Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Uneasy over electronic voting

Electronic voting was easy enough ... so why do I feel uneasy?
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

I voted Monday.
It took five minutes.
I walked into the South County Elections Office, and a couple of kindly poll workers took my name and address, checked my driver's license and handed me a plastic card.
I inserted the card into the machine, and a virtual ballot appeared on screen.
I made my choices, looked them over, then pushed the final button.
My votes were gone.
Recorded, I hoped.
Gee, I thought: That was easy.
But I felt uneasy.
There was no piece of paper to look over one last time before releasing it from my fingers into a ballot box.
There was nothing but blank screen.
Like every other voter in the new e-voting age, I have to trust that the tabulations will accurately reflect my choices.
And that no accidental bug or intentional saboteur erases my votes.
Or sticks them in the other guys' columns.
Yet sorry to say, the systems we're using don't merit our trust.
Sure, spokesmen for this big-bucks industry tell us there's nothing to worry about. But experience is showing otherwise.
In Maryland last month, machines froze, access cards choked, computerized voter lists crashed -- a combination of technical and human error.
Gov. Robert Erlich, a Republican, was so fed up, he now wants to scrap his state's $106 million system and return to paper ballots.
Maryland's equipment is from Diebold Election Systems, whose machines have been hacked in experiments at Princeton University and in the office of Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho.
Palm Beach County uses a system by Sequoia Voting Systems, which is currently under fire for alleged ties to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. The convoluted history here involves the California-based company's sale last year to a much smaller company called Smartmatic Corp. with headquarters in a tree-lined office park in Boca Raton. Smartmatic was founded by a young Spanish-Venezuelan engineer named Antonio Mugica and two colleagues. After getting what officials called a small business loan of $200,000 from a Venezuelan government financing agency, the young company supplied machines in Venezuela for a 2004 referendum on Chavez -- making so much money, they were able to buy 100-year-old Sequoia for $120 million in 2005.
At a conference-call press conference in Washington on Monday, Mugica saw nothing fishy in his firm's meteoric growth. "We have the best technology," he said.
Mugica and company spokesman denied the firm is owned or controlled by the leftist Chavez. They said they develop and sell voting machines; they don't run elections.
To prove they're on the up and up, they said, they had invited the federal investigation, by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, that made headlines over the weekend.
Smartmatic's business practices might prove to be as completely ordinary as its officials say.
It's in the nature of private companies to do things like contribute heavily to the Republican Party (Diebold) or set up international business arrangements with countries our government doesn't like (Smartmatic).
But when the private companies that do these ordinary things play a dominant role in our elections procedures without sufficient oversight, we are clearly playing with fire.
Fact is, as long as there have been elections in America, there has been mischief. The expression "stuff the ballot box" doesn't come from nowhere.
And yet, Florida has adopted inane rules that don't allow hand recounts when electronic voting is involved.
That don't allow us to look inside the machinery to check that everything is kosher.
That wise man, Ronald Reagan, said in regard to treaties with the Soviet Union, we must be able to "trust,but verify."
Right now, we can't verify that the votes which define our democracy are being counted correctly.
So how can we trust?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Donald and the flag

Some controversies can only happen in the town of Palm Beach ...

Date: Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

If you are Donald Trump, by gum, you should be able to do whatever the heck you want.

This is because you are the richest man on earth and you have the most luscious string of wives and ex's, the most successful casinos and the top-rated show on television.

Well, maybe you're not exactly the very richest person. And maybe someone else has a more profitable casino and a more popular show ... but let's not nitpick. These are the kind of piddling details that obsess the sort of losers who hear the words: "You're fired!"

If you are The Donald, you are not impeded by the little facts that hamper smaller men. You do not let yourself be bound by little laws.

The Town of Palm Beach does not understand the grandiosity of The Donald.

Thursday, October 5, 2006

Congressman and a 'cute butt'

Congressman forfeited privacy when he crossed the line of decency
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

