IT TAKES A THIEF
"The major fact about history is that a large part of it appears to be criminal."
Our quest looked insanely futile but we stubbornly refused to quit until we were as dead as our theories seemed to be. We worried about being too far out, too intuitive, seeing connections where there were none. The word was that we had gotten "too extreme," and that we'd "lost balance."
Yet the story never faded. We would wander the beaches and wonder about the possible ramifications of what we had dug up. Nonetheless, we decided to pursue it. Jim was the hottest after it. As an avid chess player, he was intrigued by the complexity of it all. Ken kept getting married and having children, and his children's mothers were never too thrilled about the quest. That slowed him down, but it never stopped him.
We needed somebody wise and credible with whom we could talk on the local scene, to validate or reject our conclusions. The agents at the FBI said that U.S. Attorney Robert W. Rust was a good listener.
He was, but he was consistently noncommittal about the use, if any, his superiors in the Justice Department were making of our field work. We never saw the man. He was reachable only by telephone, and our phone conversations were probably recorded.
Because Rust would willingly spend twenty minutes at a time on the phone discussing the implications of our theories, we assumed the jury in the Justice Department was still open minded about the case.
We found ourselves in accord with Rust on two points. If the elections in Dade County were being systematically rigged, it had to be accomplished and/or by:
1) Massive tampering with the voting machines;
2) Massive forgery in the certificates attested to by the signature of poll workers.
Both possibilities seemed far fetched, illogical or impossible.
The 1,648 machines would have to have been pre-set with vote totals without poll workers finding out. The poll workers' duties included visually checking the mechanical counters in back of the machines before allowing voting on election morning.
If forgery was the method, it would appear to be a Houdini-like trick. Each of the 1,648 machines' certificates of canvass were signed in triplicate by at least ten poll-workers per precinct, twice a day, adding up to roughly 32,960 separate signatures.
As impossible as either of those two possibilities sounded, we didn't discount them entirely because of Dade County's track record of "polecat" elections. Polecat elections stink to high heaven.
Our skepticism was founded in the lore of Dade County polecat politics, circa 1959, when perhaps the most important election ever held in the region took place. It was a county-wide referendum in which each of the 27 separate municipalities in Dade County were asked to give up their power to govern themselves autonomously. They were being asked instead to turn over self-governing power to the proposed "Metropolitan Government," or Metro, for short.
Opposition to the "power grab" was fierce and the debate dominated the press for months before the balloting. The Miami Herald strongly backed the proposition. The Metro Charter, a set of rules defining the powers of Metro-Dade, was written by Miami Herald lawyer Dan Paul. The Charter was a product of many consultations with the insiders, who met regularly in the UM boardroom, under the twin chairmanship of Herald publisher John S. Knight and U.M. President Henry King Stanford.
The voluntary divestiture of power by Dade's cluster of independent cities would bring about a whole new way of governing, tax collecting, public servicing, public contracting and election administration. Billions of dollars in commercial and property futures were at stake.
The Fifties were drawing to a close. The architects of regional government viewed their new model of governance by "experts" as a new era. No longer would there be dependence on charismatic publicly elected officials, whose credentials to lead often consisted of no more than a willingness to shake every hand in the neighborhood.
Elite planners sought to diminish the power of mayors, chiefs of police and local heroes of one kind or another who influence public policy.
In their place, operating largely behind-the-scenes with no accountability to the public , would be Public Administration Service (PAS) graduates, trained to be loyal to the Charter. More often than not the county manager came from a different part of the country. It was to be government by "grid," so that personnel from PAS could be nimbly interchanged throughout the United States, without fanfare, to fill advisory "slots," such as county manager.
As the 1959 Metro referendum drew near, citizens who preferred the old-fashioned way of governing banded together with such vigor that a Miami News poll conducted by houndstooth-clean editor Bill Baggs showed Metro was headed for a kick in the ass and down to defeat. (The News was still independent in those days.) Baggs commented that it would be surprising if the forces for Metro mustered any backing at all beyond the elite, special-interest voters who stood to benefit financially.
Then, on election night, the electoral reality-quake struck.
Metro won, according to the votes counted on Dade's carefully tended Automatic Voting Machines. And while there was some head shaking and muttering after the results were in, the discontent was scantily reported and soon forgotten. Talk radio was a mere glitter in Larry King's eyes then.
But as years passed, old-timers began wondering aloud on the early talk radio programs if something fishy hadn't occurred back in 1959 when Metro was voted in. In 1971, a caller mentioned a group known as "the warehouse gang" as the ones most likely to be behind the original Metro election victory.
The caller hinted mysteriously of a cadre of "good old boys" who had long been in charge of the county's voting machines, which were stored between elections at a warehouse in Opa Locka, Dade's most rural backwater municipality located on the edge of the Everglades.
There, it was rumored, a flourishing criminal enterprise had evolved over the years. The manipulators in county politics came to depend on the voting machine mechanics to guarantee the outcome of multimillion dollar bond issues and other controversial measures. It was common knowledge, one informant told us, that, "Those guys can make a mechanical voting machine whistle Dixie."
