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A Place in Politics for Salesmen and Wares

From Times Staff Writers

While Bill Culp Jr. was election director of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, voting machine salesmen were eager to treat him to a very good time.

One salesman paid for two days at the historic La Fonda Hotel on the main plaza in Santa Fe, N.M. A company manager took Culp and about 20 other county commissioners and election officials to dinner and dancing at an expensive Houston steakhouse.

The president of an Indianapolis voting-supply firm invited him to a Pacers basketball game when the home team faced off against Culp’s beloved Charlotte Hornets. Culp and his host sat court-side in the owner’s box.

The most basic process in democracy--voting--begins with the purchase of equipment: machines that register ballots, the ballots themselves and crucial counting software. Merchants ply state and local government administrators with entertainment and campaign funds. In turn, understaffed election officials rely on sales representatives to explain the ever-more technical workings of the systems they oversee.

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Without binding regulations and with little oversight, these relationships breed disregard for protecting ballots, obtaining the best equipment and safeguarding public funds. At worst, close ties erode integrity.

Culp knows it. He left a Maryland prison in September and lives in a Charlotte, N.C., halfway house, where he is ending a 30-month sentence for accepting 122 bribes and kickbacks worth more than $134,000 from January 1990 to March 1998. Voting machines he bought from the salesman who paid him off had enough problems that he wrote four letters of complaint even as he was taking the bribes.

Two weeks ago in Baton Rouge, former Louisiana Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler pleaded guilty to two felonies: malfeasance in office and conspiring to launder money. His kickback schemes with voting machine company representatives saddled Louisiana voters with obsolete mechanical clunkers. An audit found that Fowler cost Louisiana taxpayers an unnecessary $8.5 million.

Bribes and kickbacks are extreme examples of what can go wrong. But the market is heating up. In the wake of Florida’s election problems, federal and state lawmakers are suggesting special funds to help localities upgrade their equipment. This month alone, counties in Washington, Indiana and Ohio began discussing replacing their voting systems.

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Next year, companies think, the rush will begin in earnest.

“I think this [confusion] is absolutely terrible for the country,” said Tom Eschberger, vice president of national accounts for Election Systems & Software Inc., the leading distributor.

But for companies like his, he said, “it’s a bonanza.”

Firms Seek Exposure

When 1,000 election officials gathered this year for a conference at San Francisco’s Grand Hyatt hotel, they schmoozed at a reception co-sponsored by Global Election Systems. They applauded as Global’s immediate past president presented an award: a designer bowl contributed by his firm.

Four hundred convention guests dined aboard a Hornblower yacht cruising San Francisco Bay, partly financed by $10,000 from the Sequoia Pacific vote supply firm.

The meeting was organized by the Election Center, a nonprofit information resource for states, counties and cities. R. Doug Lewis, the executive director, said the businesses contribute for the exposure, not to curry favor.

But the convention could have been almost any stop on a thriving circuit where public election directors party at private vendors’ expense.

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Election directors should aim for a higher standard, said Bob Stern, director of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit research organization based in Los Angeles. Companies, he said, expect something in return.

The merchants also use political contributions and lobbyists to gain an ear. Fidlar/Doubleday, for example, would like to sell electronic voting machines in its home state of Illinois, which has yet to certify any such system.

The company would especially like to keep its largest client, DuPage County, west of Chicago. DuPage buys Fidlar punch cards but is looking to replace its system with something more up-to-date.

In the last three years, Fidlar/Doubleday, its executives and its lobbyist have contributed at least $9,000 to the DuPage Republican Central Committee and given campaign contributions of $500 to the county recorder and $3,000 to the county board chairman.

Interested in getting electronics on the state’s list of authorized systems, Fidlar and its representatives sent thousands more in campaign contributions to Illinois officials, including at least $11,000 to Gov. George Ryan and more than $1,000 combined to the House leader and Senate president, both Republicans who hail from DuPage.

Gary L. Greenhalgh, a former Federal Election Commission official turned vote-machine salesman, has said influence is more important than a quality product in his industry, because local election officials don’t know how to assess equipment.

He told an audience in 1993 that, in writing bids for almost 30 government contracts over two years as national sales director for the MicroVote firm, not one election director asked about protecting ballots from tampering or about how to audit vote counts--matters looming large in Florida.

Often, companies turn to former politicians. For a New York City contract worth some $60 million, Sequoia Pacific signed up help from Ed Sadowsky, a member of New York’s Board of Education and a former councilman from Queens.

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A convicted bookmaker from Queens happened to be the swing vote on the city election board. Sadowsky thought he heard the man hint that his support might be for sale.

Sadowsky visited the district attorney. When the investigation hit the papers, the election commissioner denied soliciting a bribe.

The matter ended there.

Kickbacks Revealed

Not so the case of Jerry Fowler.

Six years ago, Louisiana legislators urged their election commissioner to test a new generation of lightweight, computerized voting machines.

But Fowler balked.

He had built a kickback scheme around old-style mechanical lever machines, half-ton turquoise-colored behemoths that click off votes on plastic counters. On Nov. 27, he entered his guilty plea.

One dealer had bought used machines and resold them to Louisiana at vastly inflated prices, with Fowler taking a cut. Another sold the state thousands of unneeded counters, some cannibalized from Louisiana’s own machines. Cash was diverted again to Fowler, who also got a slice of fees for hauling machines from warehouses to polling places.

In Bill Culp’s case, Mecklenburg County bought the newest technology: 1,200 MicroVote 464 electronic voting machines. Culp pushed hard for the purchase. It brought MicroVote $5.25 million.

Independent agent Edward J. O’Day made the sale. Soon O’Day, who later pleaded guilty to bribery, was underwriting Culp’s season tickets to the Hornets and the Panthers football team. He made eight $2,000 payments to Culp’s wife for “consulting services” that she never provided. A pattern was set.

Culp was supposed to make Mecklenburg County a MicroVote showcase--a place for the company to exhibit how well its machines perform.

MicroVote needed the help.

It was reeling from setbacks in Montgomery County, Pa., north of Philadelphia, where its machines kept shutting down during a November 1995 election. The computers froze as voters scrolled through a three-page electronic ballot. The county even announced the wrong winners.

Glitches resurfaced the following spring. Montgomery County sued MicroVote and traded the machines to another company, which turned around and resold them. In 1997, Culp and his county bought 400 of Montgomery County’s rejects from O’Day.

Publicly enthusiastic, Culp privately complained about the same defects that led to the chaos in Pennsylvania. “The obvious weakness in the scrolling mechanism concerns us,” he wrote to the company on May 13, 1996.

The troubles, he said in a recent interview, were minor, and the county election board chairman agreed. Still, over the next year, Culp followed up with three increasingly sharp notes.

Industry defenders say such scandals and corruption are rare. “This is a very small business, and the vendors can’t do very much that’s out of line or their business is gone. . . ,” said Richard G. Smolka, editor of Election Administration Reports, a biweekly newsletter.

In neither the Culp nor the Fowler case, they point out, was a voting machine executive accused of wrongdoing.

One principal in a leading firm, however, was convicted of a business-related felony back in 1978. A jury found Ransom F. Shoup II guilty of obstruction of justice. As owner of Shoup Voting Solutions Inc., he remains a player.

Federal investigators had hired Shoup to check suspicious voting-machine failures in predominantly black wards in Philadelphia. Shoup offered to go easy on the city election chief, court records show, in return for the prospect of regaining some parts and repair business he had lost.

Some bribe attempts never officially surface. One Midwest election director tells of an offer he got over a cola with a broker in 1996.

The county man had a $2-million budget for a new voting system.

The agent had a proposition: $10,000 to help secure the contract.

The prospective client complained to the employer but never alerted prosecutors. The salesman changed jobs, but he still hawks voting machines.


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