Rocking the Boat

GOP bigwigs and their pandering pals in the mainstream press are apoplectic about a state senator and New Times' fight to discover the truth. What're these pols trying to hide?

Published online: Wednesday, January 11, 2006, 3:10 p.m. MST

We at New Times would've gotten a big laugh out of all the pompous posturing by the likes of Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett and the fawning Arizona Republic, except for one thing:

These yokels, over the past week or two, have been putting on a sideshow that's diverted public attention from a serious issue.

Senator Jack Harper's the real guy on a white horse in the election controversy.
Mark Poutenis
Senator Jack Harper's the real guy on a white horse in the election controversy.

By screaming that state Senator Jack Harper was somehow illegally in cahoots with New Times writer John Dougherty to examine voting machines used in an election where (abracadabra!) 489 votes suddenly appeared out of nowhere, they have attempted to make so much noise that everybody forgets what the whole thing is all about.

Harper happens to be chairman of the Government Accountability and Reform Committee. Consider the title of this standing legislative committee for a moment. Its vaunted purpose is to look into irregularities that affect state government.

Like when election officials in Maricopa County -- which happens to be the largest county in Arizona and the fourth-largest in the nation -- have no valid explanation for why all those votes were found between the Republican primary and a recount in the 2004 District 20 race for state representative between Anton Orlich and John McComish.

Granted, this wasn't the biggest race in the state, but what went on in this Ahwatukee Foothills election is important because a couple of things could've happened: Election officials either screwed up royally -- demonstrating a high level of incompetence -- or somebody tampered with votes.

Either possibility is a major scandal, because if election officials botched things badly in this tiny race, what might they have done in other races in Maricopa County? Every 2004 election from County Attorney and Sheriff on down could've been affected.

Maybe not enough to make the same kind of difference a big screw-up may have made in the District 20 race, where Orlich won by four votes in the primary only to lose by 13 votes once those 489 new ballots turned up out of thin air. But whatever happened to that quaint notion in this country that every vote counts? Obviously in the case of District 20, even with the mandatory recount, we've got to wonder if every single ballot received proper attention.

Now, this seems the time to make something crystal clear:

We at New Times don't give a damn who won the race between Orlich and McComish. John Dougherty couldn't care less who won the contest between the two conservative Republicans involved. It's as if the poor man's Richard Nixon ran against the poor man's Ronald Reagan.

Still, Andy Thomas likes to claim, on the one hand, that New Times is made up of a bunch of ACLU-loving lefties, and, on the other, that we're trying to force a recount of the District 20 election because we want Orlich, who's the ultra-conservative Ronald Reagan in this scenario, to win over the slightly less right-wing McComish.

For starters, if Thomas knew as much about state law as he tells everybody he does, he'd realize that it's impossible for any such official recount to occur, much less change an election in Arizona once it's been certified by a judge.

The point is, all New Times wants to do is find out what went wrong in that little primary election, because it speaks to how County Recorder Helen Purcell, elections chief Karen Osborne (who works for Purcell), their minions and their voting machines do business overall.

If you don't think voting irregularities are a big deal in this state, consider all the flak Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer got the other day. In what was supposed to be a simple Capitol lawn press conference about Brewer's "accomplishments," she was shouted down by a throng of voting-rights protesters about the state's use of voting machines prone to inaccuracies over paper ballots.

Believe me, Brewer cares deeply what her constituents think. It was she, our sources tell us, who played a part in Arizona House Speaker Jim Weiers' summoning of Senator Harper to his office last summer to urge him in no uncertain terms to stop investigating the District 20 recount ("Pandora's Box," October 27, 2005). Did I mention that every top official involved in this skirmish -- from Bennett, Brewer and Weiers down to Thomas and Purcell -- is a Republican?

Even maverick Senator Harper's a Republican -- a God-fearing right-winger who just wants to do the right thing. Somebody who doesn't much like career politicians, even from his own political party, telling him to do the wrong thing because Republicans always support other Republicans.

But there's another reason that Brewer & Company care so deeply: liability to the state and county if voting-rights organizations find out election machines are malfunctioning and everybody's vote isn't getting counted. Imagine the cost of replacing all that technology. Imagine the legal costs of defending against probable lawsuits.

