The nation’s largest voting equipment vendor has for at least nine years coaxed state and local elections officials to serve on an “advisory board” that gathers twice annually for company-sponsored conferences, including one last year at a ritzy Las Vegas resort hotel.
The arrangement could compromise the integrity of the officials' decisions — or at the very least, the optics of those decisions — at a time when they are faced with efforts by Russia and perhaps other nations to disrupt the upcoming mid-term elections, ethics and elections experts said.
As many as a dozen election officials attended the March 2, 2017 Las Vegas meeting, with a number of them accepting airfare, lodging, meals and, according to one participant, a ticket to a show on the Strip from their voting systems vendor, Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software (ES&S). Two other panel members said their state election boards paid for their trips.
The unusual practice, which has not previously been reported, offers a glimpse of one way in which a voting equipment manufacturer has sought to cement relationships with government officials, some of whom play roles in the award of millions of dollars in contracts.
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Ethics experts and election watchdogs say the company's hospitality and hobnobbing with government officials is potentially corrupting.
“This is a massive promotional opportunity for ES&S,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C. “It’s highly inappropriate for any election official to be accepting anything of value from a primary contractor. It shocks the conscience … I think it compromises their integrity.”
ES&S and other vendors have much at stake as election agencies nationwide gird for the possibility that Russian operatives or others will attempt to alter votes or otherwise tamper with election equipment. In 2016, Russian-backed hackers penetrated Illinois’ voter registration system and unsuccessfully attempted to do so in 20 other states before the presidential election, though there's no evidence they tampered with votes, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security disclosed last year. Separately, Russian Internet trolls who bombarded U.S. social media accounts in 2016 with fake news aimed at sowing divisions and rallying support for Donald Trump have remained active. U.S. intelligence officials say they expect the Kremlin to meddle in this fall’s congressional elections, too.
Many states are continuing a shift to voting systems that produce paper backup ballots, so vote counts can be verified in post-election audits. ES&S is peddling electronic ballot-marking devices that produce paper ballots to be fed into optical scanners – equipment that critics contend should be limited to use by disabled voters. Paper ballots, they say, are far less expensive and can be scanned and quickly tabulated.
The situation also shines new light on gaps and weaknesses in state ethics laws.
Kathy Rogers, ES&S’ senior vice president for governmental affairs, said in a phone interview that the panels have been “immensely valuable in providing customer feedback. One of our key results is customer satisfaction, and this is how we achieve that.”
Rogers, a former Georgia elections administrator, said she acts as the "facilitator" at the meetings. The advisory panel usually comprises about 15 election officials and meets twice a year, once at the company's Omaha headquarters, she said. Venues for past conferences have included San Diego, Jacksonville, New York, Tucson and “somewhere in Texas, maybe Dallas,” Rogers said.
The panel agreed to meet in Las Vegas because it's cheap to fly there, she said, though there was concern about the optics of the trip.
ES&S President and CEO Tom Burt, Rogers and other top company executives welcomed panel members to the Las Vegas conference at Marriott’s Cosmopolitan Hotel, located on the Strip and featuring a casino, more than 20 restaurants, a spa and three swimming pools.
One attendee, Executive Director Marci Andino of South Carolina’s State Election Commission, has publicly reported accepting a total of $19,200 in expenses from ES&S for 11 advisory board trips since 2009. On her financial disclosure statement filed in March, Andino estimated that trans-continental flights, two nights at the Cosmopolitan and meals totaled $865.
She said she herself paid for a flight to Los Angeles after the conference to visit her daughter and flew home from there on a company-financed flight costing the same as one from Vegas.
Andino said she cleared her involvement with her state’s ethics office before joining the panel in 2009 because she “wanted to make sure I wasn't doing anything wrong.”
If the state decides to buy a new voting system, she said, she will resign from the ES&S panel.
But Canter said stepping away from the company doesn’t erase a panel member’s prior financial relationship and the appearance of a “cozy” connection.
The Las Vegas conference opened with drinks at the Cosmopolitan's featured, multistory lounge, The Chandelier, described on the hotel's Web Page as "a living, breathing architectural wonder created by shimmering, beaded curtains of light.” The lounge boasts a long list of signature drinks and specialty cocktails.
Tabitha Lehman, who was appointed to the Wichita-based Sedgwick County (Kan.) Election Commission in 2011, said the Las Vegas conference was her first as an ES&S panel member and that the company covered her expenses, possibly including a show ticket.
Rogers acknowledged that "after the day’s meetings, we occasionally make available a completely optional outing for the group, ranging from trips to presidential libraries to an entertainment event."
Since the Vegas trip, Lehman said, she has taken two other trips for panel gatherings, to Omaha and South Carolina, on the company's dime. She is not among state officials required to publicly disclose such gifts.
Lehman said she appreciated the opportunity to take concerns about the county's ES&S-supplied voting equipment, including concerns about election security, directly to the company's top officials.
“As an election official, what is very valuable for me is … sitting at the table with the CEO of our equipment manufacturer’s company" to provide feedback, she said. “That just gives us that ability to advocate for our needs here in Kansas and in Sedgwick County,” she said.
