Posted on Fri, Oct. 08, 2004
Florida election-related lawsuits piling up ahead of Nov. 2
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A lawsuit demanding touch-screen voting machines be made to produce paper records won't be heard until Oct. 18, a judge ruled Friday, raising doubts that any significant changes to the system used by about half of Florida's voters will happen before the November election.
The decision comes amid a flurry of lawsuits leading up to the Nov. 2 election in Florida, the scene of the contentious 2000 presidential recount. State Democrats, labor unions and a civil rights group have filed lawsuits in Tallahassee, and Volusia and Duval counties, against Secretary of State Glenda Hood and county elections officials.
In Fort Lauderdale, U.S. District Judge James Cohn set the trial date for the touch-screen lawsuit filed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler against Hood. Wexler's attorney conceded Friday that since the trial won't commence until two weeks before Election Day, that likely means the touch-screen machines used in 15 counties, including the most populous counties, won't be fitted with printers even if Cohn sides with the congressman.
"It's probably too late now, " Jeff Liggio said.
But Liggio said the judge would have other options under state law if he rules for Wexler, including having the secretary of state assign people to oversee the touch-screen machines or recommending the 15 counties switch to optical scan paper ballots for future elections.
On touch-screen machines, voters select their candidates by touching names listed on a computer screen. With optical scans, voters use a pencil to mark paper ballots, which are then counted by a computer. That system is used in the other 52 Florida counties.
"This case has never been about one remedy, which is putting printers on the (touch-screen) machines," Liggio said. "There are other options."
Wexler has said electronic votes can't be recounted as accurately as those cast on paper. He sued state election officials arguing that the U.S. Constitution would be violated by a voting system that varies from county to county.
The machines can print a paper audit, but the audit doesn't provide enough information to determine voter intent in the case of a recount, Liggio contends.
Hood's office, which lost a federal appeal to have Wexler's cast tossed out, had earlier invited Wexler and others to help draft an emergency recount rule.
Friday, Hood spokeswoman Jenny Nash agreed with Liggio's assessment that there would not be enough time to make major changes.
Nash also said the secretary of state has "complete confidence in the voting systems."
Florida adopted the touch-screen machines after the 2000 debacle involving punch-card ballots and their hanging, dimpled chads. A five-week court battle over disputed ballots from several counties kept the outcome of the presidential election undecided until the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recounts, giving President Bush the state by a 537-vote margin.
More than 100,000 touch-screen machines are in use nationwide. Only a small percentage have printers and produce a paper record of each ballot.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in Tallahassee refused Friday to immediately order Hood to change directions to county elections supervisors regarding provisional ballots, which are used when elections officials can't find a voter's name on voting rolls.
Hood had told county supervisors that provisional ballots cast by voters in the wrong precincts cannot be counted.
The Florida Democratic Party challenged that in a lawsuit Thursday, saying it would violate federal voting laws by blocking legally registered voters from having their votes counted. District Judge Robert Hinkle denied the motion for a preliminary injunction blocking Hood's direction.
A similar but unrelated case involving provisional ballots and precincts is to be heard Wednesday in the state Supreme Court. That case stems from a lawsuit filed by the AFL-CIO and other unions.
In another lawsuit filed by state Democrats on Thursday, Hood is accused of violating federal law for telling the 67 elections supervisors that they should reject incomplete voter-registration forms.
Hood's office told the counties they should disqualify voters who failed to check a box confirming they're U.S. citizens, even if they signed an oath on the same form swearing they are. State officials have maintained that state and federal law require the box to be checked.
In DeLand, the NAACP sued Volusia County's elections supervisor, alleging that the county disenfranchises blacks by having only one early voting site in an area where fewer minorities live.
And in Duval County, elections officials asked state prosecutors Thursday to investigate possible voter fraud involving 25 registration forms that appear to have bogus addresses, including some that match a public park, a parking lot and a Jacksonville utilities building.
University of Florida law professor Joseph W. Little said Friday that the mounting lawsuits were not a surprise development.
"In a state as big as Florida ... one can expect there to be arguments, and the factor that will really determine whether we have spate of lawsuits afterward is how close the election is," Little said.