Which may explain why so many powerful GOP officials around here have stepped into traffic in an attempt to stop Harper from getting to the bottom of why those 489 votes popped up between the primary and the recount.

Why Andy Thomas wrote a letter to Senate President Bennett -- which he made sure every news organization in town except New Times got -- accusing Harper of "engaging in a series of bizarre and erratic actions that, I submit, cast serious doubt on his fitness to serve as a committee chairman and to possess the subpoenaing and police powers attendant with that position."

Thomas went on to spew in interviews with mainstream state newspapers, whose reporters were only too happy to get down on their knees and suck it all down, that there are questions about the "legality and ethics" of Harper's relationship with the "tabloid" newspaper New Times.

Thomas' lackey, Barnett Lotstein, kept busy doing what he's done best through two administrations at the County Attorney's Office: spin the facts to obfuscate the truth, thereby making the dunderheaded statements of whatever boss is in power seem remotely plausible to half-wits.

"There is no precedent whatsoever for a media outlet to bankroll an official government investigation," Special Assistant County Attorney Lotstein was quoted in the Arizona Capitol Times as declaring. "This raises serious legal and ethical questions, especially for a newspaper with a preconceived agenda."

I always know that a critic of New Times is pathetically desperate when he trots out the old tabloid line. It's the equivalent of being called "four eyes" on the playground. As for our preconceived agenda, we have only asked that Thomas and other public officials stop covering up for political allies and determine what happened in District 20. Thomas had a chance to do that, but he dropped an investigation that uncovered serious, and potentially illegal, problems ("All Bark and No Bite," July 14, 2005).

At the bottom of what these two legal ninnies are foaming at the mouth about is New Times' hiring of a nationally renowned voting-machines expert to come in, at Senator Harper's behest, and objectively examine the contraptions in question in the District 20 race.

For that expert to get access to the machines, Harper had to use his subpoena power. Because it isn't like the aforementioned stonewalling public officials would just let Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor who has consulted on such thorny election issues as the 2000 presidential election, simply examine the voting machines.

It wasn't like they'd just do it because the senator who's chairman of the Government Accountability and Reform Committee ordered it done.

Not without a fight!

Like I said earlier, this would all be hilarious, except that the integrity of the elections process in the state's largest county lies in the balance. It would be funny because all the protestations are about New Times' hiring a consultant who's helping a righteous public official get at the truth.

A really funny thing is, Senate President Ken Bennett could've authorized state funds so the committee chairman he saw fit to appoint could bring in the consultant on his own. But Bennett told Harper to go out and find private funding for the endeavor.

Well, he did. And New Times even wrote Bennett a letter informing him that it was footing the bill. New Times has committed to pay up to $3,000 to this expert. Everything has been out in the open.

Lately, Bennett -- who's either a skinflint or something worse -- is demanding that the report be released to him instead of us (the guys who committed to pay for it). He's crowing about how this is suddenly his investigation. Did I mention that Bennett, like House Speaker Weiers before him, did everything he could in a vain attempt to force Harper to drop the whole thing?

Inquiring minds want to know: Why haven't Bennett and the rest of the political pricks involved in this insanity just allowed Senator Harper to conduct his investigation as he sees fit? What are they afraid of?

Why didn't Bennett just fund Harper's fact-gathering so New Times didn't have to? Aren't Bennett and Weiers and Brewer and Thomas and, lately, Democratic Senator Bill Brotherton in any way curious about what went terribly wrong? Isn't it the job of everybody involved to be curious?

Miraculously, Jones was finally allowed to examine those voting machines. (John Dougherty reports on what the acclaimed expert found in "Ballot Box Breakdowns.") But Thomas stepped in and blocked Jones from looking at the individual ballots in the primary election. An examination of the ballots must happen before any final conclusions can be drawn. A court hearing on releasing the ballots was pending.

I, for one, didn't think District 20 was a major story until some of the most powerful political muscle in the state joined arms to try to block Harper from simply finding out what happened. These days I'm thinking . . . maybe this scandal does signal that the Maricopa County elections process and maybe even the Arizona elections system need a major overhaul. Maybe the public officials involved do need to be run out on a rail.

