El Jefe

Walter's Lament

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.

"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.

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."