Three years ago, when confronted with "revolting and unforgiving" reports that he is gay, Mark Foley angrily held a news conference to say he deserved to keep his private life private.
"Elected officials, even those who run for the United States Senate, must have some level of privacy," the Republican congressman declared.
And most in the media complied.
Just as leaders in the House of Representatives apparently dealt with "overly friendly e-mails" with, at most, a word of warning.
Hey, no sense disturbing the man's privacy.
Now, of course, Foley's life has come unwrapped in about as spectacular a fashion as anyone can imagine.
Not for a secret life as a gay man, which never seemed to bother anybody in his district who knew about it. But for dozens of creepy e-mails and Internet text messages that show him lusting, in the most literal terms, after teenage boys.
In the space of a few days, he's gone from Mark Foley, R-Fort Pierce, shoo-in for a seventh term in Congress, to Mark Foley, ruined man.
The R after his name now stands for Recovery, that ever-expandable society for America's fallen celebrities.
He's gone into hiding -- er, retreat -- er, rehab -- and sent out a surrogate to confess all manner of ugly and awful secrets.
Can the bookings on Oprah and Dr. Phil be far behind?
How soon until we see the repentant autobiography and the bid for public forgiveness?
His attorney-spokesman David Roth tells us Foley takes full responsibility for his actions. But then enumerates all kinds of factors that Foley just has to get off his chest in the name of his recovery. Not that we should mistake any of these for extenuating circumstances, mind you.
Foley's claiming that he's an alcoholic. But since when does getting drunk make you lust over a young boy's rear end?
Or as Maf54, Foley's nom de keyboard, calls it: "cute butt bouncing in the air."
Foley wants us to know that he was molested as a teen by an anonymous clergyman. But since when does everyone who's molested in turn get to take an unhealthy interest in children?
"It's very rare, actually," said Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), from Chicago.
"The overwhelming majority of abuse victims hurt themselves, not others," added David Clohessy, SNAP national director, from St. Louis, "through self-destructive behavior, criminal behavior, isolation, addictions and so on."
Foley also wants us to know he is gay. But what a disservice that does to the great majority of gay people.
He's given new ammunition for those people who think that sexual predation and homosexuality are synonymous.
Roth promises us that, categorically, Foley never engaged in pedophile activity and never had a teenager in his apartment for sex.
Maybe that's true if you define pedophilia strictly as sex with someone under age 13. But this week's crop of Internet messages, reported by ABC News, make that assertion hard to believe.
One -- from 2003 while Foley took a break from a vote on authorizing money for the Iraq war -- indicate that instant message exchanges reached a sexual climax.
"Ok, i better go vote," writes Foley near the end of that exchange. "Did you know you would have that effect on me."
All these secrets. We're hearing about them after the harm is done.
If it's true that Foley was a closet alcoholic and a childhood victim of clergy sex abuse, wouldn't it have been better to be honest about it? Honest to himself? To us?
Keeping it buried sure didn't make things better.
All the while Foley was keeping his cherished zone of privacy, he was walking a tightrope, living the high profile life of a congressman while behaving in ways that could destroy him.
"The one response to child and sexual abuse that always fails is silence," says Clohessy, himself a childhood victim of a priest's sexual advances.
To quote the singer-philosopher Paul Simon, silence like a cancer grows.
"And cancer, if there's even to be a prayer of recovery, has to be exposed and rooted out. It's painful and risky, but doing nothing is far more painful and more risky," Clohessy said.
On Wednesday, former Foley aide Kirk Fordham, himself resigning in the Foley fallout, said he warned Speaker Dennis Hastert's office more than three years ago about Foley's troublesome behavior. Three years ago!
The Republican leadership that kept quiet reminds me of the Catholic hierarchy that has protected priests for years and years, preferring to keep things under wraps to protect the membership over forthrightly removing and punishing the wrongdoers to protect children.
I don't have any confidence that Democrats would do things differently if they were in charge.
It's all about keeping the lid on long enough to make our side look good and their side look bad.
This isn't just about a man preying on teenagers. This is a man using his position in Congress to view the page program as his own little buffet table.
This is about a man who advances his career by parading as a valiant protector of young people, while mocking the notions of decency he claims to defend.
As recently as July, Foley was scoring political points by backing tougher laws against sex offenders. "For too long our nation has tracked library books better than it has sex offenders," he said as the Senate moved a bill to close enforcement loopholes.
Now I can't help wondering: What was Maf54 writing that day?

