Walter's Lament

The former deputy elections supervisor disappeared after Election Day. His boss made him do it.

The scapegoat of the great 2002 election debacle has been keeping a low profile lately. In fact, since Walter Foeman walked out on a $95,600-a-year job as Broward County's deputy supervisor of elections September 20, he has been avoiding the media, his former boss, and at least some of his friends.

But I nailed him. After a half dozen visits to his mother's house in Northwest Fort Lauderdale, a trip to the gated community where he lives in Pembroke Pines, numerous phone calls, and two letters requesting interviews over two weeks, I finally buttonholed him around noon October 9. A parrot squawked from the garage as Foeman opened the door of his mom's place. The 51-year-old bureaucrat was wearing thick, brown glasses, black New Balance shoes, orange running shorts, and a T-shirt. He looked more on vacation than unemployed.

At first he declined to talk, but after some cajoling, he acknowledged that after 16 years as a public servant, first in the political pressure cooker of Miami City Hall and then for seven months in Broward Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant's office, he has no job. I asked him whether he was guilty of foul-ups at the polls that made headlines from Madagascar to Missoula; whether he was he to blame for the improper training, bad record-keeping, and prodigious cronyism that led to disenfranchisement of thousands of South Floridians on September 10; whether, as the office's second in command, he shouldn't he have taken control as the situation went from lousy to nationally embarrassing.

Mark Poutenis

"I could have done some things better," he admitted. "I probably could have had control and direct accountability for training... But it was very personal to [Oliphant]... Miriam kept her finger in everything."

Personal ain't hard to believe. He was talking about the woman who had slapped her much-bigger-than-life visage on department trucks. The Miriam Oliphant who had declared, with astounding denial, that she was in control and had done virtually nothing wrong. And the Miriam Oliphant who had, after slamming down the phone on reporters in the manner of a hormone-enraged adolescent, told the Sun-Sentinel in a story published the morning I spoke with Foeman that she "mistakenly thought [Walter Foeman] had more election knowledge than he did and realized too late that his management skills were lacking." More damning, she accused him of not delivering materials to polls on Election Day. I couldn't reach Oliphant for comment.

"I don't want to get into a public pissing match with [Oliphant]," Foeman said. "I don't mind being blamed, but I try to be professional."

In fact, Oliphant's blaming of Foeman comes on top of her many other sins, which have been well covered by the Herald and Sun-Sentinel: overspending her budget by millions, relying on prodigious cronyism, siphoning almost half of a $600,000 voter education grant to buy stuff like new carpets. When the heat arrived, she blamed those beneath her. That's low-class. Governor Jeb! should remove her. Now.

Before I describe the childish and misleading nature of Oliphant's statements about Foeman, here's a little bit about him: Several years after earning a master's degree from Howard University, he began work at the City of Miami in 1986. He developed a reputation there as a steady, quiet man whom almost everyone felt was trustworthy. I know because I covered Miami City Hall for the Herald in the early '90s.

Foeman was promoted to assistant city clerk and then city clerk. He not only was the chief record keeper in South Florida's largest city but was also responsible for policing absentee ballots (in which role he had to deal with at least eight court challenges) and campaign financing forms. Heck, in 1999, Miami New Times even named him that county's best bureaucrat. Near the end of his tenure, his salary had risen to $90,000 per year.

"Walter was very meticulous," Miami Commissioner Tomas Regalado says. "He was the kind of guy who, if he was going to take a day off, would meet with all five commissioners. We were very sad to see him go."

Adds Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton: "I liked him a lot. He was efficient. He got things done."

The Sentinel, in its October 9 story, implies that Foeman took the Broward job as part of an election deal. Though the newspaper reported that Foeman "contributed to Oliphant's campaign," he contends there was no connection between the contribution and the job offer. Indeed, records back up his claim. On September 19, 2000, he gave Oliphant $100. (Foeman doesn't remember the contribution. "Maybe it was my mother," he says. "It's possible I just don't remember it.") More than a year later, Foeman recalls that Oliphant called him about the deputy job. Indeed, he was a good choice, given his knowledge and background. An African-American like Oliphant, he was one of the best minority candidates in the region. And he had roots in Fort Lauderdale.

It took Foeman several months to decide. The math was certainly on the side of taking the job. If he retired from Miami, he could earn a substantial pension and concurrently draw a salary in Broward. Though Foeman declines to talk about his personal life, a look at public records shows that financial considerations must have been important. In June 1999, he completed a messy three-year divorce and agreed to pay his ex-wife, Deborah, $3,600 per month in alimony and child support, plus a $50,000 payment. He recently remarried and purchased the house in Pembroke Pines, which cost $308,000 and is substantially financed.

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