Pressure Tactics

You won’t believe what GOP officials are pulling now to try to keep Senator Jack Harper from discovering the truth about a local election!

Show us the ballots!

That's the only way to get to the bottom of a raging scandal that started with an obscure 2004 Republican primary election in the Ahwatukee Foothills and is now entangling six prominent Republican officials.

Speaker of the Arizona House Jim Weiers, Senate President Ken Bennett, Secretary of State Jan Brewer, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell and Maricopa County Treasurer David Schweikert all are on the wrong side of this issue.

Instead of doing everything possible to assure the public that Maricopa County and the state are conducting fair and accurate elections, this arrogant cabal is fighting to prevent citizens from exercising a fundamental American right to discover what happened in an election where something clearly went wrong.

The primordial definition of a fair election is the ability to reconstruct it after the fact. We have the ability to do that in the District 20 Republican primary and subsequent recount, where 489 votes inexplicably appeared. The new votes changed the outcome of the primary election for a seat in the state Legislature.

University of Iowa computer science professor Douglas Jones examined Maricopa County's voting machines in December and discovered serious problems. One of the nation's leading experts on voting-machine technology, Jones discovered that the county's machines are not properly calibrated to consistently read votes.

Jones says his tests revealed that any election within a 2 percent margin could be called into question. But even that astounding determination isn't enough to clear up questions swirling around the District 20 election.

In a report released earlier this month that was first published by New Times, Jones concluded that one of two things happened in the District 20 election: Either Maricopa County's vote-counting machines suffered an even greater failure than he found during his tests, or someone tampered with the votes between the primary and the recount.

The only way to determine what happened, Jones says, is to examine a random sample of the ballots.

Such an examination would not change the outcome of the election because it already has been certified by a judge -- but it would provide crucial information on how accurately Maricopa County counts your votes and whether elections are safe from tampering.

Republican Senator Jack Harper, chairman of the Government Accountability and Reform Committee -- whose job it is to investigate such irregularities -- has been trying since last summer to find out what happened in the District 20 election.

The efforts to derail his investigation have been, at a minimum, extraordinary.

For several months, allegations have circulated that House Speaker Weiers offered Harper a job during a meeting last June in which Weiers also asked Harper to drop his investigation.

Weiers denies offering Harper a job as an inducement to end the elections probe that is angering the trio of Maricopa County elected officials, as well as Secretary of State Brewer, whose office certifies election machinery used throughout the state.

While Harper has not provided me details of what happened in the meeting with Weiers, he has made repeated comments that strongly suggest that he believes Weiers acted inappropriately.

Harper's reticence to disclose details about the meeting to me does not mean the second-term senator from Surprise will not discuss the question of what transpired with criminal investigators.

"I just know that other than being asked by a law enforcement agency, I would just rather not answer that question," Harper responded, when I asked him what exactly happened when he met with Weiers last summer.

Did you hear that, Attorney General Terry Goddard?

How about you, U.S. Attorney Paul K. Charlton?

We have a state legislator saying he's willing to talk to law enforcement about a meeting with the Speaker of the House in which a deal may have been offered if he would give up on an investigation of District 20.

This is something worth checking out -- especially when it may be linked to a big problem with the way elections are conducted in the nation's fourth-most-populous county.

I first reported allegations of possible undue influence last fall ("Pandora's Box," October 27), when Harper suggested that such an offer was made.

"I will neither confirm nor deny who made the offer," Harper told me at the time. Harper also emphasized that he "could not be bought or intimidated."

The allegation resurfaced earlier this month after Democratic Senator Bill Brotherton filed an ethics complaint against Harper. Brotherton accused Harper of abusing his subpoena power to help New Timesobtain an exclusive story related to Harper's District 20 recount investigation ("Rocking the Boat," January 12).

The five-member Senate Ethics Committee is composed of three Republicans and two Democrats, including Brotherton. Before the committee's first meeting, Harper told me that if Brotherton asked him to testify under oath about his meeting with Weiers, he would reveal what happened.

Harper added that his testimony would be something that fellow Republicans, including the Speaker, would not like hearing.

"If Brotherton asks me about the allegations of the Speaker's offer or [about my] implying a quid pro quo, I imagine that [Republicans] won't want me to go down that road," Harper said.

But if the Senate Ethics Committee were to insist on going down that highway, Harper said, he would be willing to take the ride.

"I'm not going to lie to anybody," he told me. "If they ask me under oath, I'm going to tell them."

I have talked to sources close to Harper who say he told them that Weiers offered him a job with the Republican party during the meeting last June -- a meeting that also included a discussion about Harper's dropping his investigation.

The Ethics Committee will not be hearing what Harper has to say about any "quid pro quo" for dropping the District 20 probe. The committee's Republican majority voted 3-2 on January 16 to drop Brotherton's ethics complaint.

That leaves it up to Goddard or Charlton to send an investigator over to Harper's office and get a sworn statement about what he says transpired.

Weiers is now taking aggressive steps to bury the matter.

Harper says that on Thursday, January 19, Weiers personally demanded that Harper ask for a retraction from New Timesof the following statement that I wrote in last week's column ("Ballot Boxing"):

"Sources told New Times that Weiers may have offered Harper a favor last June to back off from his investigation. Weiers denies making the offer, but Harper tells me he's willing to swear under oath that it occurred."

Harper says he refused to comply with Weiers' demand.

"What the Speaker's office wants is me demanding a retraction. It's not going to happen!" Harper says. "[Weiers] is asking me to discredit you so they can try and say everything you have written is a lie."

But Harper's refusal to seek a retraction did not stop Senate Communications Director Nick Simonetta from telephoning me the next morning, January 20, and telling me that Harper wanted a retraction. At that time, I had no idea what had transpired the day before with Harper and the Speaker.

I told Simonetta that if Harper wanted a retraction he should contact me himself. I also told Simonetta that I had every reason to believe that what I wrote was true because it was based on numerous interviews with Harper and other sources.

I then interviewed Harper and learned that the Speaker himself had demanded the retraction and that Harper had said no way.

A few hours later, I called Simonetta back and asked him about the status of Harper's supposed request for a retraction.

Simonetta said Harper was still insisting that the retraction be issued.

"I'm saying on behalf of Senator Harper . . . as a member of the staff of the Senate, that Senator Harper wishes to have that statement retracted because he didn't make it to you."

I told Simonetta, who was joined on the phone interview by Weiers' press secretary, Barrett Marston, that Harper had declared to me earlier that day that he wasn't requesting any retraction.

"I'll talk to the senator about that," Simonetta replied. "It's hard for me to believe anything you're telling me."

Well, Nick, it's pretty difficult to believe a word you're saying when you claim Harper wanted a retraction when Harper himself says he doesn't want one.

As for the underlying issue in all this -- whether elections are being conducted fairly in Maricopa County -- the obstructionists are now saying there is nothing to be gained from looking at the ballots, and, besides, they may be damaged or unreadable.

Maricopa County elections director Karen Osborne told Harper's committee recently that the ballots could have been ruined by the "200 degree heat" inside their concrete storage locker. The ballots, by the way, are apparently being stored illegally because they are not in the County Treasurer's safe, as required by state statute.

County Attorney Thomas testified before Harper's committee that he is opposed to inspection of the ballots because he does not think much of Jones' report.

Senate President Bennett is offering no help to Harper. He has refused to even provide a Senate attorney to assist Harper in obtaining a court order to get Thomas to release the ballots.

I have heard that the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is poised to jump into the fray on Harper's behalf.

But, with or without the ACLU's intervention, AG Goddard or U.S. Attorney Charlton should find out what Harper has to say about Speaker Weiers' pressure tactics as a first step toward discovering what all these GOP officials are hiding from us.

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