As for Senator Brotherton, he's calling for an ethics investigation of Harper for letting New Times bring in an objective expert so that the public can find out whether every citizen's vote was counted in a Maricopa County election.

Boy, that's riding in on a white horse! His fellow Democrats must be so proud!

Brotherton's interference is fueling Thomas' call for Harper's removal from his committee chairmanship for actually doing what few standing committee chairmen have had the balls to do -- the right thing, even if it means the scalps of members of their own political party.

Now for some unfinished business.

Despite what the rubes in Andy Thomas' office would have you believe, there's nothing unusual about a news organization bringing in an expert to get to the bottom of a story. It's done frequently across the country. Otherwise, public officials would get away with way more cover-ups.

The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald brought in experts to analyze the disputed 2000 Florida presidential voting.

One expert who was brought in to analyze voting after the election in Florida was Stephen Doig of Arizona State University. Doig was acting head of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU until he recently returned to being the school's professor of journalism specializing in computer-assisted reporting. Doig was research editor at the Miami Herald, where he worked on projects that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service. He's consulted with media outlets all over the place on computer-assisted reporting projects, including for his old paper the Herald after the presidential race.

Doig has been following the controversy over New Times' bringing in the consultant who's aided Harper in his investigation.

"I don't see any reason why a media organization shouldn't bring in a consultant," he said recently. "I see it done all the time."

Doig said he's never worked as a paid consultant in conjunction with a government official, as Jones is doing. But he discounted the notion that there's anything ethically wrong with Senator Harper's using his subpoena power to get the New Times-sponsored Jones access to the voting machines in question. Thomas has conjured up a bugaboo that this constitutes an "unholy alliance" between a government official and the press -- one that should cost Harper his committee chairmanship.

Doig noted that it's common for news reporters to benefit from the subpoena power of public servants. "Reporters benefit from the subpoena power of prosecutors," he said. "That kind of relationship isn't unusual."

It's true that prosecutors at the federal, state and local levels here have fed reporters privileged information routinely in the course of certain investigations. Prosecutors in the County Attorney's Office over the years have even made such information available to New Times.

Which makes Thomas either naive or a hypocrite.

It was Thomas' office, after all, that made sure the lapdog mainstream reporters covering Harper's investigation of District 20 were handed all of his bogeyman claims that the senator and New Times were violating all that's good and wholesome by using each other to get Jones access to those machines.

It's obvious to anybody with half a brain that the ones who're in an "unholy alliance" are Andy Thomas and reporters like Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services. Consider the headline on a story written by Fischer in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star: "Did Phoenix's New Times buy a subpoena?"

No, we paid to bring in an independent consultant because a state Senate president was either too cheap or too keen on covering the asses of fellow Republicans to order payment for that expert himself. He wanted the whole thing to just go away. We never pulled Senator Harper's strings. It was the senator who righteously decided to use his legal subpoena power.

The big joke in all this is that the mainstream newspapers around here have aided Thomas, et al., in vilifying New Times for working with a government official to discover the truth. The implication is that we've been too close to an official source. But, as evidenced by their coverage of the District 20 issue, papers like the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune routinely pucker up behind powerful government officials to get the propaganda they masquerade as journalism.

I'd die of shock if I ever heard that either of these media jokes was bringing in an independent consultant to get to the bottom of an important issue.

The Republic and the Tribune have condemned Harper's actions in unsigned, institutional editorials -- which means that what's written is not only the opinion of the writer, but that of the hallowed newspaper. They have done this without getting at the point. Without bothering to try to find out why 489 votes magically appeared in a local election. Without bothering to look below the surface, rock the boat, be real journalists.

In its editorial in which it tried to portray Harper as a bumbling Inspector Clouseau character, the Republic closed by harrumphing that it's inappropriate for a state senator to use his political power "to provide a newspaper with a scoop."

The absurdity of this statement (set down by editorial writer Doug MacEachern) is obvious. But the sentiment is telling, because it spotlights how far from the mission of news-gathering the Republic has strayed. A scoop is journalism parlance for getting a story that nobody else has. For telling readers something they wouldn't otherwise know. It's the very essence of the term news.

I know some good journalists at the Republic, and they're embarrassed that their employer, the largest newspaper in Arizona, would come right out and proclaim that it sees no virtue in finding out something important and reporting it first.

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