Felon voter list cost state millions
The discredited database of `potential felons' comes out of taxpayer dollars.
By Bob Mahlburg | Tallahassee Bureau
Posted July 14, 2004
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'POTENTIAL' FELON RECORDS
Search our database for the names of nearly 48,000 "potential felons" who could be purged from voter rolls.
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TALLAHASSEE A database of almost 48,000 "potential felons," so riddled with errors that it had to be scrapped, cost state taxpayers nearly $2 million to compile and defend, officials said Tuesday.
The state paid at least $1.8 million to Accenture, a private technology company with close ties to the Florida Republican Party, to help create the flawed list.
Then it spent at least $125,000 in attorney fees to a GOP-linked law firm in a failed effort to keep the list secret, even though the state's chief lawyer, Attorney General Charlie Crist, said it was not worth defending.
"The whole thing was a waste of money, especially defending the list in court," Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause of Florida, said Tuesday. "They should have made the list open from the very beginning so people could spot the errors."
At the same time, 67 county election supervisors across the state paid a growing bill for staff and extra resources in their attempts to verify the state list. Indian River County election supervisor Kay Clem, for example, hired a firm specializing in criminal checks after finding people without any criminal record listed as potential felons.
The list was supposed to help identify ineligible voters. In Florida, felons cannot vote unless they get their rights restored. The state scrapped the database Saturday after finding it ignored thousands of Hispanic voters.
Even after it was dumped, the potential felon-voter list continues to heighten partisan tension in battleground Florida, a state where polls show President Bush and Democrat Sen. John Kerry dead even.
"Jeb Bush wasted millions of our taxpayers' dollars in an attempt to improperly purge voters," said Scott Maddox, state Democratic Party chairman. "He spent millions with Accenture, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers, to defend an indefensible position. If the public knew a so-called fiscal conservative has been wasting millions of dollars to try to get a leg up in the electoral process, there would be universal outrage."
The felon list was compiled by the Department of State, which operates under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, working with the technology giant Accenture, whose Capitol lobbyists include a lineup of well-connected Florida Republicans.
Accenture's lobbyists include a former state GOP chairman, Van Poole, along with two former state-party staffers and a former top aide to Bush.
Even Bush questioned why the mistake excluding Hispanic voters occurred and whether Accenture should have caught it.
"It should have been looked at by a whole cast of people from the [state elections] division, to the vendor, to the people who signed for the NAACP and others," Bush said. "I'm going to look into it."
But Accenture said problems with the felon list should be attributed to the state, a company official said.
"We build the computer system and the software," said Jim McAvoy, a company spokesman in Reston, Va. "But we don't provide the data or any of the material that's input. We're like any technology department at a business: We're there to help, tell you to re-boot your computer. But it was the Department of State that prepared the list."
The iVotronic touch-screen machines, which state officials are looking to upgrade with a computer "patch" because of potential auditing problems, also relied on some influential Republican connections in selling the machines to 11 Florida counties.
Sandra Mortham, a former secretary of state, and a former aide, Gene McGee, represented Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb., which builds the 9-pound computerized iVotronic machines. Along with the state's largest counties, Broward and Miami-Dade, iVotronics are being used in Central Florida's Lake and Sumter counties.
"I'd like to say we were helpful," said McGee who, like Mortham, no longer represents ES&S. "But these were sold to the individual county-election supervisors on their own merits by the company's salespeople. Me being a Republican didn't have anything to do with getting them approved by a mostly Democratic County Commission in Broward County."
Concerning the felons database, Nicole de Lara, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood, said she was not sure of the exact contract arrangements. Asked whether state money was well spent, she repeatedly stated that the department "had a statutory obligation" to spend such money.
But de Lara conceded in an earlier interview that the state could have settled a lawsuit by Cable News Network, as the attorney general implied. Instead, Hood chose to defend the case, costing nearly $150,000 in legal fees. De Lara said the case involved broader issues than just the felon list.
State lawmakers appropriated $2 million for the felons database in 2001 and reportedly planned to have a county election supervisors group develop the list. But a $1.6 million contract was later awarded to Accenture and add-ons raised the total to roughly $1.8 million, said attorney Maria Matthews, who works for Hood.
Records show Hood's office agreed to spend at least $125,000 on attorneys to defend a state law restricting the release of voter records.
Hood's office agreed to pay $425 per hour to Miami attorney Joe Klock Jr., plus $300 per hour for six more lawyers.
"It is outrageous," Orlando attorney David Fussell said. "The state has a hard time funding kindergarten."
De Lara said the state was obligated to defend the law, but critics disagreed.
"It clearly was a waste," said Howard Simon, ACLU of Florida executive director. "They should be spending that money on things like hiring experts to audit the voting machines."