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In the fall of 2000, Republican power broker Tom Feeney attended a meeting at Yang Enterprises in Oviedo, near Orlando, a former employee of the firm says. Feeney, who would soon become Florida's speaker of the House, wasn't just a politician; he was also a lobbyist. Among his clients was Yang, a small software company owned by a wealthy Chinese-American woman named Li-Woan Yang.
Feeney went to his client with an assignment. According to a former company programmer, Feeney was interested in finding out whether electronic voting machines could be rigged. "Mr. Feeney said that he wanted to know if Yang Enterprises could develop a prototype of a voting program that could alter the vote tabulation in an election and be undetectable," programmer Clint Curtis would later write in a sworn affidavit submitted to U.S. Congress.
The meeting took place about a month before the 2000 election debacle and a year before electronic voting machines were introduced in the Sunshine State. For that reason, the 46-year-old Curtis, a lifelong Republican, didn't think he would be helping to fix an election. Feeney was acting preemptively, Curtis surmised. He simply wanted to know if an election could be rigged.
Curtis created a simple software program intended for electronic voting machines. The program could manipulate true results and ensure that a losing candidate would win 51 percent to 49 percent.
Li-Woan Yang then allegedly confided to Curtis something astonishing. "This program is needed to control the vote in South Florida," she said.
It was a revelation that, Curtis says, seemed to have little significance at the time. Electronic voting machines were not in use in the state, and the voting scandals of 2000 were more about disenfranchisement than technology. Eventually, though, the importance of Yang's statement became clear, he told New Times. "Feeney was just looking ahead," he says now. "The Republicans play to win."
On December 6, 2004, Curtis submitted to Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee a four-page affidavit detailing the meeting with Feeney. The voting machines used in Broward, Palm Beach, and other Florida counties, Curtis pointed out, run proprietary software that cannot be examined by the public, making the use of a vote-stealing program feasible. Feeney and Yang Enterprises planned to manipulate the vote in Democrat-heavy South Florida, he told the congressmen. That testimony was never reported by major Florida news organizations.
Feeney and Yang quickly dismissed Curtis' claims. "Our view is that Curtis is just a disgruntled former employee who has an ax to grind," says Yang attorney Michael A. O'Quinn, Feeney's former law partner. "The guy's a crackpot, a funny nuisance."
Curtis' past involvement with Feeney, however, lends some legitimacy to the vote-rigging charge. In 2002, after leaving Yang Enterprises, Curtis told state officials that Feeney greased political wheels for Yang Enterprises to be awarded an $8 million Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) technology contract, for which Yang then allegedly overbilled the state. Despite a state Commission on Ethics investigation that cleared Feeney of wrongdoing, a Daytona Beach newspaper subsequently found e-mails showing that Feeney had indeed arranged a meeting between Yang and state officials.
Chalk that one up to Curtis. The first time Curtis blew the whistle on Feeney, he was vindicated. He has since released a self-published book about the alleged shenanigans at Yang Enterprises, Just a Fly on the Wall.
Feeney, who has served one term in Congress, representing a district east of Orlando, has a reputation as a devout neoconservative with a flare for using hot-button issues to his advantage. Former Gov. Lawton Chiles once described him as "the David Duke of Florida politics." Yet the Central Florida politician has steadily climbed the ranks of GOP power. He was Jeb Bush's running mate in 1994 during the governor's first, unsuccessful candidacy. He became state House speaker in 2000 after a track record that included sponsoring the "Choose Life" license plate and threatening to have Florida secede from the union if the national deficit topped $6 trillion. In 2002, Feeney won his congressional seat despite being outspent by his opponent, Democrat Harry Jacobs, 2-to-1.
The political intrigue in Curtis' charges against Feeney is the stuff of pulp novels. In February 2001, Curtis had left Yang Enterprises and received a contract to work for FDOT in Tallahassee. That's when he discovered that Yang had been overbilling the state of Florida, he says. Among the sham invoices were hours billed for Curtis during weeks he no longer worked for Yang, Curtis alleges. He took the information to Mavis Georgalis, FDOT's manager of specialized technologies, who was charged with overseeing the Yang contract. She had suspected fraudulent invoices as well. In July 2001, the pair filed a complaint with the FDOT inspector general. The investigation seemed to go nowhere.
On March 29, 2002, a frustrated Curtis sent an e-mail to FDOT Chief Information Officer Nelson Hill. "Invoices depicting the overbilling claims... [were] clearly on the documents presented to the IG's Office," Curtis wrote. "I can only assume that, since Tom Feeney is Yang's official lobbyist, nothing was done."
On April 1, 2002, Curtis and Georgalis were fired, ostensibly for violating FDOT policies in monitoring the Yang project. (A judge later reinstated Georgalis pending the outcome of her whistle-blower lawsuit.) But even after their dismissal, Ray Lemme, an official with the FDOT Inspector General's Office, continued to investigate the allegations. In June 2003, according to Curtis' affidavit, Lemme met with him. He reportedly told Curtis that he had traced the case "all the way to the top."