Palm Beach Post
Reform ends costly try to purge voter rolls of felons
By Gary Kane and Scott Hiaasen, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 28, 2001
Attacked as an overpriced boondoggle, Florida's computerized quest to stop felons and dead people from voting is about to be reprogrammed.
A recently enacted election-reform bill effectively hit the delete key on a state contract with Database Technologies Inc., a Boca Raton company that has been paid more than $3 million to help cleanse the voter rolls of felons and other ineligible voters. DBT, now a subsidiary of an Atlanta company called ChoicePoint, was poised to collect another $1 million this year to upgrade its work.
Lawmakers not only killed the much-maligned project, but many wonder who came up with the idea to spend $4 million on it in the first place. Sen. Tom Rossin, D-Royal Palm Beach, has urged the state auditor general to investigate the contract. A statewide task force on election reform also called for an investigation.
Tampa Sen. Jack Latvala, who chaired the committee that sponsored the bill in 1998, said he doesn't recall who proposed the appropriation.
"We just pulled that number out of the air," he said. "We didn't know how much it was going to cost."
State Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts, who at the time headed the staff of a legislative committee that analyzed the bill, believes the appropriation was inserted "late in the process." He said he didn't know who came up with the number.
But a draft of the bill dated Feb. 24, 1998 -- a week before the legislature opened its session -- included the $4 million appropriation. And a legislative analysis of the bill dated a month later mentions that the state Division of Elections estimated that the project would cost "between $4.3 million and $4.5 million."
Sandra Mortham, Florida's secretary of state at the time, said she doesn't know the origin of the appropriation.
"It wasn't from the Department of State," she said. "Maybe the legislature had talked to companies or something like that."
Ethel Baxter, who served as director of the Division of Elections under Mortham, declined several requests for an interview.
The statewide organization of county elections supervisors also was puzzled by the appropriation, said Ion Sancho, Leon County's elections supervisor. It was unable to find out who promoted the idea of hiring a private company.
"We cannot find any fingerprints on this bill," he said.
When the state solicited bids in August 1998, only two companies expressed interest. One of them, Computer Business Services of Americus, Ga., withdrew after deciding it couldn't deliver what the state wanted. That left DBT, which drafted its proposal knowing exactly how much money the state legislature had provided for the job.
"There has been four million dollars allocated by the state for this project," company Vice President George Bruder noted in an e-mail to his boss. "The bid we are constructing will have three different levels for price (a little bird told me this will help)."
DBT's bid stated the project could take three years and cost slightly more than $4 million.
Almost immediately, the project's cost came under fire.
George MacLafferty, then inspector general of the Division of Elections, said he felt DBT's bid was excessive. The company planned to process such "unnecessary" data as driver records and change-of-address records, which would inflate their charges, he stated in an Aug. 17, 1998, memo. The project should cost less than one-third of the $2.2 million start-up costs proposed by DBT, he asserted.
That same day, Roberts, then a legislative research director at the House Election Reform Committee, said in a facsimile to a Division of Elections attorney that he was "concerned" about the DBT bid. "It is quite a bit higher than the number we were contemplating when (the bill) was considered."
A five-member panel, which included MacLafferty and Roberts, evaluated DBT's bid and gave the company high marks.
Roberts added a caveat: "I really do not have the expertise to evaluate whether this is a fair price or not."
Division of Elections attorney Michael Cochran, who also sat on that panel, noted in an Aug. 25, 1998, memo that no company, including DBT, submitted a bid that met all of the state's criteria, which included obtaining criminal and mental competency records from all 50 states. That left the state free to negotiate a contract with any vendor and to "negotiate terms more favorable to the Department from a cost viewpoint since it appears that we are going to get less than what we asked for."
On Oct. 19, 1998, Cochran invited DBT to the bargaining table. Bruder forwarded the invitation to Chuck Lieppe, DBT's CEO, who scrawled on it: "Great! Congratulations! Now let's get the $$$... in Q4!!" referring to the fourth quarter of the fiscal year.
DBT signed a contract worth more than $4 million the following month.
Legislators said the 1998 bill wasn't designed with DBT in mind.
"It wasn't rigged for any particular vendor," Latvala said.
Arguments over costs followed
After paying DBT more than $2 million for the first year of the project, state officials continued to be troubled by its cost.
Katherine Harris, who inherited the contract when she took over as secretary of state, ordered her staff to try to negotiate a rebate from DBT before signing a contract extension, according to state records. The task fell to Clay Roberts, whom she had named director of the Division of Elections. Roberts said in a Dec. 6, 1999, e-mail to a division attorney that he didn't expect DBT to bite.
"Of course they will balk, and you will have to set up some kind of a meeting," Roberts wrote. "You can be the good cop on this. I'll be the bad cop."
Their gripe involved money spent by the Division of Elections for data needed by DBT to complete the job. Harris' office spent $124,000 to copy a database of criminal records maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and $50,000 to enter clemency records into a database. DBT should deduct those expenses from its 1999 contract, election officials argued. The company refused.
Harris said this month she was unhappy with the cost and quality of the project.
"I had a lot of issues about that original contract," she said. "I just want to make sure that none of the mistakes are made that occurred in the past. I just want to move forward."
Harris denies that she blamed previous Division of Elections Director Ethel Baxter for the DBT contract, though she quickly replaced Baxter with Roberts.
DBT delivered exactly what the state requested -- a massive list of people who were probably, or even possibly, ineligible to vote. The company warned election officials that the list could misidentify many people as felons. Indeed it did. The voter purge drew criticism as a bungled effort and sparked accusations that it was engineered to remove blacks from the voter rolls.
"Thousands of people were denied their right to vote," said Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami. "I call that incompetence." Elections supervisors across the state didn't trust DBT's work. A poll of the 67 election supervisors by The Palm Beach Post showed that 20 didn't use the list. Many also said the project was too expensive and, to some extent, superfluous. For example, in Hillsborough County, a full-time staffer is devoted to finding felons on the voter rolls, based on local court records.
DBT's work did help the state identify voters who were disqualified because of felonies committed in other states, noted Pam Iorio, Hillsborough's elections supervisor. But she wonders why Florida needed a private company to do that.
"How much does it cost to communicate state-to-state?" Iorio said. "Is it a million-dollar proposition?"
The election reform package signed by Gov. Jeb Bush in West Palm Beach on May 8 earmarks $2 million to develop a computerized network that will enable counties to feed the names of felons and other ineligible voters into a database of the state's 8.8 million registered voters.
The new law specifically bars state elections officials from hiring an outside firm to help them purge the voter rolls.
DBT has no problem with that, said company spokesman James Lee.
"We didn't want to pursue this kind of work anymore," he said. "We let it be known that we would not be upset if they did not renew the contract."
Washington Bureau reporter Melanie Eversley contributed to this story.