SPECIAL TO THE MIAMI HERALD
Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter got OK on vote from ethics panel.
Posted on Sat, Sep. 01, 2007
By DAN CHRISTENSEN
Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter voted in June to approve a $5.4 million, no-bid deal to buy new optical scan voting machines from a company that's a client of her husband's lobbying firm.
The proposed contract is with Election Systems & Software -- the company that in 2002 sold Broward the controversial touch-screen voting machines that are now being replaced. Ritter's husband, Russell Klenet, was the lobbyist who landed that original $18 million contract.
Klenet was last registered to lobby for ES & S at county hall in 2005; in 2006 he promoted a printer developed by ES & S to create a paper trail for its iVotronic touch-screen system.
County officials said neither Klenet nor anyone else has lobbied for ES & S this year, but Klenet said he still consults for ES & S on matters outside Florida as a senior vice president of Tallahassee-based Dutko Poole McKinley.
He has told clients he ''merged'' Russ Klenet & Associates into the firm on March 1.
Ritter, a former state legislator from Parkland, was elected to the commission in November. On June 19, she joined her fellow commissioners in a 9-0 vote to purchase the new optical scan machines that use paper ballots.
Sarasota County recently gave ES & S the boot after its iVotronic machines registered nearly 20,000 blank votes in a close congressional race last year. But commissioners in Broward decided it would cost too much to switch vendors and will buy about 950 new machines for $5,350 apiece. Most of the money to pay for it will come from the state.
Ritter cast her vote for ES & S over the objection of critics who thought she had a conflict of interest and wanted her to abstain.
''My husband does not represent any clients at the county commission, and as a result I am perfectly able to vote on this issue,'' Ritter said before the vote was taken.
She added in an interview this week that she voted to protect taxpayers from wasteful spending on a whole new ballot system.
Ritter voted after receiving a March 7 opinion from the Florida Ethics Commission. The commission said Ritter would not have a conflict voting on matters affecting clients of her husband's lobbying firm as long as he didn't profit from it.
''I'm a salaried employee. We were scrupulous to follow the unanimous ethics opinion,'' said Klenet, who withdrew from representing any clients before the county on Jan. 12. Other Dutko Poole lobbyists represent Vista Healthcare and Village Car Services at the county.
The decision, however, hasn't dispelled the appearance that Ritter has a conflict. ''She and her family have profited from previous sales of the ES & S iVotronic. It's a public perception here that matters, and she has an obvious conflict,'' said Ellen Brodsky, a Coconut Creek voting activist who asked Ritter to abstain from the June vote.
Anthony Alfieri, director of the University of Miami law school's Center for Ethics and Public Service, agreed. He said Klenet's ties to ES & S raise ''sufficient grounds'' to question whether Ritter or her husband may benefit directly or indirectly from her vote.
''The ethics opinion notwithstanding, it seems plain that a citizen might reasonably question the commissioner's impartiality on the vote,'' Alfieri said.
It's difficult to follow the money. ''The opinion suggests everything is OK as long as he doesn't profit, but how do they go about ensuring the segregation of funds in that way?'' Alfieri said. ``The difficulty of the ethics opinion in this case is that it requires monitoring and enforcement without providing any means for enshrining that kind of transparency.''
County staff and Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes are negotiating a contract with ES & S. Commissioners will be briefed on the deal's status on Sept. 11, said Assistant County Administrator Pete Corwin.
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.
© 2007 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.