The Opa Locka warehouse at the Opa-Locka Airport is a big World War Two-type hangar. The airport is a vast expanse of concrete at the edge of black swamp water. It's flat and the trees are very low and Jim learned to fly Cessna 150s and 172s out there.
Frank Vickery, a big, old, taciturn "cracker," was in charge of the warehouse. He didn't have much to do out in the swamp all day and he was bored. So he was happy to accept the court order we handed him giving us permission to examine documents. He liked to talk and show people around. So he led and we listened.
Inside the hangar were 1,648 gray-green voting machines with levers, plus a lot of extras, all lined up in rows. They were made by the Automatic Voting Machine Company of Jamestown, New York..
"Can you show us the candidate counters and the wheels inside?" Jim asked.
He led us to a nearby machine and opened up the back with a key. There were a lot of plastic, wheels, three-digit counters underneath a black grid. The insides looked pretty simple.
"How can you rig this thing?" Ken asked.
"One of the best ways," Frank chuckled, "is to put decals over the counters so that when you see them in the morning it says "000" but underneath it says maybe "090," which in any precinct is a pretty good bonus."
"There's such a thing as a predetermined counter. It's already set up before the election... by shaving the plastic wheel inside so that it slips ahead 100 or 200 or 300 votes. Any good mechanic can do it with a razor blade" He took us to his office and reached into his desk, bringing out one of the counter wheels in his big rough hands.
"This is a shaved predetermined counter," he said.
"Can we keep one?"
"Sure, take it."
Jim put the wheel in his pocket.
"Who works on these machines?"
"They're worked on by the mechanics for Wometco. They have vending machines and movie houses. They can make those suckers sing."
We shook hands with Frank and said goodbye. Ken walked outside whistling the tune to:
"Way down south in the land of cotton,
good times there are not forgotten...
Lookaway! Lookaway! Lookaway
Within a week the photograph of the shaved wheel on the counter was on the front page of the Planet.
Then Jim called Ellis Rubin, a Miami Beach lawyer whose tactic was to get as much publicity as possible for his clients and causes. Rubin was a tall, lanky, good looking guy in his mid thirties. He had run for Congress as a Republican and lost. We didn't know it at the time, but Rubin's campaign manager had been U.S. Attorney Robert Rust. We didn't know, either, that Rubin was thick as cold grits with the CIA and other intelligence-gathering outfits.
We told him the whole story, or as much as we could get into an hour or so. There was a charisma about Rubin, an intellectual intensity that we liked. He might be able to break the silence in the press because he had chutzpah, brains and the ear of a lot of reporters who liked his style.
He said he'd do what he could, pro bono, and we believed him. He was one of the few characters we encountered who was always as good as his word.
After that trip to Opa Locka, we figured there must be some documents out at the hangar that we didn't get to see. We had to go back. We decided that we as American citizens had the right to know everything involved with our so-called free and fair vote.
On a bright, sunny January morning we drove back to the Opa-Locka warehouse and parked in front of the door. As soon as we walked in we saw, about fifty feet ahead of us, a set of wooden steps going up to a loft suspended from the ceiling.
"What are you guys doing here?" It was Vickery.
"We want to check that loft over there," Jim said.
"I got a court order here that says you guys aren't allowed back in here." ;
He showed us a piece of paper signed by circuit court chief judge, Henry Balaban.
"You can tell Balaban what to do with his order," Ken said. Vickery headed for his office.
"He's probably going to call the cops."
We didn't waste any time. We sprinted up the steps and into the loft.
Before us were boxes and boxes of documents that obviously pertained to the 1970 elections.
"I can't believe it!" Jim breathed.
"Falling into shit."
"Where do we start?"
"Just look and grab."
We took as many papers as we thought were significant from different boxes with a millisecond or so to decide, and we stuffed them under our shirts, smoothing them down so they showed as little as possible. Then we headed out of the loft and back to the car.
But as we were coming down the ladder, we saw three men coming toward us, with the ex-supervisor of elections, Martin Braterman, leading the way. He was dressed in a black overcoat and broadbrimmed black fedora. His appearance in the garb of a traditional "bad guy" was almost surrealistic, given the precarious legal position we found ourselves in.
"What are you guys doing here?" he demanded. "This is County property. Get out or I'll have you arrested."
We didn't say a word. We brushed past him and his two associates and walked to the car as fast as we could, with as much dignity as we could muster. Ken theatrically burned rubber getting away.
Every mile we put between ourselves and the warehouse buoyed our spirits. Within a few minutes on the open road we were making plans to return to the loft.
Once more we spread out the contraband on Jim's pool table.
It was a smorgasbord of stuff.
1) IBM computer cards with the candidate's name typed on each and hand-written numbers on them.
2) What appeared to be crib sheets that had handwritten numbers that included a time of day, and then other numbers, also in pencil, in the same handwriting.
3) Mimeographed, stapled-together sheets that showed the handouts that were given to the press. It was a workup model, handprinted with a red pencil. On the front of it were the words: "Machine Totals Before Correction." (What did before correction mean? )
4) A press release from Leonard White, who ran the computer for the courthouse during the primary His job was to feed the actual votes over the telephone line, called the "A" line, to the Herald and the television stations. It said, "Misinformation" had been given out by the news media on September 8th about the courthouse computer's alleged breakdown. It said that due to careful programming the computer "was never slow and never down."
