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Elections scandal no stranger to Tampa Bay

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000

Pound for pound, the 2000 election mess was nothing compared to the granddaddy of voting-related investigations, the Shoup Voting Machine Scandal, a probe of national scope focused on Tampa in the early 1970s.

The saga features a county elections supervisor who vanished with his Weimaraner before being removed, a voting machine being used as a backyard mullet smoker and a $20,000 check written to a completely fictitious fellow named "Arturo Garcia."

The accusation was that in the late 1960s, the Shoup Voting Machine Co., based just outside Philadelphia, was active in distributing bribe money to local politicians. In turn, these locals voted to buy (surprise!) Shoup voting machines.

It was a sweet deal. The Hillsborough County Commission voted to sell 180 "obsolete" voting machines back to Shoup at the rate of $30 each. The county then bought 200 new machines from Shoup at a cost of $530,000.

Shoup resold Tampa's "obsolete" machines to Houston, Texas, at a cost of $1,500 apiece. They worked fine.

Gosh darn it, the local grand jury couldn't find anybody to indict. So the feds acted. In June 1971, the U.S. attorney general himself, John N. Mitchell Jr., announced the indictment of Shoup and several company officials and intermediaries. Shoup's bribe money came into town as a check written to the imaginary "Mr. Garcia" and was converted into cash at a helpful local bank.

In those days, elections were run by a county Elections Board, not just the local elections supervisor. One wonders whether public confidence was shaken any when it turned out the board chairman, Ronald Budd, kept a voting machine in his back yard. It made a fine mullet smoker, Budd explained.

In the 1971 city elections, the Shoup machines malfunctioned, and nobody knew who won the Tampa City Council race between Joe Kotvas and Sam Mirabella. Only six of the seven council members could be sworn in. (A decade later, Kotvas became one of three county commissioners nabbed in an unrelated bribery sting.)

Perhaps spurred by the feds, the local grand jury finally issued indictments in March 1972. Among those charged were a county commissioner and the current and former chairmen of the elections board. The commissioner was acquitted. The past chairman won on appeal. The mullet-smoking Budd was sentenced to 10 years. Various company officers pleaded out or were convicted.

The Legislature voted to abolish the county Elections Board and give power back to the county supervisor -- after it made sure that person wasn't Jim Fair, the previous supervisor. Fair was suspended from his job by Gov. Claude Kirk in April 1970, on several grounds.

The bearded, pig-tailed Fair fought every step of the way -- but nobody knew from where. He and his loyal dog, Smokey, could not be located. Fair announced that he feared his opponents would have him committed (a fear that later was proven justified): "I can't fight locked up." At his hearing in the state Senate, Fair passed out U.S. flags and Uncle Sam hats to the senators. But the Senate upheld his removal 46-0.

To replace Fair, the governor named a 34-year-old insurance salesman from Temple Terrace. This new fellow tried to clean up, prosecute election violations and modernize voter registration. He was widely praised for his efforts by everyone except Fair, who kept suing. Bolstered by good reviews, Tampa's elections supervisor ran for secretary of state in 1974, but lost.

So he went home, lived his life, and not until many years later -- 1998, to be precise -- did he seek a return to public office, this time from Pinellas County. The voters agreed. So that is how state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, a member of the governor's new 21-member Elections Task Force, happens to know a little bit about the topic. And now, as that fellow on the radio says, you know the rest of the story.

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