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Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) March 11, 2003 Tuesday Broward Metro Edition


 

Copyright 2003 Sun-Sentinel Company  
Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL)


March 11, 2003 Tuesday Broward Metro Edition


SECTION: LOCAL; Pg. 1B

LENGTH: 1187 words

HEADLINE: STATE TO PROBE PAYMENTS TO LOBBYISTS;
COUNTY PAID $500,000 IN DEAL FOR VOTING MACHINES.

BYLINE: Buddy Nevins Political Writer

BODY:
The Broward County State Attorney's office is investigating almost $500,000 in payments made to lobbyists as part of the County Commission contract to buy the new touch-screen voting machines.

The revelation about the payments comes at a time when commissioners are complaining about the extra money Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant says she needs to run elections.

At least two of the four lobbyists mentioned in county documents were paid six-figure fees though commissioners do not remember even meeting them to discuss the voting machines. And it is possible the total lobbying fees built into Broward's $17.2 million voting-machine purchase is higher than $500,000 because only a portion of them have to be publicly disclosed.

"This is all very disturbing," said County Commissioner Ben Graber, the only one to vote against the purchase. "It was wasted money. We paid to lobby ourselves."

"I'm shocked. It is a huge amount," said County Commissioner John Rodstrom.

Rodstrom said it was the largest lobbying fee he can remember in his 10 years on the commission.

The disclosure of big lobbyist payments comes after a South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation last month found commissioners tried to use the voting machine purchase to repair strained relations with the minority community.

Commissioners built into the Election Systems & Software contract $1.7 million of subcontracting such as advertising programs to encourage voting in the minority communities. But the county never monitored the subcontractors' performance and doesn't know if the services it paid for were provided.

Prosecutors began looking into the lobbying fees as part of their investigation into Oliphant, who has been accused of widespread mismanagement and misspending. That inquiry led investigators to start looking at other aspects of the elections office, such as the County Commission's purchase of the voting machines from ES&S and the lobbying that surrounded the deal.

Graber said he was questioned extensively about the lobbying fees by prosecutors. Investigators from the State Attorney's Office also visited ES&S' office in Omaha, Neb.

Russ Klenet, ES&S' Fort Lauderdale-based lobbyist, said his fees never came up when he was questioned by prosecutors.

"Why would it? I wasn't paid that much," said Klenet, whose fees included a $25,000 success bonus, according to the county documents.

Prosecutors would be looking for evidence the lobbying payments broke criminal laws, rather than simply being unusually large. Ron Ishoy, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, had no comment, which is usual for an investigation in progress.

The lobbying payments, technically called success bonuses to be paid only when the contract with Broward was signed, were around 3 percent of the total $17.2 million purchase price of the 5,200 machines.

Success bonuses are the only portion of the charges for lobbying that must be made public. Lobbyists traditionally are paid a retainer when hired, and some are promised two- or three-year continuing contracts, in addition to a success bonus. Since those aren't required to be reported, total fees paid by lobbyists in this contract and most others are probably much higher than $500,000.

The list of lobbyist success bonuses were obtained by the Sun-Sentinel this month and were part of the bid documents ES&S gave commissioners in November 2001 when they were vying to win a contract to sell Broward voting machines. The bonuses were made public under Broward lobbying registration rules.

The extensive lobbying was necessary, said Michael Limas, the chief operating officer of ES&S, the company that sold Broward and 11 other Florida counties about $70.6 million worth of touch-screen machines in the past two years.

"This was a new system, and we needed professionals to explain it statewide," Limas said.

Those professionals in Broward include Andrews Plus, described by Limas as a Tallahassee lobbying firm, which got a $90,000 success bonus when the Broward contract was completed, according to county documents.

Klenet got a $25,000 success bonus, the documents state. Klenet, who has been on the finance committee of Commissioner Ilene Lieberman's campaigns, also received a continuing contract with ES&S as their permanent Broward liaison and spokesman. He would not say how much that was worth.

Former Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, who in that role was the chief election officer from 1995 to 1999, and her chief aide at the secretary of state's office, Gene McGee, received a success bonus of $172,000 each from the Broward contract, the documents indicate.

The county documents show those four lobbyists got $464,000 in success bonuses. Klenet's continuing contract, and any retainers paid to the lobbyists, were not required to be disclosed and weren't.

Lobbyist Mike Moskowitz, a Broward lawyer who registered as an ES&S lobbyist, said he was paid "several thousand dollars" working for the voting machine company. He received no bonus so his name or fees were not included in the county documents.

Taxpayers ended up paying for Mortham and McGee, although commissioners don't recall them ever visiting Broward or lobbying them.

"I never saw them," said County Commissioner Lori Parrish.

They got money from the Broward contract but were not required to lobby in the county under an agreement that paid them for every machine sold in Florida, explained Limas.

The two helped ES&S' machines receive certification from the Secretary of State's office in late 2001, an approval process necessary before counties can buy the machine.

"They helped us on a statewide basis," said Limas, who would not reveal the total they were paid.

If Mortham and McGee got the same 1 percent of the contract price apiece that they received in Broward, they each would have gotten about $700,000 of the $70.6 million in machines ES&S sold.

Mortham and McGee did not return calls for comment.

Not paying those bonuses could have gone toward paying the extra costs that have developed since the touch-screen machines were bought, Graber said.

The November election cost the county about $900,000 more than planned for additional personnel to keep the polls open and the machines operating. Oliphant wanted about $600,000 extra to run the February city primary and today's election in 13 cities, but received $180,000 and now says she will be out of money by May.

Oliphant, who opposed the purchase from ES&S machines because she preferred another manufacturer, has blamed some of the cost overruns on the extra personnel needed to operate the technologically advanced machines.

County commissioners and a county audit have blamed her for the financial troubles in the elections office. They contend she overspent her budget by $1 million last year because of her own mismanagement.

Oliphant's secretary said she was too busy planning for today's election to answer questions about the lobbying.
 
Buddy Nevins can be reached at bnevins@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4571.