Walter's Lament

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

Foeman and Oliphant agreed upon the $95,600 salary in early 2002, and he began work in Broward this past February 4. He replaced Joe Cotter, who told the Herald at the time that he heard about Foeman's hiring as his replacement by reading the newspaper. Moreover, Oliphant's complaint that she thought Foeman had more elections experience is absurd. His record is well-described on his résumé and in newspaper articles. Workers in the Fort Lauderdale office generally liked Foeman and thought him competent, according to a senior worker who asked not to have his name used. "Solid" is the way the worker described him.

Foeman's job as deputy included training and preparing for elections. Hired a little more than a year after the glitched 2000 election and after many of Oliphant's cronies had joined the staff, he was not in a position to improve the bleak situation substantially.

Worse, technology problems that would hobble the department on Election Day had already cropped up. New computers that were supposed to take the place of punch cards didn't work properly. Delays and defects were constant. One computer expert, who asked not to be named, recalls a project that began in March to install eight servers for computers. The vendor went out of business. "When we started, everything would delay it," she says. "You had to check everything with the county, so nothing got done."

Foeman says many workers were sufficiently trained after he took over as deputy. He contends he was given little latitude to make changes, "If the election wasn't a success, it was because of everyone involved, not one person," he says. "What I don't like is putting the finger on any one person."

On the morning of the September 10 election, Foeman says Oliphant called him at home around 2 a.m. to ask that materials be delivered to precincts, but he was asleep at the time, and she left a message. Later that morning, after he awoke, he picked up the message, then received a follow-up call from another elections worker, whom he wouldn't name. Before 6 a.m., he hurried to a downtown warehouse where poll workers' kits and what he called "communications packs" were stored; he can't remember the number but says it was more than ten. Soon, the stuff was on its way. "It was crisis management then," Foeman says.

After the election, Foeman began to be concerned about his job as CNN, the New York Times, and other media focused on the Broward and Miami-Dade problems. When he turned on his television September 19 and saw that Oliphant had accepted some blame and agreed to rehire Cotter, he decided to resign.

Oddly, there is no record of his resignation letter in his personnel file. Foeman says that he signed such a missive and that it was lost. Cotter says Foeman disappeared without a trace. "My understanding is that he just didn't show up for work, no two-week notice, nothing," Cotter said. Doesn't that seem odd, I asked. "Truth is stranger than fiction," Cotter replied.

Foeman says he left for "family reasons." He declines to explain.

Foeman's reticence leaves a lot of questions, particularly regarding whether he should have been more aggressive in relation to a megalomaniacal boss. But his story convinces me that Oliphant tried unfairly to duck blame. My conclusion: The elections supervisor is the problem, not Walter Foeman. Foeman is a decent, competent man who probably could have run a good election. Oliphant didn't allow him to do so.

Oliphant, who is now paid $126,000 per year and has few responsibilities, is the problem. Bush should fire her. But rather than send her packing, the state recently gave her a $3500 raise. Foeman, meanwhile, keeps on paying. Such is bureaucracy.

"When I saw that problem in Broward, I immediately thought, 'Walter is going to be the fall guy,'" Regalado says. "I am very sorry for Walter."

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