Posted on Fri, Jul. 09, 2004
Documents detail more voting machine flaws
TALLAHASSEE - As state and Miami-Dade County election officials work to approve software that will clear up a nagging problem with touch-screen voting machines, a Herald review of internal election department documents has found that there are a host of other flaws that have never been publicly acknowledged and are not expected to be fixed by the new programming.
The situation has led to a fractious relationship between Miami-Dade, the state and the touch-screen machine maker, Electronic Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. At one point, a state Division of Elections e-mail shows, Miami-Dade Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg threatened to sue the company -- and make it ''close up shop nationally'' -- if more problems were discovered with the equipment that was certified as working two years ago.
In a June 3 letter to ES&S, obtained by The Herald in a public records request, Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections Constance Kaplan demanded answers to three problems with the iVotronic equipment that she said could take ''labor intensive and costly'' actions to fix. She asked ES&S to resolve these issues ``expeditiously:''
The central database machines used to tabulate votes are incapable of holding all the audit data at once, requiring a ''labor intensive and costly'' solution that could complicate a recount in a close race. Audit data is used to back up the system.
The optical scanners used to read absentee ballots have problems when information is merged from the three machines the county uses.
And the county could potentially mix up votes if it were to try to use phone lines to transmit data from the polling places to the election center, which it doesn't plan to do.
ES&S Senior Vice President Ken Carbullido responded to Kaplan on June 14, noting that each of the problems could be resolved if the county alters its procedures, reconfigures its software or, if it wants to transmit data from the polling places, redo the programming code in the machines or retrain its staff.
He acknowledged on Thursday, however, that the problems are ''separate issues'' from the so-called ''audit anomaly'' that brought a team from his company to Miami-Dade this week. The team tested a program intended to repair a problem in which the computers garbled serial numbers in the machine's audit trail. In a close election requiring a recount, that problem might make it difficult to tell what votes were cast on a particular touch-screen machine.
All of the problems can be addressed by the November election if Miami-Dade officials make a few changes in the way they use the equipment, said Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer expert the county hired to independently review its electronic voting system and make recommendations.
But, Jones said, the extent of the flaws expose a major failing of the system: ``The fundamental problem is the data formats used were never designed to handle a county as big as Miami-Dade.''
Carbullido, the ES&S vice president, disagrees with that conclusion, saying that the company's machines are used by even larger counties, like Chicago's Cook County.
The e-mails and correspondence from April 15 to June 28 obtained by The Herald show that state election officials were caught completely off guard in mid-May when the story broke about the audit-trail problem in ES&S' iVotronic touch-screen machines.
The state first blamed Miami-Dade officials and then directed their fire at ES&S. Paul Craft, head of the Division of Elections' certification department, which has to approve equipment and software before it can be used, blamed ES&S for filing an incomplete application for certification.
''The [audit trail] anomaly is present in the [touch-screen] systems used in all counties,'' Craft wrote on May 15. The only difference, he said, was that most other counties did not transmit the voting data to flashcards like Miami-Dade does, so the problem took longer to surface elsewhere.
As Craft and other officials were insisting publicly that the failure of the machines to record the correct serial numbers in post-election audits was just an ''anomaly,'' he and another election department official, David Drury, were privately expressing bigger worries.
'The state of Florida desires a `very detailed explanation,' as neither Paul nor I can accept this anomaly being described as a random event,'' Drury wrote in an e-mail to ES&S account representative Sue McKay on May 25.
The finger pointing extended to other parties as well. ES&S officials blamed the state's bureaucratic certification process for failing to allow them to fix the problem they admitted they had known about.
And Greenberg, the Miami-Dade assistant county attorney, chastised an analyst with the state Division of Elections for writing a letter to Secretary of State Glenda Hood and creating a public record of the problem.
While tensions are still raw, Jones said, he noted that he is ``impressed by Miami-Dade officials and their willingness to admit they have a problem.''
Jones said the problem rests with the software, known as Unity, and added that it is up to ES&S to decide how far it wants to go to make it better able to perform in large counties.
