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Shelley Fires 15 Voter Consultants

The embattled secretary of state acts as a U.S. agency threatens an audit to see how he spent millions of dollars in federal election funds.

September 25, 2004|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Threatened with a federal audit of California's election spending, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley said Friday that he was firing 15 voter-outreach consultants to prevent the use of federal money for partisan political purposes.

In a letter to federal Election Assistance Commission Chairman DeForest Soaries Jr. on Thursday, Shelley also warned that a continuing state freeze of $2.1 million in federal voter-education funds could compromise the smooth running of California voting in the Nov. 2 presidential election.

Shelley said he was firing the consultants and taking other steps to assure Soaries that he would properly handle $350 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds, designed to prevent problems like those that occurred in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

"There have been a number of problems associated with HAVA and it is my responsibility to take immediate action to address these problems," Shelley said in a statement Friday. "The buck stops here."

A spokesman said Soaries, whose agency oversees Help America Vote Act spending, would not comment until he finished reviewing Shelley's letter.

The firings are the latest turmoil to engulf California's elections chief in an important election year. The FBI and the state attorney general are investigating Shelley's campaign finances.

In recent weeks, Republicans have called for hearings and audits after records released by Shelley's office showed that some consultants being used for voter outreach had ties to his political allies and the Democratic Party, and had received Help America Vote Act money to attend political events.

Previously, Shelley has defended the hiring of political consultants, such as a law firm that included his campaign treasurer and his former campaign manager, saying that he needed people he could count on to perform voter outreach and administrative work at a cost of $6.4 million.

But his office now acknowledges that some contractors had improperly attended partisan political events.

On Tuesday, Soaries wrote Shelley a letter threatening an audit of the state's Help America Vote Act spending to determine whether money was used properly. And he expressed concern in an interview that the controversy surrounding Shelley's use of federal money would prevent important education before the presidential election.

Voter education and poll-monitoring funds were among those frozen last month by Schwarzenegger administration officials, who along with lawmakers want a more detailed accounting from Shelley's office.

State Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said the agency wanted to identify and release only the funds needed for the efficient running of the presidential election.

A legislative committee this summer asked the Bureau of State Audits to examine Help America Vote Act spending by Shelley's office. In his response to Soaries, Shelley promised, among other things, stricter procedures to protect the integrity of the group's funds, including detailed weekly reports on the activities of its contractors.

"Activity reports" from contractors released this week showed that contractors spent many hours at events with no apparent connection to voter participation.

Kim Alexander, president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, faulted both the state and federal governments for not exercising enough oversight of the Help America Vote Act funds.

"The way to deal with voter outreach and education is doing it in a way that is not only nonpartisan in appearance but in fact," she said.

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