2 felons' roles in county elections questioned
Seattle Times staff reporter
Two convicted felons' roles in running elections in King County have raised new questions about the adequacy of safeguards to protect the integrity of elections.
County officials are close to signing a deal to buy an off-the-shelf voter-registration system nearly two years after rejecting one designed by a software-development team led by one of the felons.
Diebold, the company that managed the earlier contract, will provide the alternative system for the November presidential election.
The project comes too late, however, to save the county from embarrassment over the failed computer project or from controversy over key elections contractors' employment of two ex-convicts.
County election officials were unaware of convicted embezzler Jeffrey W. Dean's criminal background when he was named in 1999 to lead an outside team that would design a computer system for managing elections. The county abandoned the system almost three years later, saying the computer software didn't do what it was supposed to.
Dean, who used his computer savvy to cover up his embezzlement of $465,341 from a Seattle law firm in the 1980s, was given keys to the election offices on the fifth floor of the King County Administration Building. And he had unrestricted access to the elections office's high-security computer room where votes are tallied.
Dean, 60, has not been involved in King County elections since 2002, but John L. Elder, 48, a convicted drug dealer who was imprisoned with Dean at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center and worked with Dean on county contracts, supervises the printing of ballots and the sorting and mailing of absentee ballots.
Election officials say there is no indication that either man has done anything improper. Elder's employer describes him as a model worker.
But Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, newly appointed chairwoman of the committee that oversees elections, said she wants to look into the possibility of background checks of election employees and contractors.
"I think that many of us just assume that these extraordinary safeguards are in place to protect the integrity of our vote," Patterson said.
While it may be appropriate for a one-time drug offender to hold a responsible position, she said she is disturbed by the important role played by Dean, the convicted embezzler.
"I don't think you would want someone who was involved in a crime involving the manipulation of computer data involved in your election system," Patterson said. "I can't imagine anyone feeling comfortable with that."
Dean, who began printing ballots and handling absentee mailings in the mid-1990s, found a new way to put his computer expertise and his election savvy to work when Global Election Systems asked him for help.
Global, a publicly traded company with offices in Vancouver, B.C., and McKinney, Texas, had run into trouble in its $4.3 million contract to modernize King County elections.
Global had succeeded in the largest and most visible part of its contract, replacing the county's unreliable punch-card ballots with state-of-the-art optical-scan ballots starting with the September 1998 election.
But the company wasn't progressing quickly on the more difficult task of delivering a customized election-management system that would keep track of voter registration, candidate filings and the complicated geography of overlapping electoral districts.
Voter View, as the system was known, was supposed to have been tested and accepted by the county in February 1999. But two months later Global pulled the initial subcontractor off the job and turned the project over to Dean.
Dean, whose family business, Spectrum Print and Mail Services had been doing printing and mailing for King County elections for several years, was familiar with the county's voter-registration data. County election officials, like Global executives, were impressed by the quality of Dean's work.
But those officials weren't aware of his conviction for embezzling $465,341 from a Seattle law firm.
Culp, Guterson & Grader, had hired Dean and a partner in 1982 to automate and maintain its accounting system. But in 1988 the law firm confronted Dean over accounting discrepancies, and he admitted forging checks over a 2-1/2-year period for his personal use, according to Barry Wolf, a partner in the now-defunct Culp firm. He also said Dean disguised his thefts by altering computer records.
Dean made an Alford plea, saying he was not guilty of the 23 counts of theft but acknowledging he would likely be convicted if the case went to trial. King County Superior Court Judge Jim Bates sentenced him to 72 months in prison, ordered him to inform future employers of his conviction and prohibited him from handling other people's money.
After his release from prison in 1995, he worked for a bulk-mailing company, Postal Services of Washington, also known as PSI Group.
Both serving time
Serving time with Dean at the minimum-security prison southwest of Olympia was Elder, who had been convicted of selling cocaine, across the street from a junior high school in Kent. Elder entered an Alford plea. He said he had sold drugs to support his own serious drug addiction.
When Elder was freed in 1996, he also went to work for PSI.
Dean and Elder both declined to be interviewed for this story.
Dean and Elder later moved on to Spectrum, a company founded by Dean's wife and brother.
Former King County Records and Elections Manager Bob Bruce said Spectrum was an excellent contractor and that Dean kept coming up with better ways of printing and handling absentee ballots.
When Global Election Systems saw the ballots Dean produced for its new optical-scan voting system, Bruce said, "They said this is the best quality ballot we had."
In 2000, Global bought Spectrum for $1.6 million in promised cash and 1.6 million shares of Global stock.
Dean was appointed to the Global board of directors and named senior vice president with an annual salary of $144,000.
In November 1999, between the time Dean was put in charge of the King County voter-registration project and the sale of his company, King County prosecutors sought to accelerate his court-ordered payment of restitution to the law firm he had defrauded.
Dean resisted accelerated payments, telling the court he had been fired by PSI when it learned of his criminal record, he was unemployed and his job applications had been turned down.
Prosecutors were unaware of his work for King County, just as elections officials were unaware of his criminal past.
Lack of background checks
Because of a lack of background checks, former elections managers Bob Roegner and Bruce said they had no inkling of Dean's and Elder's criminal backgrounds. Dean Logan, named elections director last year, said he learned of their convictions when election activists Bev Harris and Andy Stephenson revealed the information in December.
But some county officials had become concerned about Dean's access to the computer room in December 2001. Jim Buck, an administrator in the Information and Administrative Services Division, told elections officials to escort Dean out of the building at 4:30 each afternoon.
When Diebold completed its purchase of Global in January 2002, Diebold reviewed employees' backgrounds and learned of Dean's and Elder's convictions. Dean lost his job but stayed on as a consultant on the Voter View project.
Diebold Election Systems marketing director Mark Radke said Dean left the company because he wasn't needed when a longtime Diebold employee became research and development director. Radke declined to say whether Dean's criminal past played a role in his departure.
Elder stayed on with Diebold, running its Everett-based printing business. "We had no concerns whatsoever about John Elder," said Radke, who called Elder "a model employee."
Unhappy with work
As the Voter View project was sputtering on, county officials became increasingly unhappy with Dean's work. After a testing of the product that began in May 2000, the county gave Dean's team an extensive "bug list" of alleged software glitches.
Dean and his team complained that the county was demanding improvements that weren't part of the contract. The county and Global went into mediation, and in March 2002 signed a partial settlement that terminated the project. The county agreed to pay the company $300,000 for work done, and in the final settlement a year later paid another $261,933.
The county continues to use old voter and candidate-database systems that weren't designed to share information with its Diebold tabulating and ballot-writing system.
For several years election workers have been using a patchwork process developed by a former employee for transferring candidate information into the ballot-writing system. That method was meant to be used for one year, until Voter View would come online.
The county now plans to buy something that wasn't available when it signed the contract with Global in 1998 — an off-the-shelf voter-registration system that will work with Diebold's vote-tabulation system. The county is expected to pay about $1 million for the system, which Diebold acquired in a corporate takeover last year.
County officials hope to sign a contract for the new system within days, using $1.2 million of principal and interest left over from the Voter View project.
Logan, director of the county Records, Elections and Licensing Services Division, said the contract will include language requiring background checks on workers in sensitive positions.
Logan said he is open to considering background checks for county election employees as well as contractors.
After coming to the county last year, Logan tightened up security procedures allowing access to the tabulating computer only when two authorized employees sign onto it with their passwords at the same time.
The county also has removed all nonessential software from the computer, updated its software, and has replaced a conventional lock on the computer room with an electronic keypad.
Logan said state tests on King County's computers and manual recounts of close elections give him confidence that there has been no tampering with the software that tabulates election results. Contractors are observed by county employees when they are working with absentee ballots, he said.
Despite Dean's past access to county election computer, Logan said, "I've certainly not seen anything that would lead me to believe that the election system was ever in a position of being compromised by that."
Others are more concerned.
"We're dealing with the sanctity of elections," said former elections chief Bruce. Quoting former President Ronald Reagan, Bruce said, "Trust but verify. No matter how much you trust them, make sure you have one of your own people verify."
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company