The lesson, Jones said, is ``the belief that a software program is correct is almost always wrong.''
''All we have are a choice between imperfect systems,'' he said. ``Frankly, the work Miami-Dade has done up to this point leaves me fairly confident they can do a good job.''
© 2004 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. <http://www.miami.com >
September 18, 2002
A Rush to Get It Right in Florida Produces More Election Wrongs
By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE
MIAMI, Sept. 17 Six months after his state became a laughingstock for the 36-day stalemate in the 2000 presidential election, Gov. Jeb Bush declared that Florida would become a "model for the rest of the nation" in reforming elections. But now that Florida has spent $32 million to overhaul its voting system, some experts say the state may serve as a model of what not to do.
In their view, Florida officials, stung by the electoral crisis and the ridicule it provoked, rushed headlong into overhauling the state's entire system at once and in many cases did not allow enough time to hold mock elections to educate voters and poll workers alike and work out the inevitable kinks.
Beyond that, in the statewide primary election last week, chaos reigned in the most-populous counties, Broward and Miami-Dade, with last-minute changes in the operation of the new computerized touch-screen machines and insufficient training of poll workers.
"It's possible to do too much too quickly, and buying new machines does not reform make," said Doug Chapin of Electionline.org, a clearinghouse for election reform information set up by the Pew Charitable Trust. "It's important to pay attention not just to what the machines do but to who is working with them. Training matters."
Officials here said many poll workers in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties did not realize how long it would take to start the machines, which required insertion of a "master activator." So they kept their polling places shut until all the machines were running, locking out voters. At the end of the day, some had no idea how to turn the machines off and retrieve votes, and hundreds if not thousands went uncounted.
Officials finished counting those votes today, a full week after the primary, awarding Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer and political newcomer, the Democratic nomination for governor. [Page A28.]
But the finger-pointing endures over what went wrong, who was responsible and what it means for other states and counties that are overhauling their voting procedures in the wake of the 2000 stalemate.
No less an expert than Al Gore was on hand here, accusing Governor Bush of failing to fix the system.
"Two years ago, a lot of people thought, Well, that's pretty unusual," said Mr. Gore, who was here to help Democratic Congressional candidates. "Then, Governor Bush said, `We're going to have an election system that's the envy of the world,' and he's going right to work to see that it happens."
"Once again," Mr. Gore added, "out of all the 50 states, only one state is being held up there on television."
Mr. Bush has attributed the problems to human error and negligence by county election officials, singling out Miami-Dade and Broward ones.
Few were watching Florida as closely as Conny B. McCormack, who is in charge of elections in Los Angeles. Like her counterparts in Florida, Ms. McCormack is under orders to scrap her punch-card system and move to electronic voting by March 2004. She came here to observe the process.
She said the problems experienced in last week's primary justified her recommendation to go slow on touch-screen voting and return to, of all things, paper ballots for the presidential election in 2004.
"People won't like it, but it's better than using unsuccessful first-generation equipment that's going to produce this kind of mayhem," Ms. McCormack said. "We cannot be on the bleeding edge. We can't do it in that amount of time."
The supervisors agreed.
Instead, Ms. McCormack said, she will phase in touch-screen voting so that voters, poll workers and election officials can absorb the changes and learn from mistakes. She will not roll out touch-screen voting for all of Los Angeles's four million voters until November 2005, an off-year election.
The problems here involved not only the new touch-screen machines but also optical scanners, which "read" marks on paper ballots and which some counties had used in previous elections as well. In Union County, an optical scan system registered all votes as Republican. In Duval County, the ballots jammed in the machines. In Orange County, the machines shredded the ballots.
But the biggest problems were in Miami-Dade County. The Miami Herald reported panic among some poll workers, who did not know how to operate the machines and overwhelmed election officials with phone calls. The newspaper reported that officials "in some cases scrawled desperate messages on bits of paper. One note read: `Precinct 547. Clerk is out of control.' "
The scope of the problems became evident when the returns came in. One Miami-Dade precinct, Liberty City, had 1,630 registered voters but only 89 recorded votes. In an election with an average turnout of more than 30 percent, about 60 Miami-Dade precincts showed a turnout of less than 10 percent. A few returns suggested that no one had voted. Such results told election officials that the machines had not been closed down properly, sending them to "reharvest" the votes from the machines.
