Chicago City Council hearing pursues "Venezuelan Connection, " ignores substantive issues
By: Robert A. Wilson, chair, Suburban Cook County Chapter, Illinois Ballot-Integrity Project www.ballot-integrity.org
Friday 's joint hearings conducted by the Chicago City Council 's Committees on Finance, Budget and Government Operations and Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics failed to shed much light on the "events and problems that occurred during vote tabulation for the City of Chicago Primary Election held on March 21, 2006, " as stated in the meeting 's agenda.
Alderman Ed Burke (14th) led off the hearing with a statement expressing concerns and then proceeded with two hours of sharp questioning of Jack Blaine, president of Sequoia Voting Systems, Inc., the company that supplied the voting systems used in both the City of Chicago and suburban Cook County.
Occasionally joined by Alderman Richard Mell (33rd) and Alderman William Beavers (7th), Burke, chairman of the Council 's Finance Committee presented a timeline chart relating to the acquisition of Sequoia by Bocca Raton, Florida-based Smartmatic Corporation in March 2005. Throughout, Blaine professed to have little knowledge of Smartmatic 's Board of Directors or principal investors or stockholders, even though he serves as president of Smartmatic as well as Sequoia. Blaine even professed ignorance of the price Smartmatic paid to acquire an 85% interest in Sequoia from De La Rue Cash Systems 13 months ago, stating only that it "was less than $20 million. " Of course, it was widely reported in the financial press at the time that the purchase price was $17.6 million, but apparently Blaine doesn 't pay much attention to details like major acquisitions his company might have made.
At issue was a disclosure affidavit which Sequoia had completed on August 3, 2005, as a part of the procurement process (www.ballot-integrity.org/docs/sequoia_affidavit01.pdf) The form, which requires the disclosure of officers and directors of the corporation and anyone having a more than 7-1/2 percent interest in the company is silent as to Smartmatic 's majority interest in Sequoia. The affidavit, signed by then Sequoia president, Tracy Graham, lists only herself as president and "J. Blaine " as secretary. Blaine consistently deflected questions about the contract between Sequoia and the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, suggesting that Howard Cramer, vice president of sales, was responsible. At one point Blaine appeared to disassociate himself from the contract (actually a number of separate agreements) by indicating that Cramer might have been the signatory. However, some of the documents, signed only eight months ago, which Blaine claims he did not know about or did not remember, bear what purports to be his signature, but do not disclose his title as required. (www.ballot-integrity.org/docs/Blaine_01.pdf)
To those who have followed the Sequoia-Smartmatic-Dutch-Netherlands Antilles-Venezuelan connection, this was old news, even though the committees thought they were on to something. We first reported this here: "Twists and Turns Who Owns Sequoia " on February 13, 2006. (www.votetrustusa.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=919&Itemid=51). No new information came out of the committees ' probing of this area.
Of greater importance was the admission by Blaine that British and Venezuelan nationals had access to the City 's "counting room " and provided "supervision " according to Alderman Burke and "support " in Blaine 's words. Worrisome though this might be, the Council ignored a key question we like answered: Why are ordinary citizens of the U.S., Illinois and Chicago, voters who have a significant stake in the outcome of elections, barred from even observing the tabulation process? This question continues to go unanswered and is one that has vexed election activists for years. Attempting to view the process of seeing your vote counted will get the ordinary citizen rudely escorted out by City police or County sheriff 's deputies, while foreigners have unfettered access.
The Illinois Ballot Integrity Project submitted extensive written testimony to the committees prior to the hearing (http://www.ballot-integrity.org/docs/testimony_apr-7-2006.pdf) but that document was ignored by the committees which failed to look into why the City and County failed to pursue the possibility of a blended system that would have eliminated the need to purchase some $25 million of optical scanners and HAAT results transmitters. This was brought to light in a previous article, "Are Chicago and Cook County Wasting $25 million on Inferior, Non-Compliant Voting Technology? Published February 14, 2006, (http://votetrustusa.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=923&itemid=113)
Other issues, such as why didn 't the City and County combine efforts in designing, producing and implementing train-the-trainer materials, manuals, handbooks and procedures; were there an adequate number of trained technicians; and why weren 't there enough machines available to replace those that malfunctioned, were left unasked.
Chairman Langdon Neal of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners testified for about 45 minutes and was relatively candid about the Board 's failure to exercise due diligence regarding Sequoia 's ownership and acknowledged some of the problems that did occur and promised to take appropriate steps to prevent a recurrence. Election judges came in for significant criticism and that appeared to deflect the inquiry (if that 's what it was) away from Sequoia 's performance.
Chairman Mell brought out the fact that the Sequoia Advantage had not performed well in Bernalillo County, New Mexico or in recent tests in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, a point of dubious relevance in that the AVC Edge was used in Chicago. He did, however, receive a direct and correct response to his most salient query, "How do you spell Diebold? " Chairman Beavers prefaced his questioning with the comment, "I don 't know much about these machines, " and spent 20 minutes reinforcing that position.
While prior to the "hearing " some members of the City Council had discussed withholding payments from Sequoia based on poor performance, that issue never seriously surfaced during the four hours of posturing. I brought a copy of the City 's contract with Sequoia with me (all 496 pages) I suspect it was the only one in the chamber the Committees ' staffs didn 't have one the day before, and of course the City Council has no jurisdiction over the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners in any event.
We paused the hearings in the middle so that Burke, Neal and Cook County Clerk David Orr could hold press conferences. It proved to be a great photo-op for local politicians naturally the media had no interest in hearing from citizens, so they bailed out by 1 pm. An hour later, public comment by a few citizens fell on an empty chamber, as even the most stalwart Aldermen (and one committee chair) had deserted a sinking ship.
By 2:00 pm it was all over apparently weekend pursuits dominated the afternoon agenda. I was the last to leave, save for a cleaning lady going about her duties. I considered asking her if she 'd care to hear my views on election reform, but guilt made me think better of it. After all, why should I interrupt the only person who, in that august chamber at this late hour, was actually accomplishing the task they had set out to do that day?
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