Computer expert denies knowledge of '04 vote rigging in Ohio

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2008 

WASHINGTON — A Republican computer consultant denied under oath Monday that he knew of any GOP effort to steal the 2004 election for President Bush by rigging Ohio's vote totals, an attorney who questioned him said.

A federal judge on Friday ordered Michael Connell, whose firms had consulting contracts with Bush's campaign and with the Ohio secretary of state's office in 2004, to submit to a limited, closed-door deposition in a suit alleging schemes to fix the vote.

A transcript of the deposition was unavailable, but Clifford Arnebeck, the plaintiffs' attorney, whose clients include the Rainbow Coalition and other liberal groups, said that during some two hours of questioning, Connell "denied any knowledge of the altering of votes."

Connell also denied knowing of any leftover "Trojan Horses" — bits of computer code that could play havoc with Tuesday's vote counts, Arnebeck said.

Connell's appearance, on the eve of the 2008 presidential election, culminated weeks of jockeying over his testimony, amid unsubstantiated allegations that he's been subjected to threats of retaliation if he tells all he knows, and U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver ordered the sealing of any questions about threats to Connell.

Allegations of Republican schemes to shift 2004 votes from Democratic challenger John Kerry to Bush have swirled around Ohio for four years, initially fed by exit polls that showed Kerry winning the election. Bush won the state by 118,601 votes to secure a second term.

Oddities in Ohio's 2004 presidential election continue to surface, including evidence of document shredding and disclosures of the presence of partisan operatives in the office of former Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who's been criticized for his office's handling of the election.

Records show that Blackwell hired Connell's Govtech Solutions, LLC, of Richfield, Ohio, as an Internet consultant. SMARTech Corp. of Chattanooga, Tenn., was retained to provide a backup server, which was needed because the secretary of state's Web site got more than 40 million election-night visits, said a spokesman for Ohio's current Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat.

During the same year, Bush's campaign paid New Media Communications, which was owned by Connell, more than $806,000 to for Web services, according to Federal Election Commission records. Connell's firm also has served as a consultant to John McCain's 2008 Republican presidential campaign.

SMARTech was paid more than $72,000 by Bush's 2004 campaign and has hosted hundreds of Republican Web and e-mail sites, including the gwb43.com site for politically related e-mails by Bush White House employees, whose disappearance triggered an outcry from congressional Democrats during last year's Justice Department scandal.

Arnebeck called SMARTech's role "an outrageous conflict of interest."

A 2004 election-night computer architecture map for Blackwell's office appears to suggest that as many as 51 of Ohio's 88 counties periodically sent their results to the secretary of state's office. Jeff Ortega, Brunner's chief spokesman, said that computer technicians in her office have been unable to determine how many, if any, counties transmitted results directly from vote tabulators, rather than from separate computers to shield against outside access to vote counts.

Stephen Spoonamore, a cybersecurity expert who's assisting the plaintiffs in the suit, alleged in an affidavit that SMARTech appears to have had the ability to intercept election returns before they were publicly disclosed. Spoonamore describes himself as a "lifelong Republican."

James Hocker, who was the chief information technology official in Blackwell's office, told McClatchy that there's "no truth" to the allegation.

SMARTech President Jeff Averbeck couldn't be reached for comment.

Blackwell didn't respond to e-mails sent via a close associate or to a message left with the Buckeye Institute, a policy institute with which he's loosely affiliated.

Brunner, who took office in January 2007, has dropped all outside consultants and says she's linked counties to her office via secure, dedicated lines.

She told McClatchy that after she took office, employees advised her that about six months earlier, "the Blackwell administration started shredding paper."

(Tish Wells contributed to this article.)

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