As secretary of state in 2001, Bill Jones moved to rid California of the type of antiquated voting machines that helped throw the presidential election into turmoil in Florida. Then last year he sponsored a successful $200-million industry-backed bond measure that gave counties money to buy high-tech replacements.
Now, the former elections chief is a paid consultant to one of the major voting machine firms vying for that business.
One of his former top aides has become a vice president for business development with the same company, Sequoia Voting Systems. Another former employee is working on Sequoia business strategies.
And the official who oversaw the certification of new voting machines under Jones has signed on as a competitor's California general manager.
Out of the tumultuous 2000 presidential election has come a national initiative to replace punch-card voting devices with modern optical-scanning and touch-screen systems. And in California, where 54 counties are expected to buy about $400 million in new equipment, some voting machine makers are hiring former government officials such as Jones to supply prestige, entre or expertise for a competitive edge.
There is no prohibition against former officials working for election machine companies, unless they lobby their old agency within a year of leaving. And elections officials and vendors defend their close relationships, saying that they improve election systems and benefit the public.
But Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, said, "The regulators and the regulated are so closely intertwined that the regulators go almost exclusively to [the vendors] for information and answers to questions."
Several major voting machine companies do more than provide technical expertise and guidance on new regulations. They spend thousands of dollars on major conferences of election officials from coast to coast. They pay for booths to display their wares. They foot the bill for hospitality suites and, sometimes, banquets, pool parties and boat outings -- even a Maine lobster bake.
In Ohio, one vendor competing for $100 million in contracts recently treated election officials to free meals, limousine rides and concert tickets. And that prompted a state ethics commission to remind county elections offices that taking gifts from vendors is illegal.
In Los Angeles, Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, said, "The companies have to recognize that the government is not like business, and you don't wine and dine government officials.
"We need to have confidence in government, and the confidence is already low."
Fifty-four of California's 58 counties will have to install at least one touch-screen voting machine per polling place by 2006 to accommodate disabled voters. (Four counties already have touch-screen machines.) And six counties, including Los Angeles, which has more than 4 million registered voters, are racing to meet a court-imposed deadline to replace punch-card systems by the March presidential primary.
Huge sums will be available. Proposition 41 was approved by voters last year; it provides $200 million to upgrade election systems. Counties are expected to pick up a third of the cost of such an upgrade. And the state is seeking $127 million more through the federal Help America Vote Act.
Jones, a family farmer from Fresno and a potential Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, was a central figure in the state's push toward revamping voting systems during his eight years as elections chief. He decertified punch-card machines in 2001, and the next year -- along with then-Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, who is now secretary of state -- co-sponsored the proposition that raised money for new machines.
Jones said in an interview that he took the actions to provide California with a means of replacing dinosaur voting systems doomed by lawsuits and court rulings, not to benefit elections companies.
He denied that his actions created an appearance of conflict, saying that there had been no money for new systems, "and counties could not deal with it themselves."
As his term wound down last year, Jones sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination but lost. He returned to private life in January and several months later began part-time consulting for Sequoia; he wouldn't say how much he is paid. He also serves on Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's transition team.
Before Jones left office, an assistant secretary, Alfie Charles, began setting his sights on his own next job.
Charles, who was Jones' spokesman, had worked on communications for the Proposition 41 drive, which was financed almost entirely with $100,000 from Sequoia and $50,000 from another vendor, Election Systems & Software. He had also sat on the panel that recommended to Jones which election machines could be sold in California.
In May 2002, Charles resigned from the panel to avoid potential conflicts. After talking to at least one other election company, he said, he was hired as a Sequoia vice president that August.
"It is a position that assists the company in identifying strategies for positioning in the market and long-term trends in the industry," he said, declining to disclose his salary.
After the Santa Clara County elections staff ranked Sequoia first in its evaluation of election systems, Charles appeared before county supervisors and touted his experience while vowing to instill voter confidence in new electronic equipment.
"I recently spent seven years as assistant secretary of state for California, developing the voter outreach projects that helped California set the national standard," he said. An $18.9-million contract was signed in April.
Charles defends the use of his state credentials in his new job. "It's no different than anyone in the election business," he said. "You learn from your experience."
Charles said that the company recently also hired Waldeep Singh, who worked in the state elections office several years ago and more recently handled business filings there. Kathryn Ferguson, a former Santa Clara County registrar, also was hired by the company.
Other voting system companies use political figures as lobbyists. For example, former state assemblyman and Sacramento Mayor Phil Eisenberg contacted Sacramento County supervisors last year on behalf of Election Systems & Software. And former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu later contacted San Bernardino County supervisors on behalf of Diebold Election Systems.
But elections experts say that Jones has exceptionally high name recognition, credibility and access among elections officials in California and elsewhere.
Last spring, after the San Bernardino County elections staff gave top marks to Sequoia's system, Jones lobbied county supervisors before they gave final approval to an $18.8-million contract.
Recently, Jones called Conny B. McCormack, Los Angeles County's registrar, to make an appointment to discuss the county's purchase of as much as $100-million worth of electronic voting equipment.
But McCormack still swears by the reliability of the punch-card system, which Jones banned. As secretary of state, "we heard him extolling the virtues of touch screens," she said. "And now he's working for a touch-screen company."
