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The Region

Official's Travel Gift Questioned

Riverside County registrar accepted a $1,080 trip from the maker of the county's voting system. She says it was for a PBS show.

March 31, 2004|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

Riverside County Registrar of Voters Mischelle Townsend illegally accepted travel and lodging from the supplier of the county's electronic voting system, according to a complaint filed Tuesday with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission.

Community activist Art Cassel, who filed the complaint, also says Townsend failed to disclose financial information or file annual conflict-of-interest documents on several occasions.

Townsend, however, contends that the accusations stem from a paperwork mix-up.

"I have nothing to hide," she said. "I report everything I know about in accordance with the law."

In the complaint, Cassel alleges that Townsend received a gift worth $1,080 from Sequoia Voting Systems, the Oakland-based company that supplies Riverside County's electronic voting system.

The county's gift limit is $340. Cassel cites Townsend's 2003 income disclosure forms filed with the FPPC, in which she reports accepting $981 for airfare to Florida, and $99 for one night's lodging so she could be interviewed. The trip took place July 8-9.

"Ms. Townsend consistently states that her operations are always smooth, problem-free and transparent," said Cassel, who lives near Lake Mathews.

"We're putting a little daylight on the statement."

Townsend said her trip was for a Public Broadcasting Service series called "American Business Review" hosted by Morley Safer.

She said she may have improperly filled out the forms, but she believes that the show was for the public good.

"I filled it out rather hurriedly," she said. "If I put it on the wrong schedule, I'll look into that. I firmly believe it was worthwhile to provide information on our experience.... I didn't receive compensation for it. There was nothing personally gained from it. It was just my role to provide information about issues being debated about the voting system we use."

A Sequoia spokesman questioned whether the complaint was politically motivated.

"Mischelle has been a leader in electronic voting issues across the country, and there are a number of people politically opposed to electronic voting," said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Sequoia.

"As someone who has worked with Mischelle for several years, I have always known her to be one of the most ethical officials in government, to the point of making sure when we go out to a meal together, the check is split so there's never any question of impropriety."

Riverside County was the first large jurisdiction in the nation to switch to electronic voting, and used it in the 2000 presidential election. Townsend has often been quoted about the system's accuracy.

The company's equipment is used in more than 35 states, with 48,000 of its electronic machines in use across the nation, according to Sequoia's website.

Cassel also said Townsend failed to file conflict-of-interest forms from 1998 to 2002 and failed to disclose the source of her husband's income, charges she denies.

"I submitted a form every year," Townsend said. "I have filled them out each year. I will research our files to see if it was mistakenly filed internally."

FPPC spokeswoman Stephanie Dougherty confirmed that the agency had received the complaint, but declined to comment further.

The agency's website said an investigation could take months or even years.

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