Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Sorting through voting fraud stories
December 21, 2004

Time to separate the wheat from the chaff
-Keith Olbermann


It is at once touching and scary that I should have to explain why I’m not posting or on television on a given week. Scary, of course, because the latest Gallup Poll which closed Sunday reports that 19% of Americans believe “incidents of fraud” decided, or helped to decide, last month’s election. The most intriguing part of that number is that more than a month ago, 18% of Americans believed there was something illegitimate about the vote.

What was and wasn’t legitimate is now difficult to sort. The most, and least, credible stories of voting irregularities continue to flourish side by side on the 'Net— the natural by-product of its unedited, but unproven, nature. Time to review the various running stories to try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

1. Mr. Triad Goes to Hocking:
There doesn’t appear to have been anything illegitimate about the actions of a “manufacturer’s rep” at the Board of Elections of Hocking County, Ohio, about two weeks ago. You will recall that his unlikely appearance, comments, and ‘maintenance work’ prompted first the Green Party and then Congressman John Conyers to seek a local investigation, and a second from the FBI.

The locals moved quickly. David Sams, the Assistant Prosecutor in Hocking, happens conveniently enough to be a Countdown viewer. He met with the Board of Elections, and the Triad representative, yesterday. “There were some things that seemed ‘irregular,’ which raises the possibility of impropriety,” he told our office. “It bore looking into.” Sams said he had Triad’s man recreate what he did to the computer tabulator that so disturbed the County’s Deputy Elections Director, Sherole Eaton. “The gentleman in question took apart the computer in front of us, and our patrolman, who has worked many computer-related crimes, assessed what he did.

“He was fixing the system,” Sams continued. “Whatever happened that day, happened today. It’s a fourteen-year old computer. We had another gentleman, a local systems analyst, who verified this information for us… We were prepared to disassemble the machine and have it dissected. But we didn’t think this was necessary. The election in our county was completely proper.”

Sams is writing the whole thing off as a “comedy of errors,” saying the Triad rep’s comments had led to appropriate suspicions. Hocking County’s investigation combines with two other facts to suggest that nobody went in to “tamper” with the tabulator there before the recount. The other evidence is that: a) the woman who filed the affidavit complaining about Triad’s visit, the Democrat Sherole Eaton, has since complained that her remarks were blown up out of context, and, b) if there was wrong-doing in Hocking, the County Prosecutor’s office just made itself a very open target for conspiracy theorists, and for whatever the FBI does or doesn’t do.

But the real impact in Hocking is the simple fact that a computer technician had access to the voting equipment in violation of the Ohio Secretary of State’s controversial extension of the “canvassing period.” Simply put, according to Kenneth Blackwell, nobody should’ve been allowed to dust the machine, let alone replace a battery or parts, except under extremely controlled circumstances.

Thus the evidence of a “fix” in Hocking is almost nil. The evidence of holes in the security of the voting system big enough to drive a full-sized scandal through, is conclusive.

2. The House Judiciary Committee is investigating:

No, it isn’t.

I can’t estimate how many emails I’ve gotten insisting that what Representative Conyers is doing is a “congressional investigation.”

Mr. Conyers has thus far held two “voting forums,” one in Washington D.C., and the other in Columbus, Ohio, and may hold another after the holidays. They may be of great importance, and could serve as the basis for all manner of later investigations.

But Conyers and the other Congressmen - all Democrats - taking testimony, are meeting ad hoc. Being members of the minority, they can’t act, they can’t get legislation passed, they can’t get anything done, without the cooperation of some Republicans. And they aren’t going to get that cooperation.
Officially, the most Mr. Conyers and his colleagues can do now is to formally challenge Ohio’s slate of voters when the Electoral College balloting is opened before the joint session of Congress on January 6th. Last week, on Countdown, Conyers said he was fully prepared to do that (the Constitution requires one willing congressman and one willing Senator to put such a challenge in writing), but he would not commit to doing it himself, and has not referred to it since.

Barring the biggest of possible evidentiary surprises - something so overwhelming and conclusive that it would convince police, FBI, and the Republican Party that Ohio’s vote was fatally flawed - even a formal challenge would be, at best, a token protest.

3. The American media has a liberal bias:

I think we can pretty much put this one to bed.

The mainstream media has so tiptoed around the voting irregularities stories that it’s deflated any reasonable belief that there are swarms of reporters bypassing facts to substitute their own agendas. Instead of a circus, the Conyers “voting forums” have received tepid coverage.

Had there been a reversal of the poles in this political equation, of course, the impenetrable Sean Hannity would be in his 49th consecutive day of broadcasting without sleep, and by now would’ve already announced that Democrats from Outer Space had stolen the election.

4. Affidavits are smoking guns:

As we may have seen in the Sherole Eaton case in Ohio, a sworn deposition can be less than it seems.

I have been sent countless links and updates - including one to a Florida weekly newspaper called The Seminole Chronicle— noting the affidavit of a former computer programmer named Clint Curtis. He insists that in September, 2000, a then state representative (now Congressman) named Tom Feeney asked him to write software that would enable the altering of vote totals on touch-screen machines.

I’ve refrained from reporting any of this here because there are a lot of questions about the nature of the interactions between Mr. Curtis and Congressman Feeney. But at my request, a very reliable member of the NBC News Investigative Unit tracked down some of the headlines, and we also spoke to Congressman Feeney. Given that the story has hit the newspapers, even in a small way, it’s now appropriate to report what we’ve learned.

