Pandora's Box

Is Arizona's Speaker of the House afraid of what might happen if the truth is learned about a local election?

This issue extends far beyond the outcome of the District 20 Republican primary, where John McComish went from four votes behind Anton Orlich after the primary votes were counted to 13 votes ahead after the recount. McComish was declared the winner and went on to take the general election. McComish is now entering the second year of his first two-year term in the House.

The sudden appearance of 489 votes between the primary and the recount raises serious questions about the integrity of all elections held in Maricopa County. But instead of providing answers about how this could have happened, the county elections department is getting helped out of its jam by none other than the Arizona Speaker of the House.

While Weiers' brazen attempt to strong-arm Harper into dropping his investigation failed, it wasn't for a lack of trying.

County elections department chief Karen Osborne
Jackie Mercandetti
County elections department chief Karen Osborne

Rumors circulating through the Legislature about the June 16 meeting cast an even darker cloud over the recount.

Sources close to Harper told me that during the course of their meeting, Weiers offered Harper a business opportunity with the Republican party if Harper agreed to back off his recount inquiry.

"[Harper ] told at least two people that he was offered a quid pro quo," says a prominent Republican, who asked not to be identified, but who has had several conversations with Harper about the June 16 meeting.

Weiers vehemently denied making any such offer to Harper.

"That is just an out-and-out lie!" Weiers said.

But when I asked Harper in early October whether anyone offered him a job with the Republican party in exchange for backing off his probe into the county elections department, the state senator dropped a powerful hint that such an offer had been made.

"I'll neither confirm nor deny who it may have been," he said.

At the time, I only knew that Harper supposedly had been pressured by at least one unknown high-level Republican leader to back off his investigation. Only later did I learn that Harper had met with Weiers and McComish to discuss his recount probe.

In subsequent interviews with Harper, the senator softened his tone about the meeting.

"Nobody said to me that if I . . . back off of this, I would be offered a job at the Republican party," Harper said.

I then asked him what, if anything, was presented to him during the meeting in exchange for losing interest in his investigation.

"Well, I'll just say to you that I can't be bought or intimidated," Harper said. "And I will leave it at that."

McComish told me that he has no recollection of Weiers offering Harper anything to drop the probe.

"I'm absolutely positive that there was no . . . offer made," McComish said.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Weiers, McComish and other legislative leaders -- including Representative Bob Robson, who ran on the same ticket with McComish in District 20 -- see no reason to investigate the county's handling of the recount.

These three legislators, along with county elections officials and County Attorney Thomas, simply want the District 20 recount to fade away. They are hoping that the elections department's ridiculous explanation will simply confuse a public that will forget eventually.

Last fall, county elections boss Osborne said the 489 votes suddenly appeared because the county's electronic scanners didn't detect votes made with gel pens, eyeliner, Sharpies and other markers during the primary on ballots that were mailed in.

But this excuse doesn't wash because the mail-in ballots were read by the same type of vote-scanning equipment in the primary and the recount.

Osborne's nonsensical glitter-pen explanation is why skeptical Republican party officials requested that Thomas conduct the investigation that went nowhere.

More recently, a new explanation for the votes has been floated. McComish and Robson told me in separate interviews that the reason for the increase is that more ballots were counted in the recount than in the primary.

McComish said improperly marked ballots during the primary were rejected by the scanning machines. But during the recount, he said, election workers made sure ballots that had been rejected in the primary were processed by the scanners during the recount.

In other words, I asked McComish, more ballots were counted in the recount than in the primary?

"That's my understanding," he said.

What McComish didn't know when I asked him the question was that I already knew there were four fewer ballots counted in the recount than in the primary.

Come on, McComish, you should do more research before conjuring up such an outlandish explanation!

The fact that the county somehow lost four ballots in the two weeks between the primary and the recount is yet another troubling indicator that something is rotten at the county elections department.

The plot thickens when you consider what Jim Torgeson has to say.

Torgeson, who ran as a Democrat for the House in District 20, told me that a few days after the September 7, 2004, primary, he asked Robson how the recount would be conducted. Robson had already won one of the two House seats up for election in the District 20 Republican primary.

Torgeson said he was very interested in the outcome of the recount because he felt he had a far better chance of defeating Orlich in the general election than McComish. Torgeson said Robson told him not to expect Orlich to be his opponent.

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