Voting machine scandal upsets commissioners in two counties
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times,
Two counties on Florida's east coast are angry over Sequoia Voting Systems' failure to reveal that one of its top executives is under indictment in a voting equipment scandal.
News of the criminal charges already has jeopardized a $15.5-million contract in Pinellas County and sparked questions in Hillsborough County, where Sequoia also wants to sell its electronic voting machines.
On Tuesday, Indian River County leaders voided a $2-million contract with Sequoia, furious that they were not told before signing the deal that the man they negotiated with is charged in a Louisiana money laundering and corruption conspiracy.
"They did something that was unconscionable in dealing with the public . . . not informing us this gentleman was indicted," said county Commissioner John Tippin. "It's going to take a near miracle, I think, for us to do business with this company."
And some Palm Beach County commissioners are steamed that Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore didn't tell them about the charges before they inked a deal in September.
"I didn't think it was relevant," LePore said in an interview. "I signed the contract, not the commissioners. They trust me to make the right decision."
When told of the charges, Commissioner Burt Aaronson sputtered Wednesday, "I'm appalled. . . . She didn't think it was relevant?"
News of the indictment against Sequoia executive Phil Foster reached Indian River elected officials last week after it was reported in the St. Petersburg Times. The contract with California-based Sequoia had been approved Oct. 23.
"If our community had known ahead of time, I know our community would not have voted on it," said Indian River Commissioner Fran Adams. "This is not a parking ticket. It's a very serious charge in terms of public service."
Revelations about Foster sent a similar jolt through Pinellas, where officials learned of his charges the day before they were set to award Sequoia a contract. The county now is conducting extensive background checks on the companies bidding in Pinellas, as well as some of their employees. Commissioners have scheduled a discussion on the contract for Nov. 20.
Foster is charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit malfeasance in office. No trial date has been set.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said he understands Indian River's frustration.
"If you know up front, it's on the table," Welch said. "For Indian River, you already made an agreement and you find this out -- I can understand their wanting to rescind the contract."
Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala said Foster's indictment is "a terrible thing to find out." Still, she said, she doesn't want to hold the equipment responsible for allegations involving one person.
"I think it's tragic they made the decision -- obviously they thought they were the best machines -- and now they're rescinding it because of a person who hasn't been convicted," Latvala said.
Indian River County notified Sequoia on Tuesday that it was severing the contract, citing a legal technicality. Sequoia officials disputed the legal issue in a written response to Indian River, stating that the company "does not accept the board's unlawful declaration that the agreement is void."
Sequoia has stood by Foster and said he is innocent. The company also assumed that Foster's indictment was public knowledge, officials have said.
"It's an unfortunate situation that they feel they haven't gotten the information when they need it," said Kathryn Ferguson, Sequoia vice president of government relations and public affairs.
Sequoia and Indian River officials are planning to discuss the issue Friday and again at a public meeting later this month. Ferguson said the company is looking forward to the opportunity to address Indian River leaders.
"I think it will be good to bring it all out," she said. "We thought it was in the open. Obviously it wasn't to the extent we thought it was."
County leaders say they want Sequoia to give an explanation and an apology. But it might not be enough to change their minds.
"This is no way to do business," said Commissioner Ruth Stanbridge. "Even if they had supreme confidence in him, they should never jeopardize their integrity. I think it's contaminated the whole thing."
-- The South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this report.
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire