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."
A month later, on July 3, 2002, police in Valdosta, Georgia, found Lemme dead in a bathtub at Knight's Inn, a cheap motel near Interstate 75, just across the Florida border. His left arm was slashed with a razor blade in an apparent suicide. "I love my family with all my heart," an unsigned suicide note read. "I am sorry." In a missing-persons report, Lemme's wife, Mary Ann, told the Leon County Sheriff's Office that her husband had "been under a lot of stress at work due to a 'big' case." FDOT is expected to release a final report of the Yang investigation this week.
On September 30, 2002, the state Commission on Ethics cleared Feeney of any conflict of interest in his role of steering state contracts to Yang. Feeney had told the ethics commission that he hadn't addressed "anyone at FDOT... concerning the Yangs." That was apparently untrue, according to an October 12, 2002, report by the Daytona Beach News-Journal. E-mails uncovered by the newspaper showed that Feeney in fact had arranged a July 2000 meeting between Yang and Roy Cales, the FDOT official with the power to award computer contracts. At the time, Feeney was one of the most powerful members of the state House. The e-mails finally confirmed Curtis' claim that Feeney used his public influence to benefit Yang.
Anyone with a passing interest in Feeney would have found evidence of the former House speaker's cozy relationship with Yang. For 15 years, Feeney had been the company lobbyist and lawyer. He ended the professional relationship, which had extended through all 12 years of his time in the state House, only after he was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2002. Since October 1999, the Yang family has donated $13,700 to Feeney's campaigns. His 2002 congressional campaign even rented office space from Yang.
With Feeney's firm hand missing, Yang strayed into hot water last year. On March 12, 2004, federal agents in Orlando arrested two Chinese men, including Hai Lin "Henry" Nee, after they tried to ship U.S. missile technology to China. In his affidavit, Curtis alleges that Yang employed Nee on projects with access to state and NASA data. Since Curtis submitted his affidavit two months ago, Yang has been on damage control. In an official statement posted on its website to counter Curtis' claims, Yang Enterprises says it never had an employee named Nee. However, state records obtained by New Times show that the company submitted nine weekly time cards for a Henry Nee in 1998.
The question remains, though: Did Feeney ever ask his good buddies at Yang Enterprises if they could rig electronic-voting machines in South Florida?
"We're not going to dignify Clint Curtis' ridiculous allegations with a comment," says Shannon Conklin, Feeney's press secretary. Asked about Curtis' other charges involving Feeney, Yang, and FDOT, Conklin noted that the state ethics commission "addressed the matter and cleared Congressman Feeney." She claimed to have no knowledge of e-mails showing that Feeney set up a meeting with Yang and state officials in 2000.
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Meanwhile, the allegations of vote-rigging have stirred up outrage on the Internet. Bloggers have reported on the story with idealistic conviction.
But no one has yet been able to say definitively whether Curtis, who has no criminal record, is telling the truth this time. Why did he wait four years to come forward? Curtis claims he was working with Lemme long before submitting the affidavit to Congress.
In the past, Curtis' assertions have been true, contends Tallahassee lawyer Martin Fitzpatrick, who represents Georgalis in her whistle-blower case.
"I have been working with Clint Curtis over the past three years on issues relating to my representation of Ms. Georgalis," Fitzpatrick says. "In my dealings with Clint with regard to these two cases, I am unaware of any incident in which he lied."