Miami-Dade County gave its poll workers four hours of training at most, then gave them written instructions that were difficult to decipher, officials said. The instructions were in English only, and some poll workers, it turned out, could not only not read English, they could not read at all. In Broward County, some poll workers had no training at all.
Experienced election officials say preparing for elections takes months, if not years, especially in populous counties and especially as the machines, the laws and the ballots become more complex. Some were furious when they heard Secretary of State Jim Smith, the top election official, say of the counties on election night, "I frankly wonder what have they been doing for two years."
In fact, Florida's counties did not even have two years to get organized, but it was two years ago that the seeds were sown for last week's problems. In May 2001, the Legislature overhauled election laws, banned the punch card and provided $32 million to help counties acquire either optical scanners or touch-screen machines. But counties, using both state money and money they had to find on their own, could choose only machines that had been certified by the state. By last year, the touch-screen machines of just two companies, Election Systems & Software Inc. of Omaha, the world's largest maker of election equipment, and Sequoia Voting Systems of California, had been certified.
That did not stop the highly competitive election-machine industry from descending on Florida and fiercely lobbying for the lucrative contracts. Florida was viewed as the vendors' most important catch. Not only were the contracts huge but they were highly visible.
Ten counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward, bought the ES & S iVotronic system. Miami-Dade spent $24.5 million for 7,200 machines; Broward spent $17.2 million for 5,200 machines.
In Palm Beach County, Theresa LaPore, the election supervisor who designed the butterfly ballot in 2000, was eager to salvage her reputation. She said she decided that ES & S lacked the experience for a county her size, with 705,000 voters, so she recommended that her county sign a $14.4 million contract with Sequoia.
"We had to make it as simple as possible for our poll workers," Ms. LaPore said. She ran an all-out public-education program, taking the machines to local grocery stores and a music festival where people could vote for their favorite musicians. She also had 21 municipal elections before Sept. 10 in which she test-ran the equipment. Last week, her problems were minimal.
Not all counties that contracted with ES & S experienced problems. In Sarasota County, Kathy Dent, supervisor of elections, said Election Day went fairly smoothly. She said she had drilled poll workers for a minimum of 12 hours and then gave them a written test.
Michael P. Limas, chief operating officer of ES & S, said the problems on Sept. 10 did not stem from mechanical malfunctions or equipment failure. "The vast majority of problems had to do with people who were not able to follow the procedures" Mr. Limas said.
Stephen D. Ansolabehere, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is analyzing the election, said that he more or less agreed that the machines in 2002 had not failed and in fact improved on one aspect over the 2000 elections there were fewer undervotes or overvotes this time.
Counties that had time to do dry-runs did better than those that did not, Professor Ansolabehere said.
Another lesson, he said, was this: "These systems are getting more and more complicated, which violates Design Principle No. 1: Keep It Simple."
Keeping it simple in Jeb Bush's Florida
September 17, 2002
Cronies in Arms
By PAUL KRUGMAN
In February 2001 Enron presented an imposing facade, but insiders knew better: they were desperately struggling to keep their Ponzi scheme going. When one top executive learned of millions in further losses, his e-mailed response summed up the whole strategy: "Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q."
The strategy worked. Enron collapsed, but not before insiders made off with nearly $1 billion. The sender of that blunt e-mail sold $12 million in stocks just before they became worthless. And now he's secretary of the Army.
Dick Cheney vehemently denies that talk of war, just weeks before the midterm elections, is designed to divert attention from other matters. But in that case he won't object if I point out that the tide of corporate scandal is still rising, and lapping ever closer to his feet.
An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal confirmed what some of us have long argued: market manipulation by energy companies probably the same companies that wrote Mr. Cheney's energy plan, though he has defied a court order to release task force records played a key role in California's electricity crisis. And new evidence indicates that Mr. Cheney's handpicked Army secretary was a corporate evildoer.
