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Florida Missing Ballot Whistleblower Fired

Continuing the purge of her office staff, Broward County Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant on Wednesday fired the clerk who tipped state prosecutors to the location of hundreds of absentee ballots that were never counted in the September 2002 primary.

Robert Adams said Oliphant gave him no explanation as she ordered him to choose between being fired or quitting. His dismissal caps a six-week shakeup by Oliphant that has included the forced departures of her top deputy, chief financial officer, absentee ballot supervisor and pollworker supervisor.
Oliphant says she's fighting so Florida won't be 'butt of jokes'

By Scott Wyman
Staff Writer
Posted October 9 2003

Continuing the purge of her office staff, Broward County Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant on Wednesday fired the clerk who tipped state prosecutors to the location of hundreds of absentee ballots that were never counted in the September 2002 primary.

Robert Adams said Oliphant gave him no explanation as she ordered him to choose between being fired or quitting. His dismissal caps a six-week shakeup by Oliphant that has included the forced departures of her top deputy, chief financial officer, absentee ballot supervisor and pollworker supervisor.

Oliphant would not discuss her motives during a brief news conference, but she rejected concerns expressed by longtime election officials across Florida that her actions were jeopardizing her ability to run next year's elections. She said she did not want to "tarnish" the former employees by discussing in public any problems she had.

Instead, she focused on her feud with county commissioners. She said she is drafting a lawsuit to force county commissioners to give her an extra $5.1 million for office expenses over the next year and is writing the secretary of state to complain about the touch-screen voting machines the county bought for her office.

"We don't want Florida to be the butt of the jokes," Oliphant said.

Adams, who worked five years in the elections office, accuses Oliphant of retaliating against him over his role in the criminal investigation of her office this year. He said he plans to sue Oliphant, joining a host of other former employees who have lawsuits under way or are considering going to court.

Adams discovered a box containing 268 unopened ballots in a file cabinet in January and told prosecutors. All the ballots were locally postmarked up to a week before the September election in which former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Tampa lawyer Bill McBride were vying for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Having seized the ballots, prosecutors determined that an elections office administrator initially had found them buried underneath other mail after the election and moved them to the file cabinet.

They suspected an election worker with a history of alcoholism had mishandled ballots and that Oliphant's office may have failed to pick up the mail on the afternoon of Election Day.

The nine-month investigation cleared Oliphant of wrongdoing but said her actions raised questions about her competence.

Adams alleged Wednesday that Oliphant had transferred him seven times and cut his pay from $28,000 to $21,000 after he talked to prosecutors. Suspecting he would be fired, he packed his personal items earlier this week after Oliphant dismissed another employee who laid out part of the story about the uncounted ballots.

"It all began after I was called to testify and the ballots were taken out," Adams said.

Adams would join Joe Cotter, a former deputy supervisor, and Bob Cantrell, Oliphant's former intergovernmental relations aide, in suing.

Cantrell sued when Oliphant fired him shortly after he was subpoenaed to testify to prosecutors. Cotter's lawsuit accuses her of breaking his contract by firing Cantrell over his objections.

The prospect has county officials fearful of juries handing down huge judgments that taxpayers will have to pay. Although the lawsuits are against Oliphant, county commissioners must come up with the money to cover any verdict directly from the tax revenue they collect.

"Of course I'm concerned, but there is not a whole lot I can do about my concern," County Attorney Ed Dion said. "We'll just deal with it as it comes, because we don't have a lot of authority over this."

This is not the first time that the county faces the prospect of paying for the actions of an independently elected official. In 1998, county commissioners had to come up with almost $1 million to help settle a racial discrimination case filed against then-Clerk of Court Robert Lockwood.

As an independently elected official, Oliphant has wide-ranging authority to hire and fire employees at will. But legal experts said Oliphant could lose in court if the employees can prove they were retaliated against or dismissed their opinions because such action would run afoul of whistleblower statutes and civil rights laws.

County Commissioner Ben Graber said he hoped the firings would prompt Gov. Jeb Bush to reconsider his decision not to remove Oliphant. Bush refused to do so last winter as concern mounted about upcoming municipal elections.

"What she is doing is ethically criminal -- to treat people this way," Graber said. "She is wasting taxpayer money by creating these lawsuits. If this is not malfeasance, tell me what is."

The only personnel matter Oliphant would discuss Wednesday was who would oversee her office finances.

She forced out Dick Wallsmith as her chief financial officer last week because he had discussed her budget with the media. At her news conference, she announced she has hired a Coral Springs-based accounting firm to replace him, Siegelaub, Lieberman & Associates.

Oliphant ended her news conference when reporters asked to see the firm's résumé. The firm's Internet site says it offers more than 50 years of accounting experience and helps companies design innovative ways to manage their business.

They take over at a time when Oliphant's fight with the county over her budget is set to enter a new level.

Oliphant said Wednesday that her lawsuit seeking more money will be filed soon. She contends she needs $14.7 million to run her office over the next year, but county commissioners budgeted $9.6 million -- a 53 percent increase over last year.

The county began financing her office this week based on the $9.6 million budget. Oliphant had refused to choose between it and an offer of $9.1 million in cash and the assistance of 800 government employees during the 2004 elections.

Even as she was vowing to sue, Oliphant also invited county commissioners to lunch. She said she wants to discuss next year's elections and end the ill feelings created during the last year of controversy.

"I don't want to speak about county business or politics," she said. "I want to speak with them about working together and letting bygones be bygones. We must learn to work together for the good of Broward County and Broward County voters."

Commissioners were incredulous at the offer. "I don't know if she sues us, how we could possibly break bread with her," Commissioner Suzanne Gunzburger said.

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