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McKeithen says voting machines' vendors off limits

Capitol news bureau for the Baton Rouge Advocate  25 August 2004

Secretary of State Fox McKeithen warned his employees: "Don't fraternize" with anyone trying to sell the state new voting machines, or face the consequences.

The prohibition goes "much further" than state ethics laws for public workers, state ethics attorney Maris LeBlanc said.

Today, state employees can be wined and dined by those seeking a business relationship with their agency.

McKeithen has told his staff that they cannot.

"He's taking a cautious and prudent approach," LeBlanc said. "It might serve him well."

McKeithen sent a directive to all administrative, elections and legal staff putting socializing or "direct contact" with vendors and lobbyists who represent them, off-limits as his agency gets ready to spend millions of dollars for new voting machines.

Violators will be subject to disciplinary action, he said.

"It's probably a $30 million deal," McKeithen said Tuesday.

The purchase will not take place until next year but representatives from voting machine companies have started approaching his agency's employees, he said.

"We just want to make sure that everybody understands this is a straight-up deal," McKeithen said.

"I didn't want to have anybody to get in trouble with this," he said, noting one former elections chief is serving time in a federal prison for too cozy dealing with voting-machine interests.

McKeithen said he's also alerting possible vendors and lobbyists who represent the firms of his office policy. McKeithen said he's begun to see vendors and their representatives coming around his offices.

"Instead of helping themselves, it's going to put them down a step in my estimation," if the firms or their representative try to curry influence, McKeithen said.

McKeithen said he would be suspicious that there was something wrong with the quality of the machine.

"We are going to do it very professionally and make the best decision which is the best equipment. It doesn't make any difference who's selling it," McKeithen said.

Louisiana must replace antiquated lever-type voting machines as a result of new federal elections laws. The state is getting federal funds to help with the purchase.

The machines are in most parishes and the state is taking the opportunity to make the machines uniform statewide. McKeithen said he'll abide by the staff directive too and won't accept campaign contributions from any machine-related sources.

Former state Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler is serving time in a federal prison for personal dealings with voting machine interests.

In addition, the last elections commissioner, Suzanne Terrell, created a flap for accepting campaign contributions from those connected to a company that won a smaller voting machine contract.

She later returned the money.

In the memo, sent out by McKeithen's first assistant, Renee Free, employees were told their action may come under careful scrutiny with the impending voting machine purchase.

"Therefore, effective immediately and until further notice, no Department of State employee may socialize in any manner (i.e., breakfast, lunch, dinner, parties, etc.) or have direct contact with any employee, owner or associate of any voting machine company/vendor," the memo states. "This directive is given for the protection of the Department as well as its employees."

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