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Broward commissioners accused of dodging subpoenas in Oliphant hearing

By Scott Wyman
Staff writer
Posted July 16 2004

Miriam Oliphant's trial to regain her job as Broward County's elections supervisor will likely end next week without her getting a chance to face the group she largely blames for her downfall: the County Commission.

Although the trial's first week took place in the well of the commission chamber and just feet from its suite of offices in the Governmental Center, only one commissioner has testified. Her efforts to confront the board have been frustrated by members' heavy schedules, travel plans and legal objections.

To Oliphant, it is another sign she is not receiving the fair day in court she deserves.

"They were involved in this picture from the beginning, the inadequate budget, the new voting machines," she said Thursday. "It's the reason we're in the situation we're in now. They need to own up or shut up. I deserve my day with them in a courtroom setting. The people deserve it."

Her process server said commissioners and their staff dodged him, but he gave subpoenas to the county attorney last week. Her lawyer, Henry Hunter, said he will give commissioners until the end of today, when the Fort Lauderdale portion of the trial ends, to appear, or he'll challenge their actions with the special master hearing the case for the state Senate.

If they don't show, though, there is little that can be done. The Senate can hold someone in contempt, but it will not conduct formal business again until next year.

Gov. Jeb Bush suspended Oliphant without pay last November on charges of mismanagement and incompetence. The Senate is conducting the trial to decide if she should be reinstated or permanently removed, and she has argued that political enemies and disgruntled employees conspired to oust her.

Commissioner John Rodstrom took the witness stand during the fourth day of trial Thursday.

Rodstrom was one of the few commissioners who didn't call for Oliphant's removal during her stormy three-year tenure and was more receptive than his colleagues to her demands for more money. Under questioning, he said he thought the county contributed to her overspending by underestimating the expenses surrounding the new touch-screen voting machines.

"We've learned these machines are costly to operate and require much more personnel than we thought to operate," he said when asked about the almost $1 million deficit Oliphant ran up in 2002.

Oliphant also wanted to interrogate Mayor Ilene Lieberman and commissioners Lori Parrish, Josephus Eggelletion, Jim Scott, Diana Wasserman-Rubin, Kristin Jacobs and Suzanne Gunzburger.

All of them favored a $17.3 million deal to buy the voting machines from a company Oliphant opposed, and many challenged her spending and wanted her suspended.

Some, such as Lieberman and Parrish, had long been political rivals of Oliphant and have close ties to lobbyists connected with the voting machine deal.

But Lieberman is in London on a trade mission, and other commissioners are out of town on vacation because July is their summer recess. Their lawyer objected to Oliphant's subpoenas as coming at the last minute, making trial appearances impossible to fit into their schedules.

Wasserman-Rubin, who wanted the commission to recommend Oliphant's suspension when she was mayor last year, said she is not intentionally avoiding testifying but depicted Oliphant's timing as poor.

"When I realized they were trying to serve me, I already had my summer plans," she said.

Parrish, Oliphant's strongest critic on the commission, also denied trying to avoid testifying. She said she has repeatedly been at the Governmental Center and could have been sought out at the numerous functions she's attended as part of her campaign to be property appraiser.

"How hard is it to find me?" Parrish asked. "I certainly have been around."

Much of the fourth day of trial focused on the problems of the September 2002 primary. Polls opened late and closed early, setting in motion the tumult that eventually led to Oliphant's suspension.

Pat Nesbit, a 14-year veteran of the office and head of its poll worker division, described repeated missteps on Election Day and the previous day. She said longtime practices dating to Oliphant's predecessor, Jane Carroll, would have caught the possible problems with opening the polls if they had been followed.

Precinct clerks must pick up the supplies needed to open the polls by 1 p.m. the day before at regional centers, which are supposed to notify the main office if people don't show up. But that did not happen in 2002, Nesbit said.

Election novices hired by Oliphant staffed many of the regional centers, and the first she heard of a problem was at 9 p.m. When she suggested calling office staff at home to tell them to arrive at work early to take the supplies to the remaining polls, a top Oliphant aide rejected the idea.

Nesbit said Oliphant aides also dithered when Bush ordered two extra hours of voting because of the problems. That order arrived at 3:30 p.m., giving them 31/2 hours to contact 809 precincts, but she said Oliphant aides told her she had to wait for them to write a press release before she could make any calls. The release did not arrive until after 6 p.m., she said.

Oliphant has blamed Nesbit for the problems, and Oliphant's lawyer, Hunter, grilled Nesbit on what she did. He questioned why she did not call the regional centers to inquire if everyone had picked up their supplies or take the initiative in fixing missteps that might not be obvious to less-experienced workers.

"She sat there and did nothing," Oliphant said after Nesbit's testimony. "The election was sabotaged by stubbornness and selfishness."

Hunter put Oliphant's former spokesman, Rick Riley, on the stand to dispute Nesbit's version of events.

Riley described Oliphant as alarmed when he called her at 8:30 the night before the election to advise her about the possibility of polls not opening and said that she arrived early at the warehouse the next day to direct employees on delivering supplies. He disputed Nesbit's statement that he told her to wait on a press release before telling polls to remain open later than normal.

But in earlier testimony, Oliphant's second-in-command at the time, Walter Foeman, said the staff was told to wait on the press release to tell polls about the longer hours. And in September 2002, Riley's public comments about polls opening on time were much more rosy than his descriptions of his views Thursday.

"All polls will be open as scheduled. All polls will be staffed at 7 a.m. with poll workers and clerks," he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Sept. 9, 2002, after the paper learned that up to 50 precincts likely would not open on time.

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