Secretary of State Katherine Harris intends to show that no public records were erased during the long presidential vote recount.

But Florida newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, hired their own expert Friday to inspect the two computers and review the expert's work.

Harris selected William G. Morgan of Bradenton, director of software development for Indigo Investment Systems, a Sarasota firm that sells software that predicts stock prices. Morgan is expected to spend up to three days in Harris' Capitol office next week, testing two computers that were used by two Harris advisers in the weeks following the disputed presidential election to prepare public statements.

Morgan, 36, holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Mississippi State University and is seeking a doctoral degree in information systems from the University of Sarasota, a private, little-known school with 2,000 students based at campuses in Florida and California. He is a Democrat. The university's Web page says it was founded in 1969 and is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

A spokesman for Harris, a Republican from Sarasota and an aspiring member of Congress, claimed Thursday to have no details on Morgan's background. David Host said he did not know Morgan's age, address or his place of employment. A public records request Friday turned up a resume and an invoice for $7,600 in "data recovery services," including $2,800 for expenses including an "on-site fee."

Morgan's employer, Indigo, agreed in February to revise the wording of advertising claims regarding profit and risk to its customers to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission that it made false claims. The company did not admit any wrongdoing.

Messages left at Morgan's home were not returned.

Harris has invited the news media to check the two computers to "verify Mr. Morgan's conclusions and perform any other study of these computers they deem appropriate."

Reporters will not be allowed to watch Morgan at work. Host said that would not be necessary.

"He's not going to scrub anything, and even if he did, your expert will be able to tell it," Host said. "Everything he does is going to be transparent."

With Harris having issued a statement inviting the news media to examine the hard drives and verify her review, eight newspapers have agreed to share the cost of an examination of the two computers. The firm selected is Ontrack Data International of Eden Prairie, Minn., a private firm specializing in what it calls "computer forensics."

Ontrack's clients have included the FBI, NASA, Library of Congress and oil, utility and computer giants such as Amoco, General Electric and Hewlett Packard. A spokeswoman said she could not confirm whether the company has done work for political parties or candidates in Florida or elsewhere.

Ontrack was suggested to Harris by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement earlier this week, FDLE spokesman Al Dennis said. But Harris chose Morgan, who was suggested by Harris' in-house data processing chief, Gene Bryan, according to Host.

The two computers in question first gained notoriety on July 16, in the 93rd paragraph of a lengthy New York Times article comparing the handling of overseas military ballots by the Bush and Gore campaigns and the role Harris played in guiding Florida's 67 independent supervisors of election.

The computers were used by two friends of Harris, both of whom are involved in Republican politics: campaign consultant Adam Goodman and lobbyist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich. Harris has said the two were "personal friends with media experience" who were consulted because she lacked a press relations aide at the time.

"I explicitly erected a firewall between my office and all political campaigns," Harris said in a statement issued Wednesday.

The New York Times reported that it was told by Harris' attorneys that some files on the two computers were erased. Harris' aides have told the St. Petersburg Times that the units were "reformatted," and that some material may have been erased but that everything the agency considers public record has been preserved.

Harris' general counsel, Debby Kearney, denied a request by the St. Petersburg Times to see the computers' hard drives. But Harris says Morgan's analysis will resolve that question, once and for all.

Kristin Nimsger, an attorney for Ontrack Data International, said the company would likely send a project manager and an engineer to Tallahassee. Their first step, she said, would be to make a "mirror image" of the computers' hard drives without turning the machines on. Turning the computers on or off could change the status of data, and alter dates that files were last accessed by a user, Nimsger said.

Democrats have repeatedly criticized Harris' handling of media requests to examine the computers in question. Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement Friday, accusing Harris of "months of stonewalling."

"Why is it that her handpicked "computer expert' had to audit the files before she made this information public?" McAuliffe asked.

- Times researchers Caryn Baird, Deirdre Morrow and Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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