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Pinellas officials scrutinize the salesman behind the device they hoped would reform the voting system.
By DEBORAH O'NEIL and THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 1, 2001
The Louisiana court documents paint a damning portrait: Voting equipment executive Phil Foster received manila envelopes stuffed with as much as $40,000, to be delivered as kickbacks.
That money was part of a vast voting machine scandal that resulted in charges against 25 people, three of whom told prosecutors Foster was involved.
But Foster's bosses at Sequoia Voting Systems were so confident of his innocence that they let him take a lead in trying to sell $15.5-million of electronic voting equipment to Pinellas County.
On Monday, Pinellas County commissioners stood ready to seal the deal when they learned of Foster's Louisiana indictment. Now, under intense public scrutiny, the commissioners are weighing whether unproven accusations against a company representative should be enough to throw out Sequoia's top-rated bid.
Some observers say the county cannot separate the man from the machines he is selling. An untainted process is particularly important, they say, given how badly last fall's presidential election damaged the confidence of Florida voters.
"We're not just buying equipment," said Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party. "We're buying the company, the company's reputation. We're buying the people in that company."
The entire nation is watching as Florida reforms its election process, said political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida.
"Anything related to voter equipment that even smells bad will be and should be carefully investigated for the good of all," MacManus said. "The scrutiny doesn't stop at the county boundary. It goes national."
Hillsborough County has launched a review of the case against Foster, said Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio.
"I think it is important to know what litigation the companies are facing across the country," Iorio said. "These (the charges against Foster) are very serious allegations."
But others wonder how much the charges matter.
Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, whose county boasted the lowest error rate in the state in the presidential election, said that while news about Foster "raises the specter of impropriety, I don't know to what degree you could point to the company as bad."
Sequoia's product, he said, "is as good as what I use."
The quality of the machines is why Indian River County chose Sequoia, said Kay Clem, the Indian River County elections supervisor. She made the decision knowing all about Foster's legal problems, adding, "I thought everybody knew about it."
"I'm not buying Phil Foster," Clem said. "I'm buying Sequoia's voting system."
Foster's charges are part of a decadelong corruption scandal that reached as high as the state's elections commissioner. Foster is charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit malfeasance in office.
Already, 15 people have pleaded guilty in the case, said prosecutor Sandra Ribes. Three of them, including Foster's brother-in-law and the state commissioner of elections, pointed the finger at Foster in their guilty pleas.
According to court records, Foster had Sequoia designate his brother-in-law, J. David Philpot, as its exclusive agent in Louisiana.
Then Louisiana Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler declared Philpot the sole source of a certain type of voting machine, allowing them to circumvent the state's bidding laws and inflate the prices of the machines.
Foster and Philpot also arranged to sell counters for voting machines at inflated costs, according to court records.
Money was funneled to Fowler in kickbacks, and court records indicate Foster played in role in passing along the cash.
On at least five occasions, Philpot handed Foster manila envelopes with $20,000 or $40,000 of kickback cash to give to another person involved in the scandal, Philpot says in court documents. Also, Fowler told prosecutors that Foster would put cash kickbacks in a desk drawer for him.
Foster's Baton Rouge lawyer, Karl Koch, said the case against his client is built on statements by admitted criminals. "My investigation of the charges reveals he hasn't done a thing in the world wrong," he said.
Foster didn't know what was in the sealed envelopes he brought to Louisiana for his brother-in-law, who was in Birmingham, Ala., Koch said. "Phil wasn't handed bundles of cash or wads of cash," Koch said.
Nor was Foster in a position to get his brother-in-law named as a company agent, Koch said.
Both Foster and Sequoia have fully cooperated with the investigation, Koch said. The company has not been implicated.
Sequoia CEO Peter Cosgrove said the company has nothing to hide. The company assumed, he said, that Pinellas officials were aware of Foster's legal problems, which he said were "well, well known."
The company has not removed Foster from his responsibilities as Sequoia's southeastern vice president, Cosgrove said, because it doesn't believe he has done anything wrong.
"We will not put down an innocent man," he said.
However, if Pinellas prefers, Sequoia will withdraw him from the project, Cosgrove said. He added that the charges should not affect the county's decision about the purchase of the new voting equipment. All the reasons that Pinellas officials intended to buy the system remain, he said.
"None of those reasons have changed," Cosgrove said. "A personal situation involving one of our employees shouldn't change their minds."