Jones said he joined Sequoia because he wanted to keep his hand in the elections business and had a long relationship with the company, which has operated a ballot printing plant in his home district. "I would not support Sequoia if I did not think it had a good system and good people," he said.
Part of Jones' job, Charles said, is to counteract misinformation put out by competing firms. "Bill does not have a sales role per se," he said. "Bill's style ... is to offer counsel to election officials.... He's a resource for them and us."
Secretary of State Shelley says he plans to tighten rules in his office to avoid conflicts and the appearance of them, and he wants local officials to consider similar reforms.
One rule being drafted would bar a state employee from influencing or participating in decisions that even indirectly would affect businesses if they were discussing future employment. Another would prohibit an employee from exploring a job with a business if the employee had taken any action within the previous year affecting the company, even indirectly. Violation could result in disciplinary action, including dismissal.
In a recent interview, Shelley said his action was prompted by concerns expressed about Jones and others.
"It is a public confidence issue," Shelley said. "I can't do anything about what happened in the past, but I can address it going forward.
"It's about transparency, sunshine and building confidence that every decision that is made is in the public interest and not the interest of a vendor."
Before he left state service a year ago, Jones was troubled when Lou Dedier, his point man in the election machine certification process, abruptly left to join Election Systems & Software, causing some competitors to express fears that he was taking trade secrets.
Jones called on the state Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate and publicly accused Dedier of undermining the credibility of the certification process. Upon taking his new job, Dedier said in a news release that ES&S; "has by far the best elections systems." The matter remains under investigation, according to the FPPC.
Dedier said he showed no favoritism toward his new employer, had taken no secrets, was not involved in sales and has scrupulously avoided lobbying his former employer. "I just do tech stuff," he said. "I was never hired to do the other."
After he received an unsolicited job offer from ES&S; last October to manage its California operations, Dedier said, he immediately notified his superior. But it was just before the Voting Systems Panel -- which he advised -- was to pass judgment on a competing company's touch-screen system.
The matter was further complicated because the company, Avante International, had been selected for a Sacramento County pilot election only a few days away.
Dedier was asked to hold off for a few days before accepting the job with ES&S;, and was allowed to make his recommendation to the panel -- that Avante could handle the Sacramento balloting but that a decision on statewide certification should be deferred.
Avante representatives, however, were upset when they found that Dedier was taking a job with a competitor. "It seemed like a conflict to us," said James Minadeo, technical support manager for Avante.
Dedier said recently that he had not only handled the matter fairly, but that he had taken extra steps to get Avante certified, which occurred conditionally in December after the Sacramento election went well. And Ernest Hawkins, former Sacramento County registrar, vouched for Dedier's impartiality.
Stern, a former counsel to the FPPC and the secretary of state, said officials had created an appearance problem by failing to disclose Dedier's job offer. "The more openness, the better off you are," he said.
One critic of Dedier's move was Deborah Seiler of Diebold Election Systems, who said it had raised ethical and conflict-of-interest issues.
Seiler herself had gone through the government-to-industry revolving door.
After serving as chief of elections under longtime Secretary of State March Fong Eu, she went into the elections industry in 1991 after working in the state Legislature for a year. She said she has worked hard to build trust among elections officials and acknowledged, "There's no question these contacts are helpful" in the intense competition to sell new equipment.
She also is the chairwoman of a subcommittee of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials, which is working on revisions of the election code. And that role has caused competing vendors to complain about her special status.
"When she went to work for the vendor, she was just one of us, and she just continued," said Hawkins, who was long active in the organization.
"I wasn't selling any products," Seiler said. "It was a labor of love."
Seiler, who worked with Sequoia and now is with Diebold, has sold election systems to more than a dozen counties since 1998. And she is on friendly terms with the elections chief in Los Angeles County.
"Deborah and I are friends," said registrar McCormack. "We went away one weekend to Carmel or Monterey, and I paid my own way, with our husbands."
"But I think you can have friends and keep it separate from business," said McCormack, adding that she usually deals with one of Seiler's superiors.
Conferences of elections officials, here and nationally, often double as trade shows for the vendors, with numerous opportunities for them to interact in social settings.
"It's fair to say there's selling that goes on," said San Mateo County Registrar Warren Slocum. "It's no different than lots of industries. The difficulty is that, with increased scrutiny of the election process, there is a new day.... We all have to be thinking about the appearance."
The Houston-based Election Center is a nonprofit whose members are state and local elections officials.
When the annual conference was held in August at a Bal Harbour, Fla., hotel, the welcome reception was co-sponsored by Diebold, an evening by the pool by Sequoia and the graduation luncheon and awards by ES&S.;
Becky Vollmer, a spokeswoman for ES&S;, said sponsorships are a "goodwill gesture" for clients and potential clients and show support for the continuing education of elections officials.
Hawkins, the former Sacramento registrar, helped coordinate conferences over the years.
"I can't imagine anyone being influenced in a decision to buy or not to buy as the result of a lunch in a group setting," he said. "If it was a dinner with your spouse at Morton's and tickets to Hawaii, it would be different."
Times staff writer Allison Hoffman contributed to this report.