Fred Grimm

State Republicans find fraud close to home

For the better part of two years now, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Republican Party have been scouring the state like a sheriff and his posse, hot on the trail of election bandits.

Turns out, our Republican gunslingers didn’t have far to look. The wily varmints corrupting Florida’s electoral process have been working right under their noses.

Republican party operatives were running what appear to be a fraudulent voter registration activities in at least nine Florida counties (including Miami-Dade) and probably more. And they were doing it with party money. Strategic Allied Consulting, the party’s highest paid vendor, reportedly collected $667,598 in July, and another $667,598 in August to register new voters. But all that money came with a wink.

The unseemly ways of Strategic Allied became apparent in Palm Beach County on Sept. 5, when a campaign worker showed up at one of the county election supervisor’s satellite offices with a bundle of 304 new voter registration forms. All filled out. Each included the requisite ID number that identified the Republican Party of Florida as the responsible organization that had registered the voters and collected their signatures.

“One of my workers noticed that a lot of the applications had very similar handwriting and signatures and other discrepancies,” Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher told me Friday. The worker summoned Bucher. She noticed that dates were wrong. Ages were wrong. Some of the home addresses actually corresponded to commercial locations, including a gas station and a car dealership. The supervisor counted 106 new registration forms she considered blatant works of fraud. She called the Palm Beach County State Attorney.

Bucher also put in a call to Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who oversees the state’s elections. Detzner, a former lobbyist for the beer industry, has been the governor’s big gun in the campaign against election fraud. But apparently not this particular sort of election fraud. Bucher said Friday that she still hasn’t heard back from Detzner or one of his deputies. After the story hit the newspapers last week, “I got a call from the kid who answers the phones in his office. That’s all.”

But she did start hearing from other county election supervisors across the state who checked back through registration forms collected by Strategic Allied Consulting and found more suspicious signatures and dodgy addresses. In Okaloosa County, dead residents (a demographic quite useful to anyone intending to cast fraudulent absentee ballots) had been registered by Strategic Allied Consulting workers under the auspices of the Republican Party. In Santa Rosa County, about 100 registration forms with the lousy signatures, addresses and social security numbers have been flagged. So far.

After the story broke last week, roiling through the newspapers, political blogs and cable television, the Florida Republican Party fired the outfit. So did the state Republican party organizations in North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia. And finally the Republican National Committee, which had paid the firm $2.9 million to work its magic in swing states, announced that it was severing its relationship with Strategic Allied Consulting. The Florida party bosses also filed a formal election fraud complaint against its own vendor.

But it’s not like the Republicans didn’t know who they were hiring. Strategic Allied Consulting is run by a well-connected Arizona political consultant named Nathan Sproul with a national reputation for sleazy tactics. In 2004, Salon reported: “During the past week and a half, several former employees, elections officials and others across the country who’ve had dealings with [Sproul Associates] have revealed to various local media outlets Sproul’s methods for boosting GOP registration in key swing states. The accounts allege that Sproul’s workers were encouraged to lie, cheat and, according to Eric Russell, a former Sproul employee in Las Vegas who first told his story to a local television station last week, even destroy the registration forms of Democrats who’d registered to vote with Sproul canvassers.”

Sproul operations have come under criticism for other questionable registration operations in Oregon, Minnesota, Arizona and California. His rep was so bad, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday, that “when Sproul was tapped by the RNC to do field work this year, officials requested that he set up a new firm to avoid being publicly linked to the past allegations, Sproul told The Times. The firm was set up at a Virginia address.” Sproul artfully kept his name off the corporate paperwork.

And now . . . oh my . . .state party leaders have doused themselves in irony. For months, Scott and the Republican Party had been raging over the imagined hordes of illegal voters who would corrupt Florida’s elections. They’ve cajoled and threatened county election supervisors to purge registration rolls using the state-provided check-list of 2,631 supposedly illicit voters, most of them of the immigrant kind. And you know which way those damned illegal immigrants lean. Except the county supervisors noticed that many names on that list turned out to be upright citizens.

And the legislature passed a constitutionally suspect law designed to discourage non-partisan groups, like that notorious gang known as the League of Women Voters, by requiring that they turn in new registrations within 48 hours or face draconian penalties. The law served to tamp down new registrations in the state by requiring what a federal judge described as “burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose.” The same judge tossed the 48-hour provision, saying, “If the goal is to discourage voter registration drives and thus also to make it harder for new voters to register, this may work. Otherwise there is little reason for such a requirement.”

I suppose the law did demonstrate the zeal of our political leadership to root out voter registration fraud. Yet these same pols hired a notorious rogue to run their own registration operation. But only on the condition that he changed the name of his company.

(Former state party chairman Jim Greer has been indicted for alleged misuse of party funds and might hold a grudge or two against his former associates. That said, he has provided an explanation for the party hiring the likes of Sproul. In a 2009 deposition he described Republican “political consultants and staff” discussing “voter suppression and keeping blacks from voting.” He termed the party’s campaign as voter fraud as nothing more than a “marketing” tactic.)

Oh yeah . . . about that list of 2,631 illegal voters, the great perceived threat to Florida’s election integrity. The actual number of suspicious names that needed to be culled from the state’s voter registration rolls came to 198. That’s 198 suspect voters out of 11,446,540 registered statewide. That’s all the bad guys the state bagged in this great, two-year crusade against election fraud. Strategic Allied Consultants managed more lousy registrations than that in just two months.

“This is so disheartening. These people coming into our state to do this, said Bucher. “It’s disconcerting to think that this has been going on all across the country.”

Bucher has not yet received that call back from the secretary of state’s office to get the details on her county’s 106 fraudulent registrations. Detzner’s office did, however, send her the names of all those suspected illegal immigrants on the Palm Beach County registration roles. “We had 14,” she said.

“You sound a bit frustrated,” I told her.

“Oh,” Bucher answered with a weary sigh. “Can you tell?”