Lehman said ES&S invited her to sit on the panel after the Sedgwick County Commission approved a 10-year, $7.8 million contract to buy voting equipment and services from ES&S in July 2016. Lehman was part of a committee that reviewed and scored bids for the new voting system. Out of six bids Sedgwick County received, ES&S gave the third lowest. But Lehman noted in a public meeting that the ES&S bid also included a volume pricing discount linking purchases by three counties, and that the company was willing to buy back Sedgwick County's old voting machines.
Others who booked flights for the Las Vegas event, based on documents emailed to the panel by an ES&S employee, included Mike Ryan, executive director of New York City's elections board; Toni Pippins-Poole, elections administrator in Dallas County, Texas; David Dove, at the time chief of staff and legal counsel to Georgia's secretary of state, Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of Maryland's election commission; Marisa Crispell, elections director in Luzerne County, Pa.; Steve Harsman, deputy elections director in Montgomery County, Ohio; Ralph Mohr, elections commissioner in Erie County, N.Y.; Brad Nelson, elections director in Pima County, Ariz., and Greg Riddlemoser, elections director in Stafford County, Va.
Three of the attendees – Andino, Riddlemoser, Charlson – also have served on advisory panels to the federal Election Assistance Commission, putting them in the position to weigh in on policies and standards affecting voting vendors.
Rogers, who said ES&S' board already existed when she joined the company in 2009, said she was unable to provide lists of past panel members.
Existence of ES&S’ National Advisory Board, which is not disclosed on the company’s website, was discovered in documents released recently in a response to a South Carolina election activist's unrelated public records request. It could not be immediately learned whether other vendors convene similar panels.
A spokesman for one ES&S competitor, Texas-based Hart InterCivic, said it does not have an advisory panel of government officials that it brings to events but "does occasionally look to customers for input on our products and services."
"We conduct our outreach by survey, conference calls or in-person visits at customer sites,” spokesman Peter Lichtenheld said.
Officials at another rival, Toronto-based Dominion Voting Systems Corp., did not respond to multiple queries about whether it has an advisory panel.
State ethics officials have taken a range of approaches to the ES&S panel, underscoring their differences with stricter federal standards.
Lehman's travel apparently was permitted, for example, although the purchasing policy in Kansas' Sedgwick County says officials and employees should avoid situations where it may look like they are giving preferential treatment to a vendor or are losing impartiality. It also bars employees from using their positions to influence a government decision "in which he or she knows or has reason to know he or she has any financial interest."
Maryland laws bar state employees from accepting gifts from any company that does business with their agencies. But Michael Lord, an attorney with Maryland's ethics commission, said exceptions permit employees to accept meals and serve on panels, though they must report receipt of meals and other gifts exceeding $20 or collectively totaling more than $100.
Charlson, Maryland’s deputy elections administrator, arrived in Vegas on Wednesday, March 1 – the eve of ES&S' one-day conference – and stayed through the weekend.
Charlson said in a statement that Maryland’s Board of Elections paid for her travel to the conference, as it did for other board staff who took up the issue with state ethics officials before participating in the past.
“We understand the ethics rules,” she said. “This is why the state Board of Elections pays for my expenses.”
But Canter, the CREW ethics counsel, who was the No. 2 ethics officer in the Clinton and Obama White Houses, even took issue with officials' expenses being paid by their government agencies.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate to be spending government resources on a contractor-sponsored event,” she said.
Charlson said she paid for the weekend nights, but did not respond to a query as to whether she accepted ES&S' offer of its group hotel rate for her stays on Friday and Saturday nights, when the Cosmopolitan's rates rise sharply.
In December 2014, at the urging of Maryland Elections Director Linda Lamone, the state board of elections approved a lease of ES&S equipment for up to six years, with the first two years costing $28 million, so the state could evaluate rapidly evolving election technology options before making a longer commitment. Rebecca Wilson, co-director of the Maryland election watchdog group Save Our Votes, noted that there were complaints about voters' ability to navigate ES&S' ballot format and questioned whether the cost of the ongoing lease has approximated the price tag of new equipment.
Dove, a former interim elections director in Georgia, who since has gone into private practice, said his supervisor approved his involvement on the advisory board, and the state paid for his trip to Las Vegas.
The Georgia secretary of state's office said it paid $908 for his trip. A spokeswoman for that office, Candice Broce, said "it was necessary and prudent to send a representative with sufficient subject-matter expertise in elections" to the meeting with the state's prime contractor to discuss election security, including the federal government's January 2017 designation of election systems as "'critical infrastructure."
ES&S executive Rogers said the panel members "are good people, who are very passionate about elections. And they’re very passionate about holding us accountable for good products and good services, good at giving us critical feedback. ... I would hate to see that lost."
But Susan Greenhalgh, policy director for the National Election Defense Coalition, said the conference creates potential conflicts of interest when "it's important that these administrators maintain arms-length relationships" with voting system vendors, with whom they could be "negotiating contracts on behalf of taxpayers."
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed David Dove, at the time chief of staff and legal counsel to Georgia's secretary of state, as serving on advisory panels to the federal Election Assistance Commission. He is listed on the panel information, but Dove denies taking part.
Jamie Self: @jamiemself
Stanley Dunlap: @stan_telegraph
Amy Renee Leiker: @amyreneeleiker