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Pinellas delays voting machine decision

Commissioners call for further investigation of the two companies after news Monday that a key employee was indicted on conspiracy charges.

By LISA GREENE and DEBORAH O'NEIL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


Commissioners call for further investigation of the two companies after news Monday that a key employee was indicted on conspiracy charges.

Stung by an 11th-hour revelation about its top bidder, Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday delayed voting on a $15.5-million voting machine system and demanded further investigation of the two companies vying for the multimillion-dollar contract.

Chief among their concerns: A handful of county staffers with some knowledge of the problems failed to ask more questions or report what they knew to the commission.

"I don't want any more surprises," Commissioner John Morroni said at Tuesday's meeting.

The county learned from St. Petersburg Times reporters Monday that a key employee for Sequoia Voting Systems, the company likely to get the contract for a new Pinellas voting system, was indicted in January on conspiracy charges in a Louisiana election kickbacks scandal.

That employee, Phil Foster, is awaiting trial and came to the Pinellas meeting Tuesday to proclaim his innocence.

"I decided to hold my head high and be there and available" for commissioners' questions, Foster said afterward. "I'm not ashamed of anything."

But commissioners didn't ask him anything.

Commissioners seemed more concerned Tuesday with what else the county doesn't know about Sequoia and the other finalist, Election Systems & Software. They're worried about whether there's time to make the right choice and still try out the new voting machines in a city election in March.

Staff members asked for a week to investigate, but Morroni said he's ready to wait longer, even if it means missing the March elections.

"We need to know anything and everything about the companies," said Commissioner Karen Seel. "The voting system needs to be beyond reproach."

Commission Chairman Calvin Harris said he worries the process has been tainted.

"If you can't talk about the veracity of the people you're dealing with, the next logical step is, what about their equipment?" Harris said. "Can we trust it to work?"

Harris was among the county's leaders who had heard something of Sequoia's problems.

He said he had heard that a Sequoia official got in trouble in another state. But he did nothing with the information. In part, he assumed the state checked the companies while certifying their equipment.

"There's enough blame to go around," Harris said.

Checking into the backgrounds of election equipment companies is a job for the counties, not the state, said Clay Roberts, director of the state's Division of Elections. "That's outside our expertise and our mandate. Our role is to do the testing to make sure the system works."

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said Tuesday he knew about Foster's legal problems, but it didn't factor into his decision to choose a competitor, Election Systems & Software.

Browning said ES&S touch screen system was not only better, but also $1.2-million cheaper.

Pinellas Commissioner Robert Stewart said the county needs to stay focused on securing the best voting equipment. But county staff should have presented the board with any information they had about Sequoia, he said.

"Any information was relevant and should have been shared," Stewart said. "To not have had the full disclosure was inappropriate."

Staff members said Tuesday that they routinely do legal and financial checks against companies, but haven't checked employees' criminal records.

"With any large company, you're going to find unscrupulous individuals," said Joe Lauro, county purchasing director.

For some contracts, that may change. Gay Lancaster, interim county administrator, said she isn't satisfied with the county's purchasing checks.

"I think we'll be making changes in that area," she said. "When you have a big contract like this, there are other assurances you need to make to the board."

A minimal amount of research would have revealed charges against Foster.

The charges against him have been "fairly widely reported," according to Karl Koch, Foster's Baton Rouge lawyer. "In election circles, it's no secret."

Several top county staff members had heard about vague improprieties linked to voting equipment companies. Betsy Steg, a senior assistant county attorney, said she learned about problems sometime before August, when she called a top state elections official to ask about the state's process for approving the new voting systems.

That's when the official, Paul Craft, told her about problems with three companies, she said. The information Steg was given included few specifics. Her notes read: "Sequoia prosecution for procurement fraud in Louisiana."

She also wrote about legal problems involving two other voting machine companies, but those problems could not be confirmed Tuesday.

Steg passed information along to other staffers and to County Judge Patrick Caddell, chairman of the citizens' committee assisting in the selection of new voting machines. Lancaster said she heard that "none of these companies was without problems and no matter who we pick, there were going to be issues."

No one investigated the allegations further. Instead, staff members put a question in the bid package asking voting companies about pending lawsuits. They also told the companies they were not allowed to contact commissioners.

"We thought that by opening up the process, that would resolve some of these problems," said County Attorney Susan Churuti.

Meanwhile, the county decided that the companies' proposals would be publicly reviewed by a citizens' committee. That decision followed the revelation that the husband of Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark had worked for ES&S.

Also Tuesday, Clark said the Times incorrectly reported that she knew about Foster's legal problems. She said she knew about a voting scandal in Louisiana, but didn't hear about the charges against Foster until he told her Monday.

But she did not mention that when she talked about him Monday. Asked then why she didn't pass along what she knew, Clark said: "I didn't think it had anything to do with voting systems. I still don't think it has anything to do with the product. ... To me this is irrelevant as to whether this is a good system or the best system."

Other troubling information about both companies has been published in newspapers around the country.

In Baltimore, Sequoia accepted blame and apologized for computer failures that delayed November 1999 election results. ES&S has had similar failures.

In Hawaii, the state said faulty ES&S machines forced a vote recount in 1998. Last year, counties in Virginia and West Virginia said ES&S optical scan ballots were defective.

-- Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin and researchers Caryn Baird, Kitty Bennett and Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Baltimore Sun and Associated Press.

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