Mr. Cheney supposedly chose Thomas White for his business expertise. But when it became apparent that the Enron division he ran was a money-losing fraud, the story changed. We were told that Mr. White was an amiable guy who had no idea what was actually going on, that his colleagues referred to him behind his back as "Mr. Magoo." Just the man to run the Army in a two-front Middle Eastern war, right?
But he was no Magoo. Jason Leopold, a reporter writing a book about California's crisis, has acquired Enron documents that show Mr. White fully aware of what his division was up to. Mr. Leopold reported his findings in the online magazine Salon, and has graciously shared his evidence with me. It's quite damning.
The biggest of several deals that allowed Mr. White to "hide the loss" a deal in which the documents show him intimately involved was a 15-year contract to supply electricity and natural gas to the Indiana pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Any future returns from the deal were purely hypothetical. Indeed, the contract assumed a deregulated electricity market, which didn't yet exist in Indiana. Yet without delivering a single watt of power and having paid cash up front to Lilly, not the other way around Mr. White's division immediately booked a multimillion-dollar profit.
Was this legal? There are certain cases in which companies are allowed to use "mark to market" accounting, in which they count chickens before they are hatched but normally this requires the existence of a market in unhatched eggs, that is, a forward market in which you can buy or sell today the promise to deliver goods at some future date. There were no forward markets in the services Enron promised to provide; extremely optimistic numbers were simply conjured up out of thin air, then reported as if they were real, current earnings. And even if this was somehow legal, it was grossly unethical.
If outsiders had known Enron's true financial position when Mr. White sent that e-mail, the stock price would have plummeted. By maintaining the illusion of success, insiders like Mr. White were able to sell their stock at good prices to naïve victims people like their own employees, or the Florida state workers whose pension fund invested $300 million in Enron during the company's final months. As Fortune's recent story on corporate scandal put it: "You bought. They sold."
It was crony capitalism at its worst. What kind of administration would keep Mr. White in office?
A story in last week's Times may shed light on that question. It concerned another company that sold a division, then declared that its employees had "resigned," allowing it to confiscate their pensions. Yet this company did exactly the opposite when its former C.E.O. resigned, changing the terms of his contract so that he could claim full retirement benefits; the company took an $8.5 million charge against earnings to reflect the cost of its parting gift to this one individual. Only the little people get shafted.
The other company is named Halliburton. The object of its generosity was Dick Cheney.
Posted on Wed, Sep. 18, 2002
Probe: U.S. knew of jet terror plots
By KEN GUGGENHEIM
WASHINGTON - American intelligence agencies received far more reports of terrorist plotting to use planes as weapons before Sept. 11 than the U.S. government has previously acknowledged, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
While it was unclear whether any of the reports were in fact signs of the impending attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, investigators said the agencies never looked closely at the potential threat of hijacked airliners flying into buildings. Those assertions came in a 30-page statement by Eleanor Hill, staff director for the House and Senate intelligence inquiry into the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hill's statement was being presented to committee members Wednesday at the inquiry's first public hearings. Lawmakers have been meeting behind closed doors since June, looking into intelligence failures leading up to the attacks and how they can be corrected.
"These public hearings are part of our search for the truth - not to point fingers or pin blame, but with the goal of identifying and correcting whatever systemic problems might have prevented our government from detecting and disrupting al Qaida's plot," said Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Hill outlined 12 examples of intelligence information on the possible terrorist use of airplanes as weapons, dating back to 1994. The last example occurred a month before the attacks, when intelligence agencies were told of a possible bin Laden plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, or crash a plane into it. But it contained no specifics pointing to the impending Sept. 11 attacks.
In August 1998, U.S. intelligence learned that a "group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosive-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center," says the report. The report was given to the Federal Aviation Administration and FBI, which took little action on it. The group may now be linked to bin Laden, the report says.
Other intelligence suggested that bin Laden supporters might crash a plane into a U.S. airport, or conduct a plot involving aircraft at New York and Washington, the report said.
