Thursday, August 19 2004
Earlier this week Bob Herbert caused quite a stir by alleging that officers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) were using a phony vote fraud investigation to intimidate elderly African-American voters and try to suppress black turnout at the polls in Florida this November. "The vile smell of voter suppression is all over this so-called investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement," Herbert fumed.

Because this is such a serious and inflammatory charge - and knowing a bit about how Herbert operates - I spent some time yesterday checking out the story. As you might expect, it turns out Herbert omitted several key details (and twisted a few others) that severely undermine his claim that the vote fraud investigation in Florida is illegitimate and designed to intimidate African-Americans.

First let's start with Herbert's characterization of the investigation:

The officers, from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which reports to Gov. Jeb Bush, say they are investigating allegations of voter fraud that came up during the Orlando mayoral election in March.

Officials refused to discuss details of the investigation, other than to say that absentee ballots are involved. They said they had no idea when the investigation might end, and acknowledged that it may continue right through the presidential election.

Phrased this way, the investigation does indeed sound fishy. It's also true that when you call the FDLE they refuse to discuss the details of the case - but only because there is an ongoing criminal investigation. This is standard operating procedure anywhere in the country.

But even armed with the sparse information from Herbert's column, after spending an hour or so using Google and Lexis/Nexis you can discover the specifics of the fraud investigation taking place. Here they are:

On March 9, 2004 Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer won reelection with 12,422 votes out of the 24,375 ballots cast. However, to avoid a runoff Dyer needed to break the 50%, which he did in the end by only 234 votes, and with the help of a good number of absentee ballots.

As it turns out, 264 of those absentee ballots were witnessed by Ezzie Thomas, President of the Orlando League of Voters. This is, of course, the same Ezzie Thomas that Bob Herbert describes in his column by saying, "with his demonstrated ability to deliver the black vote in Orlando, Mr. Thomas is a tempting target for supporters of George W. Bush in a state in which the black vote may well spell the difference between victory and defeat."

Herbert fails to mention that, as reported in the Orlando Sentinel on July 25, 2004, Mr. Thomas was paid $10,000 by Mayor Dyer to collect absentee ballots for the election and that his handling of absentee ballots has been under scrutiny in the past (including as recently as 2002) though charges have never been filed.

This time, they were. Right after the election in March, second place finisher Ken Mulvaney filed a civil suit to try and get the absentee ballots witnessed by Thomas thrown out and get himself into a runoff with Dyer. Mulvaney interviewed a number of absentee ballot voters and eventually produced 42 signed affidavits alleging mishandling of ballots.

On April 8 a circuit judge in Orlando decided there was enough evidence to proceed with the suit. Additionally, Mulvaney's complaint sparked the FDLE criminal investigation which Herbert decries as a concerted effort to suppress the black vote.

Now that we have some perspective, let's go back and look again at the way Herbert characterizes the investigation in his column:

I asked Mr. Morales in a telephone conversation to tell me what criminal activity had taken place.

"I can't talk about that," he said.

I asked if all the people interrogated were black.

"Well, mainly it was a black neighborhood we were looking at - yes,'' he said.

He also said, "Most of them were elderly."

When I asked why, he said, "That's just the people we selected out of a random sample to interview."

Back in the bad old days, some decades ago, when Southern whites used every imaginable form of chicanery to prevent blacks from voting, blacks often fought back by creating voters leagues, which were organizations that helped to register, educate and encourage black voters. It became a tradition that continues in many places, including Florida, today.

The reason many of the people interviewed were elderly African-Americans is because they were selected at random from the pool of 264 absentee ballots in question witnessed by Ezzie Thomas, which he collected from elderly African-Americans. Does this sound like racism to you?

But even that is grossly misleading. The truth is that the FDLE investigation quickly widened to probe allegations that the Orlando firefighters union - a predominantly white organization - broke the law by having its members paid to perform campaign related activities for Dyer while on duty.

Just a little over two weeks ago, on Friday, August 6, the Orlando Sentinel editorial page - not exactly a racist organization - wrote that the probe was justified (quote via Lexis):

charges that there may have been election fraud with some absentee ballots and improper payments to some union firefighters supporting Mayor Buddy Dyer are serious business. The state investigation into those allegations is warranted, even though some people questioned during the probe felt intimidated by state agents.

   Certainly the investigators need to show sensitivity. Some of those questioned were elderly blacks who may have encountered intimidation decades ago when registering to vote. Conducting the interviews in a setting that is comfortable, such as their church, can put those seniors at ease. The goal isn't to scare people, but to get the truth.

   The state investigation is not unfairly targeting blacks. Part of the probe is focused on the activity of the mostly white fire union that supported Mr. Dyer's re-election bid. A grand jury that met this week considered allegations that some improper payments may have gone to union members.

Even though Mulvaney may not win the case in the end - nor would he be expected to win a runoff against Dyer should his lawsuit prevail - the point is clear: this is a legitimate investigation that is not targeting African-Americans. And it is most certainly not an orchestrated effort by Jeb Bush or Florida law enforcement officers to suppress the black vote in November on behalf of the President.

But that's not what Bob Herbert wants America to believe. After looking at the details of this investigation and comparing it to the truly dishonest and deceitful representation Herbert presented in his column the other day, it's clear that Herbert (along with Krugman, see below) is part of an orchestrated, preemptive effort to deligitimize a Bush victory in Florida should it happen this November.

Why am I so convinced of this? Because the investigation of Ezzie Thomas has been going on for months. As you can see from the very end of this detailed article, up until at least the end of May (and possibly later, I don't know), Ezzie Thomas's lawyer was a guy named Dean Mosley.

Do you think it's just coincidence that Thomas's lawyer is now Joseph Egan, the Orlando-based lawyer who was part of Al Gore's legal team in 2000 and who is now a $1,000 contributor to John Kerry's campaign for president?

And is it also coincidence that the day after Herbert's column came out Terry McAuliffe used the misleading accusations in it to sow even more doubts about the legitimacy of the results in November?

"Gov. Bush should be as troubled as anyone that the Florida state police at 'random' has chosen to enter the homes of elderly African-American voters in Orlando," McAuliffe said Tuesday. "This appears anything but random and it is now incumbent upon Gov. Bush to demonstrate that Florida is capable of holding an election that is fair and above reproach." (emphasis added)

This is truly disgraceful. Herbert, McAuliffe, and the rest of the Democrats - the supposed "champions" of the African-American community - are manipulating the fears of black voters and playing on racial distrust and division to make sure that anything approaching a close race in Florida is contestable, and that any Bush victory is illegitimate. It is, I'm afraid, one of the lowest things I've ever seen. - T. Bevan 11:12 am Link | Email | Send to a Friend

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