Firstly, the attorney for the firm for whom Mr. Curtis worked at the time of the purported skullduggery request, Yang Enterprises of Oviedo, Florida, insists that the company has never sold any voting software. Its lawyer claims Curtis has previously threatened the firm and its top officers, in writing, and that they were sufficiently concerned to file a police report as a result. Though the term “disgruntled employee” is too easily thrown around (I can attest to that), if somebody has put it in writing, it’s a tough climb back to full credibility.

There are also a couple of logical disconnects contained in Curtis’s story. As our investigator notes, if Curtis is correct, Feeney made an illegal request to a group of employees who might have tacitly committed a felony just by listening to it and not reporting it to authorities. Additionally, Curtis made no reference to any of this until he had left Yang’s employ, and by the time he did tell anybody, it was four years after the fact.

For his part, Congressman Feeney answered seven questions from one of our producers and in six of them made gentle hints about reporters getting legal counsel before they ran with the story (this was before the Florida paper ran what it did— one wonders what things are like in their office this week). In short, Feeney says he doesn’t remember meeting Mr. Curtis; that his only connection to Yang Enterprises was as an attorney prior to 2002; that because Mr. Curtis had “slandered and defamed a lot of people” he would not reply to specific questions, only general ones; and that as to the story on the whole, “I’m very amused by it. I wish I had some of the power that he suggests.”

5. Republicans are invulnerable:

Even before the President’s second term has begun, this too has been disproved. He and his administration are already under attack— by their own party.

The Senate backlash against Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was so rapid, and the Congressional balk at the Intelligence Reform Act so intransigent, that it seems as if enough Republicans to make a difference saw Mr. Bush as not much more than a coat-tail to ride. From listening to their complaints, it’s hard to know if more Republican legislators think him too conservative, or too liberal. Regardless, it appears that they feel that the only Republican mandate in Washington belongs to them, not him. The assumption is that they want Mr. Rumsfeld out and will get their way— if not immediately, then within, as Trent Lott suggested, the year.

Poor Rumsfeld isn’t helping his case much. While the Pentagon was happy to seize upon the Chattanooga reporter’s confession that he spoon-fed a soldier the question about the lack of vehicle armor in Kuwait and Iraq, the soldier himself is contradicting that account. Time magazine quotes Specialist Thomas Wilson as saying that Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga Times Free Press not only didn’t give him the question, he tried to talk Wilson into finding “a less brash way of asking the question.” Wilson even said “I hope I didn’t do any damage to Secretary Rumsfeld.”

No need to worry there— he’s doing it to himself. The issue of vehicle armor may resonate with the average American; the subject of form letters to grieving service families will probably make him see red. The revelation that the Secretary’s condolence letters to the families of fallen U.S. service personnel were signed by an auto-pen device (and the lame excuse that the method was used in consideration of Rumsfeld’s heavy travel schedule - as if the letters could not be sent with him and signed in transit) will probably prove the end of his career.

Then, of course, there are the Bernard Kerik follies. Either the White House vetted him with all the thoroughness with which a hot dog consumer vets the meat, or it thought it could slip him past public scrutiny. Thus its failure on Kerik simplifies into a fielder’s choice: either the extraordinary contortions our society has been asked to perform since 9/11 can’t catch the most obvious of transgressors, or the Administration isn’t spending enough time in the good-old Reality-Based World.

6. Fascists are Leftists:

I have to throw this in somewhere. As noted previously, I am periodically harangued by a handful of official right-wing nuts.

They are remarkably entertaining - like listening to Ann Coulter, only without the audio accompaniment of her shrill whistle of hate - but one of them got me genuinely angry the other day, and made me doubt the value of our educational system.

This one fellow’s email contained a reference to Fascism being a leftist doctrine. I actually had to write him back to make sure he was serious. “Hitler was a left-winger. Case closed, dumbass.”

For anybody else just joining us here in the real world, here’s the story so far: the Fascists started in Italy, with Benito Mussolini. They— and the Germans that followed them - were an ultra-conservative political party that opposed (and later jailed and killed) leftists. The German ones even went to war against a Communist state, suggesting that the use of the term “Socialism” in their official party name was almost ironic in intention. American Fascists have sought to outlaw Jews, Catholics, minorities, and Republicans. Also, the sun rises in the east, and two and two still makes - even if somebody from a Blue State tells you this— four.

7. There is a media lockdown on voting irregularities:

If you’ve waded through all of this, you might be wishing that there was one - or even just a maximum word limit.

But since, as I was writing this, I got that Peter Coyote “Olbermann Was Fired” email again, I thought I’d better emphasize anew: I’m on vacation. We’ll be back with the Countdown year-in-review show Friday night, and regular newscasts on the 27th. I probably won’t be blogging again before next week.

If you really want to worry about vacations, keep track of the days taken off by our crack line producer Greg Kordick. As diligent a fellow as there is, Greg tends to take off long weekends rather than full weeks.

And this year, on his days off, the following people have died: Ray Charles, Rick James, President Reagan, Rodney Dangerfield, Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, and Faye Wray. The jury in the Scott Peterson case came back on one of his days off, and returned its sentence on another one.

The rest of the staff tends to huddle in the corner whenever Greg’s on vacation.

Happy Holidays…