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    What elections chief didn't know creates political 'mess'

    By ALICIA CALDWELL

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 1, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- The stumbles have come one after the other.

    First, Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark floundered in the 2000 presidential election as some ballots were counted twice and some not at all. Then, as the county debated which new voting technology would restore public confidence in the process, Clark belatedly recused herself after it was revealed her husband had worked for one of the companies.

    Now, Clark finds herself answering questions about what she knew -- and when -- about a scandal involving an official with Sequoia Voting Systems, a voting technology company that was poised to receive a $15.5-million county contract.

    Clark, a longtime staffer in the elections office who was elected to the top job last fall, finds herself in an unenviable position.

    "It certainly invites some political opposition to her in the future," said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political science professor. "She's much smarter than she is behaving."

    The situation raises questions about what Clark's role should have been in the process, and the events that shaped that role.

    Clark said it has been enormously frustrating to be sidelined in the voting technology selection process. But she found herself suggesting that role to Pinellas County commissioners after newspaper reports about her husband's former employment with -- and continuing work for -- Elections Systems & Software, a company that was a leading contender for a Pinellas contract worth up to $15-million.

    Though Clark remained an adviser to the county-appointed committee that was sorting through the elections technology question, she had limited input, she said. Nevertheless, she said, she thought any advice or information she provided was being second-guessed and scrutinized for ulterior motives.

    "It has been one of the most frustrating experiences I have ever had," Clark said. "I just felt like I was walking on eggshells."

    As a limited player, she said she did not know about any scandal involving Sequoia until company officials told her on Monday. As to whether she should have known, Clark said: "I just don't know how to answer it."

    In retrospect, she said she thinks all of the voting technology companies ought to have undergone a more thorough background check. But that, Clark said, is another instance of Monday morning quarterbacking, the political part of her job that she loathes.

    "I hate this part of it," she said.

    County commissioners have been none too pleased, either. This week they found themselves blindsided by revelations that an important Sequoia Voting Systems employee recently was indicted in a Louisiana election kickback scandal.

    Commissioners, now in the embarrassing position of having to delay the voting technology decision, described the process as tainted and inappropriate.

    The situation has drawn criticism and pointed comments even from local political activists who say they like Clark or have supported her in the past.

    "What a mess," said Myrtle Smith-Carroll, a former state and national Democratic committeewoman who still closely follows politics. "There's something that people say about getting things out in the open before people dig them up. That applies here. And I like Deb."

    The commentary on Clark's performance was much the same from fellow Republican Paul Bedinghaus, who questioned why Clark would not have learned from previous flubs the value of public perception.

    "She is making the transition from the top administrative job to an office that is political, and you do have to be concerned with public perception and that you're not putting other public officials in a bad position," said Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party. "That can be difficult if your mind doesn't work that way. You kind of have to learn the hard way."

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