Monday, October 2, 2006

Naked confessions

Naked confessions of Foley's priest are hard to swallow
By Howard Goodman | Commentary

Now, that's a relief: It was only saunas and massages in the nude, skinny-dipping and fondling.
Thank God it was nothing like sex.
The interview confessions of the Rev. Anthony Mercieca induce a kind of stunned amazement that any man of the cloth would so easily admit to behavior that's so patently wrong, while blithely acting as though everything was quite all right.
Mercieca is the Roman Catholic priest who says he cavorted with a young altar boy named Mark Foley when he was assigned to Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth in 1967.
Foley grew up to be the six-time Republican congressman with the secret life that included a nasty habit of engaging teenage boys in Internet-message sex talk.
As the whole world knows, the 52-year-old from Fort Pierce abruptly resigned last month when some of his cringe-producing exchanges with congressional pages became public.
After disappearing into his undisclosed recovery bunker, Foley had a lawyer announce that the disgraced pol was (a) a secret alcoholic and (b) molested by a clergyman.
Thus hitting the Daily Double of excuse-making, Foley then wanted us to know that none of this was an excuse.
The stage was set for enterprising reporters to find Mercieca, who at 69 is retired and living on the small Maltese island of Gozo, a geography trivia answer in the Mediterranean Sea.
Mercieca has proved a most obliging subject.
"We were friends and trusted each other as brothers and loved each other as brothers," Mercieca told The Associated Press.
He said he and Foley would go into saunas naked, but "everybody does that."
Oh, sure. Lots of parents want to see their son or daughter dipping naked in the spa with their minister or rabbi.
In all his interviews, he denied having sexual intercourse with Foley, then all of 13.
"It's not something you call, I mean, rape or penetration or anything like that, you know," he told WPTV Ch.5. "It was just fondling."
Anybody else out there having trouble holding down their breakfast?
As mea culpas go, Mercieca's sounds as persuasive as Bill Clinton's protestations about the oral ministrations of Monica Lewinsky not counting as sex.
But according to David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, there's a big difference. Clinton undoubtedly lied to save his job. But "the priest's crimes are so egregious and so taboo, I think he's lying to protect his twisted psyche."
Clohessy, of St. Louis, is himself a childhood victim of a priest's abuse.
"If I had to guess," he said, "the priest's heart is filled with turmoil and guilt and confusion and shame. And the brain would be clear and neat and orderly and make these distinctions. And that's how he can talk so dispassionately about this."
Richard Sipes, a former monk and priest who wrote a classic work on the sexual and celibate practices of Catholic clergy, A Secret World, said Mercieca is very typical.
"Dioceses throughout the United States are now recording an average of 7 percent priest abusers of minors in their records," Sipes writes in a soon-to-be-published report.
The tawdry doings are rationalized as "tickling," "a massage," "friendship."
The result is a fascinating, perverse psychological hall of mirrors.
In Merceica, you have a priest who plays naked with boys and touches them in the wrong places, but sees nothing wrong in it.
In Foley, you have one of those boys growing up to be a denouncer of this very behavior -- going so far as to raise public alarms over a youth nudist camp that has run for years without complaint. Is he trying to protect a younger, wounded version of himself against another, predatory version of himself?
Because all the while Foley is blasting the exploitation of minors, he is secretly engaging in it.
It's only when he is caught that he suddenly comes forward to reveal being abused by the priest.
It's dizzying.
And sickening.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Politicans and priests acting badly

For a time in 2006, Palm Beach County was a bonanza for crazy behavior from public figures. In one particularly rich stretch, we had priests robbing the till and a congressman making weird sexual advances to teen boys. Hence...

Date: Sunday, October 1, 2006
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

Hey, isn't it supposed to be the politicians who get caught stealing money?

And the priests who get accused of misbehavior with boys?

Well, that's not how it goes in Palm Beach County.

In a dizzying couple of days last week, we were hit with back-to-back shockers:

Two priests from St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in Delray Beach stood accused of stealing millions of dollars from collection plates over four decades -- money that parishioners had taken out of their pockets and intended for widows and orphans and good works -- and spending it on condos, gambling trips, girlfriends and other pleasures not usually associated with the priestly life.

And while that was just sinking in, six-term U.S. Rep. Mark Foley abruptly announced his resignation, one day after the emergence of some creepy-sounding e-mails he had sent last year to a 16-year-old congressional page.

Until that moment, the Republican from Fort Pierce looked like a shoo-in for re-election.

And for 24 hours, his camp tried damage-control, accusing Democratic challenger Tim Mahoney of releasing the e-mails (which Mahoney denied) and saying there was nothing inappropriate about them. Which, in any other context but politics, would seem like contradictory statements.

But the teenager sure thought something was strange about receiving messages from a man in his 50s who wanted to know, "... what do you want for your birthday coming up ..." and "send me a pic of you as well ..."

The kid, unnamed in news reports, was so jarred that he wrote to an associate on Capitol Hill: "Maybe it is just me being paranoid, but seriously. This freaked me out."