Lobbyist- Lovin' Lori
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.
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.
Parrish accusing someone else of being too close to a lobbyist? It wasn't just ironic; it was scurrilous. Rigging bids is a crime in Florida, and Parrish's charge was pure bunk.
Still, when the commissioner talks, the State Attorney's Office listens. Hanlon spent several days investigating the bug Parrish put in Satz's ear. The sorority sister in question was Gayle Andrews, a successful Tallahassee lobbyist whom ES&S had indeed hired as part of its government-persuasion team. After interviewing several ES&S directors and Andrews herself, Hanlon found no substantiation for the claim. Oliphant admitted that she had mentioned Andrews' name when an ES&S manager asked her to recommend lobbyists, but the supervisor insisted it had no influence on which company she would support.
And, obviously, it didn't. Oliphant never wavered on her endorsement of Sequoia. Yet, during a May 2003 deposition with Hanlon, Parrish reiterated her complaint, saying that Oliphant "required" ES&S to hire her sorority sister, a charge company officials rejected.
Klenet, in his February 2003 sworn testimony with Hanlon, took the jihad against Oliphant further. The lobbyist, who is the husband of Democratic state Rep. Stacey Ritter, implied to Hanlon that Oliphant supported Sequoia because it promised to sponsor trips for the supervisor to promote the firm. "I don't know whether or not she was going to get to be the star and travel around the country promoting Sequoia," he said. "That thing happens. They pay LeBron James to wear a certain shoe."
Even if you ignore the racial overtone of Klenet's veiled charge, you can't avoid the fact that it had absolutely no bearing in truth. But the lobbyist was on a roll in the deposition, which provides wonderful insight into his insider relationship with Lieberman and Parrish as well as a Realpolitik primer on the dark and maddening world of Broward politics. He told Hanlon, for instance, that he knew he would have no influence as a lobbyist over Oliphant -- and the reason for that has nothing to do with the quality of any voting machines.
Klenet: My communications with Miriam are zero, always have been zero...
Hanlon: She didn't like you?
Klenet: Yeah. I supported David Brown. I was vocal in my support of David Brown. In addition, many of the people that are associated with my world -- Ilene Lieberman; Lori Parrish; [Democratic state Rep.] Ron Greenstein; my wife, Stacy Ritter -- all supported David Brown. We were in a different place.
This kind of high-school-clique environment determines multimillion-dollar public contracts, folks. Another person not associated with Klenet's world is B.J. Bond, a political consultant and Oliphant aid. Klenet told Hanlon how Bond went from food caterer to high-powered campaign consultant. "She shows you those of us in this business don't have much talent -- it just sort of fills a void," he said.
The cool breeze of truth. At times during the 56-page deposition, Klenet almost seems to be unloading his conscience. When asked if ES&S made any contributions to commissioners' campaigns or their pet projects, he said they hadn't. (Klenet, however, gave $500 to Parrish's current campaign.) But he dutifully explained the way charity and politics mingle in these parts.
"Everybody in Broward knows you have a bunch of elected officials; let's honor one of them -- that's how our charity will raise money," he told Hanlon. "We honor them, and they don't know what they're being honored for. And the North Broward Hospital District Foundation is doing [Broward Commissioner] Jim Scott. Why are you putting Jim Scott on? Gee, all of us that do business with him, we'll go raise some money and make a contribution to the North Broward Hospital District Foundation.
"I don't believe that's illegal... that's just the way it works."
Here Klenet tells it like it is: Even the most benign or seemingly decent things, like charities, are all about political influence, cash, and grease on the wheels.
And that's essentially why we're the owners of a dubious voting system that could, come November, shake up the country.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.