While generally aware of the possibility of this method of attack, "the Intelligence Community did not produce any specific assessments of the likelihood that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons," the report said.
With revelations in the spring that President Bush had learned a month before the attacks that that bin Laden wanted to hijack airplanes, the White House defended the lack of disclosure of the information by saying the president's briefing detailed plans for traditional hijackings, not the use of airplanes as weapons.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice said at the time that the threat was vague and uncorroborated.
"I don't think anybody could have predicted ... that they would try to use an airplane as missile," Rice said. "Had this president known of something more specific or known that a plane was going to be used as a missile, he would have acted on it."
Congressional investigators also said that an intelligence briefing two months before the Sept. 11 attack warned that Osama bin Laden would launch a spectacular terrorist attack against U.S. or Israeli interests.
Between May and July 2001, the National Security Agency reported at least 33 communications indicating a possible, imminent terrorist attack.
The July 2001 briefing for senior government officials said that based on a review of intelligence information over five months "we believe that (bin Laden) will launch a significant terrorist attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks."
But Hill said the credibility of the sources was sometimes questionable and no specific details about the attacks were available.
"They generally did not contain specific information as to where, when and how a terrorist attack might occur and generally are not corroborated by further information," her statement said.
At Wednesday's hearing, leaders of two groups of victims' relatives, Stephen Push and Kristin Breitweiser, were the first witnesses. Both lost spouses in the attacks.
Breitweiser, whose husband Ron died at the World Trade Center, told lawmakers that if the public had been aware of possible terrorist attacks, airport security could have been bolstered and passengers may have thought twice before boarding airplanes.
"How many victims may have taken notice of these Middle Eastern men that were boarding their plane?" said Breitweiser, of Middletown, N.J. She is co-founder of September 11th Advocates.
As Breitweiser spoke, a group of family members and advocates sitting behind her began to weep. Mary Fetchet, of Voices of September 11, clutched a picture of her son and wiped away tears that were streaming down her face.
The hearings are believed to mark the first time that standing committees from both houses of Congress have sat together for an investigation.
The Bush administration has looked to the intelligence inquiry to produce the definitive report on problems leading up to the attack. Committee members say they have become frustrated by delays, blamed on both the difficulties of declassifying information for public hearings and what they see as lack of cooperation by the administration.
Hill's report notes CIA Director George J. Tenet has declined to declassify information on two key issues being looked at by the inquiry: References to intelligence agencies supplying information to the White House, and details of an al-Qaida leader involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
© 2001 miami and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
Posted on Tue, Jun. 25, 2002
Deadlock on Florida lawsuit over 2000 election
By The Associated Press
MIAMI - The state and counties have reached a deadlock with civil rights groups who sued over the bitterly disputed 2000 presidential election, attorneys told a judge Tuesday.
''As far as I'm concerned, this case is going to trial,'' U.S. District Judge Alan Gold told the attorneys on both sides after they told him mediation had failed. ``It's disappointing, but it is what it is.''
The two sides were in conference with a mediator as late as Monday night, but Hillsborough County attorney Ray Allen told the judge, ``It was the consensus of the group that we had reached impasse.''
The NAACP and four other civil rights groups are suing Florida and several counties about problems that they claim disenfranchised voters during the election that was later settled in the courts. President Bush beat Al Gore in Florida by just 537 votes.
Gold stressed his desire in May to solve the election dispute in mediation.
Lori Borgen, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the groups suing would like to keep talking with hopes of making progress.
The civil rights groups want the judge to examine the way the state and counties drop voters, process voter registration applications and address changes and assign precinct equipment and staffing.
''We don't think that what the state intends to do from this point forward will sufficiently protect voters,'' Lawyers' Committee attorney Anita Hodgkiss said after the hearing.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission harshly criticized the 2000 election in Florida. When the commission met last week in Miami to review the state's election changes, chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said she had a feeling the Sept. 10 primary will be ``a mini-disaster.''
Settlements have been reached with Broward and Leon counties and Choicepoint Inc., a company that helped the state develop a list for stripping people thought to be convicted felons from voting rolls. Settlement papers with Alpharetta, Ga.-based Choicepoint haven't yet been filed.
