Lobbyist- Lovin' Lori

How cash-fueled politics and a grudge could cause another election fiasco

If Broward County had only listened to Miriam Oliphant, taxpayers could have saved millions of dollars and had a more efficient democracy.

Stranger words were never spoken. But it's true. The mega-maligned former Broward supervisor of elections -- who Gov. Jeb Bush forced out of office last November -- tried to warn the County Commission against buying widely untested electronic voting machines produced by Nebraska-based Elections Systems & Software (ES&S).

Oliphant pointed out that the company had no experience in large urban areas like South Florida and recommended Sequoia Voting Systems, a company with a better track record. But the commission, led by lobbyist-loving Lori Parrish, picked ES&S, which had hired a couple of her cronies to help win the $17.2 million contract (which ballooned to more than $20 million after the county bought another 1,000 touch-screen devices). The 2001 vote, though, was just the beginning of bad behavior on the part of Parrish and the voting machines.

Parrish wanted Oliphant in jail.
Parrish wanted Oliphant in jail.

A bungled primary, computer glitches, and high labor costs have proven Oliphant dead right. The 2002 primary election, fraught with delays and tabulation errors, cost nearly $1 million more than forecast due to unexpected complications and a need for extra poll workers.

The system's auditing process, which tracks the number of votes cast on each machine, has also proven faulty. Instead of using zip-bang computer "flashcards" promised by the company, the county must extract the information by connecting each of its 6,000 machines to laptops. Amazingly, Assistant County Administrator Pete Corwin, who has worked closely (too closely, one suspects) with ES&S, tells New Times the use of laptops hasn't proven more time-consuming or costly.

That's crazy talk. Corwin's denial regarding ES&S shortcomings just goes to show that you can never underestimate the imagination of a bureaucrat with his back against the wall.

The proof is in the polling: Elections in Palm Beach County, which uses the Sequoia system endorsed by Oliphant, have gone much more smoothly than those in Broward. And they've been less expensive. More than $3 million is budgeted for the November election in Broward, which has about 900,000 registered voters. Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore, meanwhile, has budgeted only about $1 million for 700,000 voters. How much of that cost disparity is due to the voting systems isn't known, but LePore says it's common knowledge that her Sequoia models are much more efficient and require fewer workers.

Broward Commissioner Ben Graber, the only commissioner who voted against ES&S, compares the voting mess in Broward to the B-1 Bomber project. "It's a very expensive experiment with millions in extra labor costs," he says. "But we're stuck with it."

Expected record turnout. A shaky system. County officials in denial. Get ready, people. South Flori-duh is due for a comeback.

And much of the blame can be pinned on Parrish, the mama of the dysfunctional family that is the Broward commission. She's backed too many boondoggles to name here, but a couple of highlights are her loyalty to recently convicted political racketeer Walter Browne and her backing of the Michael Swerdlow land deal at Port Everglades that wasted about $60 million in taxpayer money.

ES&S can now be added to the short list of her lowlights.

The company knew how to woo Parrish, who was then chairwoman of the commission. It hired the right lobbyists. One was Russ Klenet, a Parrish compatriot who served as a campaign official for Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, another politician who adores influence peddlers and can't seem to resist their alluring ways.

As if that weren't enough, ES&S brought in Michael Moskowitz, a close friend and finance chairman for Parrish's campaigns. With such chums on the team, the long-time commissioner, who is now running to become Broward's next property appraiser, was transformed into a rather belligerent supporter of ES&S, shooting down other companies with a kind of vicious determination. "Lobbyists had nothing to do with our decision," Parrish says. "It was based on cost and portability of the machine."

If that's true, ES&S wasted a whopping $1.3 million on lobbyists. I suspect Parrish probably would have opposed Sequoia anyway, just to spite Oliphant, whom the commissioner has loathed for years. One of Parrish's campaign slogans is "Lori's Friendships Last Forever." Well, her grudges sometimes do too.

In 2000, Parrish actively supported local political consultant David Brown over Oliphant in the supervisor's race. Klenet helped run Brown's campaign. After Oliphant won the race, the battle lines were drawn, and Parrish began smearing the supervisor at every turn, sometimes justifiably so.

But it wasn't enough to publicly humiliate Oliphant; Parrish wanted to put the former School Board member in jail. When the Broward State Attorney's Office began a criminal investigation of Oliphant in November 2002 -- sparked by an anonymous letter full of false allegations -- Parrish personally called State Attorney Michael Satz and accused Oliphant of trying to rig the voting machine contract, according to prosecutors' records that have previously gone unreported.

"Ms. Parrish reported that... the Supervisor of Elections suggested to [ES&S] that they hire a certain unnamed sorority sister of Ms. Oliphant and that thereafter the bidding process for the touch screen voting system would go much smoother," lead investigator John Hanlon wrote in a February 5, 2003, memorandum.

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