Thursday, July 10, 2008

And Now Back To RTA Coverage: The Boondocks Affair

Posted By on Thu, Jul 10, 2008 at 2:12 AM

After spending much of yesterday talking to lawyers, we think we have a better understanding of the fight to preserve the ballots from the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election, which Pima County Treasurer Beth Ford has said she is ready to destroy.

We’ll get to the part about how secrets may or may not have been spilled at the Boondocks Lounge in a second, but here’s a bit of background for those who came in late: In May 2006, Pima County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund an estimated $2.1 billion in transportation projects over two decades.

Attorney Bill Risner, who has successfully sued Pima County to gain access to electronic databases related to ballot tabulation, suggested last year that the RTA election might have been flipped—that county election officials rigged the computers to show the RTA propositions passed even though voters actually rejected it.

Since then, we’ve had an investigation by Attorney General Terry Goddard (which critics have dismissed as a “sham”) and lots of legal jousting by Risner and the Pima County Attorney’s Office, which reached a climax when the Pima County Board of Supervisors agreed to give up an appeal of the case and turned over the databases to Risner. Or, more accurately, offered to turn them over to Risner, who has been too busy to pick them since winning the case.

You’re probably wondering: Why not just recount the ballots? Because state law prohibits the county from doing a recount without a judge’s order.

We’re almost to the part about the Boondocks, so stay with us.

But before we get to that: Jim March, the tech guy with the election integrity crew, says he’s been working on developing a program that might (or might not) detect any signs of fraud in the RTA database he got from the county back in January. He said yesterday that he hoped to have some results by November.

March made his comments at Risner’s press conference, where the scrappy attorney alerted the public that Pima County Treasurer Beth Ford was planning to destroy the ballots from the RTA election.

As we reported earlier, Ford sent letters to the various political parties informing them that she would be destroying the ballots from the RTA election if no one raised an object by Friday, July 11.

State law requires ballots to be sealed in a vault under the control of the county treasurer and destroyed six months after an election. The RTA ballots are still around because they were evidence in the lawsuit that Risner had filed against that county that has been more or less resolved.

Ford maintains she has no position on whether the ballots should be destroyed.

“It’s fine with me if we keep them,” she says. “It’s fine with me if we destroy them.”

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says he wants to keep the ballots to prove the RTA election wasn’t flipped.

Huckelberry and Ford—an elected official who does not answer to Huckelberry—met with lawyers from the Pima County Attorney’s Office last month to discuss the legal options regarding the ballots. Ford says she was concerned she might be in violation of state law if she didn’t destroy the ballots, while Huckelberry wanted to preserve them.

“My instructions to the county attorney were to go to court if necessary to prevent those ballots from being destroyed,” Huckelberry says.

The separate positions, according to Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall and her chief deputy, Amelia Craig Cramer, set up a conflict between the two county departments.

The attorneys asked both Huckelberry and Ford to waive any conflict so they could devise a legal strategy to ask a judge to preserve the ballots.

Huckelberry agreed to the waiver, but Ford refused.

“I’m not real comfortable with the county attorney’s representation of my interest in the first place because if they were looking out for my interests when this case first went to court, they would have addressed it at that point,” Ford told us yesterday. “I wouldn’t even be in this position.”

Here’s where it starts to cost you money: Both Ford and Huckelberry will now have to hire outside counsel to settle the question of destroying the ballots in court. The Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Libertarian Party are expected to ask the court to preserve the ballots.

Risner had a second Big Reveal at the press conference: He produced a affidavit signed by Zbigniew Osmolski, a former county employee who claims that he had a “candid conversation” with Elections Division computer programmer Bryan Crane, who confided to him “that he ‘fixed’ the RTA, or Regional Transportation Authority election on the instruction of his bosses.”

This conversation, according to the affadavit, took place at the Boondocks Lounge, 3306 N. First Ave., while the two stepped outside for a smoke.

The Tucson Citizen’s Gary Duffy reports that Crane denies making a confession to Osmolski in the shadows of the Boondock’s giant wine bottle.

Risner said that Osmolski was more interested in talking to Attorney General Terry Goddard than to the press; we haven’t yet vetted his credibility.

Risner hopes the affidavit is enough evidence of potential criminal wrong-doing that Goddard will come down to Tucson and order the ballots to be counted again, which would either prove that the election was rigged or remove the cloud hanging over it.

Huckelberry says he’d like to run the ballots again, too.

“We could have saved $250,000, $300,000 in attorney’s fees and all the aggravation we’ve gone through over the last two years if we would have been just allowed to recount the ballots,” he says.

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