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State OKs Use of Election Funds Seized in Probe

September 04, 2004|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has released $15.2 million in federal election reform money that had been frozen pending an investigation into Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's use of such funds.

The administration cited the need to ensure that the November election runs smoothly in releasing the Help America Vote Act funds, earmarked by the federal government for programs intended to boost voter turnout.

The money was frozen late last month by the state Department of Finance after allegations that Shelley was using it to award no-bid contracts to political allies.

The Legislature's investigation into those charges is ongoing. But late Thursday, the administration released a chunk of the $35.1 million being held.

In a letter, Finance Director Donna Arduin said her department was releasing the money to "ensure that the statewide election scheduled on Nov. 2, 2004, is fair, secure and accurate."

The money would be used to pay for county poll worker training, voter education, security measures and efforts to ensure the accuracy of new touch-screen voting machines.

"We've pinpointed what we need to get out the door and fast-track," finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

Shelley welcomed the decision.

"These programs are critical to conducting the November election fairly and securely, and it is essential they are funded immediately," he said in a written statement.

County voting officials, meanwhile, said they were relieved by the news.

"It's been very tense," said Conny B. McCormack, registrar of voters for Los Angeles County. "We've been in a limbo that can't go on anymore. We've been wondering if we would have to pull the plug on some of these [training and security] contracts."

Late Friday afternoon, McCormack said her office was still waiting for Shelley's office to release the money, and she urged him to move fast because "we are at the absolute eleventh hour."

The election is Nov. 2, but it takes weeks to prepare for the voting.

McCormack said that most of the nearly $20 million that the Department of Finance is still withholding is not critical for the November election.

That money would mostly be used to pay for upgrading voting technology.

But Shelley warned that some of it would also go to publishing voter guides, poll monitoring, and military and overseas voting.

He called on the administration and legislators to quickly release more of the money.

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