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South Florida Election Official Subject of Inquiry

Miriam Oliphant won her Broward County post in a landslide two years ago. After a slew of problems, even fellow Democrats want her out.

January 05, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When it came to winning votes, Miriam McKinzie Oliphant was a natural. "What an amazing campaign personality. My constituents just wanted to hug her," remembered state Rep. Stacy J. Ritter.

For Oliphant, who was elected Broward County's election supervisor by a landslide two years ago, the problems came in handling other people's ballots. Widely blamed for bungling the last primary election, she is now the target of a criminal investigation into the stewardship of her office.

Her well-respected deputy has resigned, she has greatly overspent her office budget and even some fellow Democrats in this heavily Democratic county want her gone before a new round of municipal elections in February and March.

"She's incompetent. She may be a criminal. And she clearly is fiscally irresponsible," said Ritter, a Coral Springs lawyer and Democrat who is no longer a fan. He wants Gov. Jeb Bush to oust her.

Only Florida's governor is empowered to remove the county election supervisor, an independently elected official, and Bush's office in Tallahassee has kept mum as to his intentions. Elizabeth E. Hirst, the governor's press secretary, did not return calls from The Times seeking comment.

For some Florida Republicans -- who were accused by Democrats of stealing the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush, the governor's brother -- it's been hard to mask their glee at seeing an election official from the other party thrust under the microscope.

Asked about the chaos and alleged mismanagement in Oliphant's office, Secretary of State Jim Smith, a Republican who is the state's chief election official, replied, "She can stew in her own poison."

Faced with a rising firestorm of criticism, the usually poised, even imperious Oliphant has been hunkering down and refusing to talk to reporters. She held a five-minute news conference last month, in which she refused to answer most questions.

"What is important is we maintain the integrity of the office and the confidence of the community," Oliphant said.

During September's primary, polls opened late in Broward County, home to more registered voters than any other county in Florida.

Many voters were given incorrect information about their polling places, and after initial return figures were sent to Tallahassee, some uncounted ballots turned up.

If there were problems, Oliphant declared at the time, it was the voters who were to blame.

Under pressure from the county commission, Oliphant hired Joe Cotter, a veteran election worker, to take control of her office in time for the Nov. 5 general election.

More than 1,000 county employees were enlisted and an extra $1.5 million spent. Oliphant became little more than a figurehead. The election came off virtually glitch-free.

But Oliphant's troubles were far from over. A county-ordered audit of her office found she overspent her budget by almost $1 million in the last fiscal year, and awarded jobs and contracts to cronies. In the September primary, hundreds of absentee ballots might have been thrown out without being counted.

In December, a criminal probe of Oliphant's office was launched by Broward State Atty. Michael Satz, whose investigators began interviewing election workers and subpoenaing records.

"Several allegations have reached this office, and we're looking at all of them," was all Ron Ishoy, the prosecutor's spokesman, would say.

When Oliphant was notified that prosecutors wanted to interview Bob Cantrell, her spokesman and intergovernmental affairs director, she fired him.

That led to the resignation of Cotter, who said his deal with Oliphant had given him almost complete control of personnel and financial matters, and explicitly barred her from interfering in day-to-day operations of the office.

With Cotter's departure, some Broward politicians became alarmed that more bungled elections may lie ahead.

"We are back to September," said Weston Mayor Eric Hersh, another Democrat who recently called on Bush to fire Oliphant. Voters in Hersh's upscale bedroom suburb on the edge of the Everglades are scheduled to go back to the polls in two months.

"We're very concerned that the March elections will be a debacle again," Hersh said. "That would not only make us the laughingstock of the country, but you have to ask: Will the votes get counted? She [Oliphant] is clearly incapable of running these elections."

In neighboring Miami-Dade County, where the autumn primary was also marred by voting machine glitches and inadequate training for poll workers, Election Supervisor David C. Leahy resigned last month. Unlike Oliphant, Leahy was appointed, not elected.

Hersh and Ritter said many other Democratic politicians privately agree with them, but have kept silent because of Oliphant's race. An African American, she is the only black to hold countywide office in Broward.

A mother while still in high school, Oliphant, the daughter of one of Broward's first black contractors, earned a sociology degree in college.

As an employee in the public defender's office, and later as an elected member of the county school board, she became a role model for many.

As election supervisor, her priority became the overhaul of the punch-card voting system that caused such controversy in November 2000. "The integrity of the elections process in Broward County will never come into question again," she pledged.

When the county commissioners considered a proposal that would have converted Oliphant's office to an appointed one, widespread protests from the black community on her behalf killed the idea. But the ongoing revelations of problems in her office may have sapped even that support.

"I think in the beginning she was not being treated fairly, as perhaps she might have been if she was part of the good-old-boy network or a crony of the county commissioners," said Don Bowen, president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the Urban League.

"But over time, I think people have become more weary of what has happened."

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