The remaining defendants include the state and Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Volusia counties covering the cities of Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach.
The lawsuit and a redistricting challenge are the last major court fights expected before fall elections in Florida. Gold's trial set for Aug. 26 is not expected to have any effect on the primary election.
The Justice Department is still reviewing legislative boundary lines for compliance with the Voting Rights Act but found no harm to minority voting power with new congressional district lines.
© 2001 miami and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
June 25, 2002
Florida's foster care fosters slutting
Allegations that six Palm Beach County girls partied with adult men at a Residence Inn by Marriott has prompted the state's child welfare agency to halt the placement of children in hotels and also to halt their supervision by a private nursing company.
The Department of Children & Families began paying Maxim Healthcare Services Inc. to baby-sit youngsters in motels and hotels about six weeks ago as a short-term fix. The crisis: A shortage of placements for a deluge of children streaming into state care, said David May, the department's district administrator in Palm Beach County.
In January, the department saw about 57 children entering the county's child-welfare system. By April, that number almost doubled to 113. By May, it was 117. One possible cause for the surge, May said, is publicity stemming from the case of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, a Miami girl who disappeared more than a year ago while supposedly under DCF watch.
Meanwhile, the children & families department in Palm Beach County slowly has been losing foster homes. The number of homes dropped from 182 to 160 from July 2001 to March, May said.
But the department's Band-Aid on the placement problem backfired.
On June 3, West Palm Beach police received a report that girls aged 11 to 17 may have been "hanging out with male adult patrons of the hotel in the [men's] rooms." The girls were seen at the pool numerous times with men in the evening, drinking alcohol and possibly smoking marijuana, according to a police report.
"It was also suspected by the employees of the Marriott that the children may be involved in sexual activity as well," stated the report, written by West Palm Beach Officer Nicole Maale. "The fact does remain that the environment of a hotel consists mainly of adults that are traveling in and out of town. This environment does not appear to be the safest place to house children that are waiting to be placed."
At least some of the girls had been at the hotel, off 45th Street near Interstate 95, since May 13. Of the six listed in the police report, one is now at a drug-treatment program, another is in a mental health facility and the other four are in foster homes, May said.
He said the department is investigating the allegations, but thinks one Maxim night shift employee wasn't supervising the girls properly. Even though none of the girls was injured, he said DCF decided to no longer use the company -- which is paid on average $20 an hour -- to supervise children at hotels.
Bob LeBeau, regional manager for Maxim, said his company is looking into the incidents, but has found no evidence of wrongdoing.
"It's our understanding the situation did not occur," he said. "We're committed to working with DCF to investigate the allegations and to ensure that all of the children that we're providing services to are supervised appropriately."
LeBeau said that for years Maxim has supplied the department across the state with certified home health aides and nursing assistants to provide one-on-one care to children in the system. Usually, that care is for children in foster homes, group homes or drug-treatment programs who need intense medical assistance or a higher level of supervision.
DCF turned to Maxim to watch children at the hotels as a last-ditch effort to keep them from sleeping in state offices and out of already crowded foster homes, May said.
Currently, 21 of the county's 160 foster homes are over capacity -- meaning they are caring for more children than they're licensed for. Typically, homes are licensed for no more than five children.
May said he's hopeful more homes will be available soon. Forty-six families are waiting to start the 10-week foster parenting class. Another 64 families are in class. And 79 have finished class and are going through the licensing process.
But foster homes aren't the ultimate salve for the department's placement crisis, May acknowledged.
"Some of these kids, the kids with the more-serious behavioral problems, are not suited for new foster homes for sure," he said.
So the department has been working with local child-welfare providers to establish more group homes in the community.
The real solution would be a significant slowdown in the number of children coming into state care.
However, May said, "I'm not seeing any relief in sight for the numbers of kids needing placement. I just don't see that."
Unless that happens, the department will continue to ask local child-welfare providers to squeeze in one more child. And it may once again have to pay staff overtime to supervise children overnight in state offices.
Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent may call 800-981-5437.
Shana Gruskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6537.
Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel