Feds Probe District 20

Whether there was vote tampering is not the most vital question for U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton to answer

This is a career opportunity for U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton.

The 45-year-old Republican prosecutor could be the public servant who restores integrity to elections in Maricopa County.

Charlton's decision to launch a grand jury investigation into the September 2004 District 20 Republican primary and subsequent recount for a state House seat is a powerful signal that there is something seriously wrong with how our votes are getting counted -- or not counted.

Charlton has stormed onto center stage of the messy District 20 vote-counting scandal at a crucial moment.

For 16 months, Maricopa County elections officials have sought to deflect attention from the inexplicable appearance of 489 votes between the September 7, 2004, primary and a recount two weeks later. The recount changed the outcome of the election.

County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Recorder Helen Purcell have repeatedly stated there is nothing wrong with the county elections department and that allegations of impropriety are being generated by a wacko state legislator who's in bed with a reckless "tabloid" newspaper willing to do anything for a "scoop."

The county's flimsy line of defense was shattered on January 31 when a federal grand jury in Phoenix, under Charlton's direction, ordered the FBI to seize all 17,000 ballots from the District 20 race.

The next day, about a dozen FBI agents removed the ballots that were stored in a private facility leased by the Maricopa County Treasurer's Office.

Seizing the ballots should be just the first step in the grand jury's investigation of what happened in the Ahwatukee Foothills legislative district. The grand jury investigation needs to go much further than one legislative race and examine the entire elections process in Maricopa County and, if necessary, the state.

This is a high-stakes case for Charlton and the rest of us because it cuts to something fundamental in our society -- fair and accurate elections. It is the responsibility of government in this country to conduct elections in which every person's vote counts. And it is clear from the District 20 fiasco that there is a tendency around here for votes to simply get lost.

Charlton's investigation needs to answer four fundamental questions:

• Did someone tamper with the ballots between the primary where Anton Orlich defeated John McComish by four votes and the recount where McComish downed Orlich by 13? Along the way, 489 votes that weren't counted during the primary appeared and were scattered among all five candidates running for two House seats. There was opportunity for tampering during the two weeks between the primary and recount because of excessive, improper and unsecured handling of the ballots under the direction of Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne.

• Did Maricopa County and state elections officials illegally conduct elections when they knew, or should have known, that the county's voting machines were failing to accurately tabulate ballots? This by far is the most important element of the investigation, because there is substantial evidence that Purcell and Secretary of State Jan Brewer have known since 2002 that the optical scanning machines used in the county are prone to serious tabulation errors -- especially with early ballots that now account for half of the votes cast in elections.

• Was it proper for the elections department to let Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio have inmates stuff ballots into envelopes that were then mailed to voters requesting early ballots? Several prisoners were questioned by the FBI shortly after the 2004 primary when county investigators discovered the inmates tampered with ballots before they were mailed to voters. Any rational citizen has to ask why Arpaio was anywhere near the ballots and early-voter addresses, when he was also a candidate in the 2004 Republican primary in which he faced the stiffest competition of his career.

• Did county elections officials commit perjury before Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Eddward Ballinger during a September 2004 hearing when they told the judge they did not know how to reach an employee of the company that manufactured the county's optical scanners? The Election Systems & Software employee, Tina Polich, had received a subpoena to appear in court but failed to show. Investigators later discovered that an assistant Maricopa County attorney worked with an ES&S attorney to keep Polich from testifying.

Polich's failure to appear at the hearing upset Judge Ballinger and forced him to make a ruling without complete information. "I don't like this hearing because it's not the way I like to do things," Ballinger said moments before certifying the election in favor of McComish.

Amazingly, Polich later told county investigators that the optical scanning machines may have failed to operate properly during the 2004 election.

Already under Justice Department oversight for failing to fully comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Maricopa County's possibly using faulty optical scanners for years and trying to cover this up before a Superior Court judge should certainly be of interest to federal prosecutors.

My hope is that Charlton is doing what all good U.S. Attorneys are supposed to do -- step in and investigate a situation that self-serving locals are botching and refusing to fix. But questions are being raised about whether his motivation is to get to the bottom of the mess or to merely lay to rest protests about the county's stonewalling by conducting a toothless investigation.

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