5) A letter to all precinct workers telling them that they had to be at a "schooling" session two weeks in advance of the election, and they all had to sign in and give their true signatures, otherwise they would not be paid.
Then there was a ream or so of other papers a little less outstanding but certainly fascinating.
"Man, I want to tell you, this is a hell of a haul," Jim said.
"We could have gotten this same stuff, of course, if we had followed the system," Ken said dryly.
"Okay," Jim took a deep breath, "let's see if it makes sense. Old Martin Braterman resigned. Now he turns up at the warehouse to protect this cache of documents."
"Right," Ken said, "and we now have documents that show there was a way to procure the true signatures from the precinct workers two weeks ahead of the election. Plus, the television stations lied about the computer at the courthouse breaking down and the press release is evidence of that."
"They just needed an excuse to go on the air with their projections. We know that a lot of numbers, handwritten before the election, turned out to be final totals after the election was official."
"Back to the FBI?"
We gave the FBI agents originals and copies of the evidence, including the press release, the computer cards, the workup sheets and the letter from Braterman asking for the signatures.
"Does this disappear into the void, too?" Jim asked.
"Yes," the agent smiled.
We sent much of the same material to Richard Gerstein, the State Attorney. He told us we had violated a court order to get the material and he refused to deal with it.
Jim called US. Attorney Rust.
"It's time for a meeting with the Justice Department in Washington."
Rust was his usual vague self.
"Goddamit, we deserve it," Jim's anger spilled over. "We've got the evidence and we want somebody to look at it."
Rust scheduled it for the end of March with Craig C. Donsanto, a Justice Department attorney.
Jim drove to Washington, while Ken stayed in Miami with his wife and daughter.
The afternoon of the meeting, Jim walked to the Justice Department on Pennsylvania Avenue and found his way to Donsanto's office. It wasn't a corner office, and it wasn't a cubicle either, but a middle of the corridor mid-sized office. Donsanto was in his late twenties and he had a melon-shaped head.
Jim told his story and handed him the shaved candidate counter and other significant documents in a manila envelope.
"I want an investigation," Jim told him.
"I'll look into it," Donsanto said. "Thanks for coming."
Jim pushed for a more specific deadline, but Donsanto refused to give it.
"These things take time," he said, smiling woodenly.
And that was that.
Back in Florida, we tried to pinpoint where we were.
We put together packets of "evidence" in manila envelopes and gave them to the local press. We saw Jack Anderson, the columnist, at the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbor. He took a packet and thanked us and we never heard from him again.
Katharine Graham was at a meeting at the University of Miami when Jim handed the packet to her She took it and didn't say a word.
And that was that.
In May, Jim drove back to Washington. He took a shot and went unannounced to Jack Anderson's red brick townhouse on Vermont Avenue, but Anderson refused to see him.
Then Jim walked through the glass doors into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office Building. He found the office of Larry O'Brien, the head of the DNC, and left a Votescam packet on his desk.*
* A few weeks later, on June 17, 1972, a second break-in by "plumbers" at the DNC resulted la their arrest for what Richard Nixon later called "a third-rate burglary." At this stage of the game, we hadn't the slightest inkling that what took place on June 17th could possibly relate to our investigation. Only Justice Department documents we found years later while rummaging through the system would suggest a connection between Watergate and Votescam.
The off-year primary election rolled around in September and we decided to watch it closely on television at Jim's house As happened two years earlier, Channel 10 wasn't broadcasting returns but instead was running a movie.
It was, in Yogi Berra's words, deja vu all over again, only there was an eerie feeling about it this time.
Not long after the polls closed. Channels 7 and 4 put their commentators on the air. After a little while the anchor people came on and announced that the courthouse computer had broken down and instead of official results, the station would broadcast projections.
"Who computed the program this time?" Ken asked.
"Let's find out."
The next day Jim called Channel 7 and asked the news director who programmed the computers.
"Eastern Airlines," he said.
The next call was to Eastern.
"I'd like to talk to the computer programmer who did the election," Jim told the operator.
"Oh, that's John," she said. She put Jim through.
John was not happy about talking on the telephone to a reporter and when Jim asked the first question, "What was the program you used to call it so close?" the man hung up.
At the Planet the editor, Buzz, called John, too.
He wrote in the next edition: "Every time I asked the guy a question, the phone fell out of his hands."
Judge Balaban's latest court order, denying us access to public records, was a definite setback. But it also proved to us that we were on the right track.
Public documents relating to elections were singled out by Florida statute as being open to the public "without exception." The only recourse was to get a circuit court hearing where we could attempt to get Judge Balaban to reverse himself.
That brought up the problem of whether or not to get a lawyer. We did have the option of petitioning the Court on our own, acting pro se, but we figured that we'd get whipped in court.
Finally it dawned on us that the only sure way to maneuver ourselves into court, without paying any lawyer or being beholden to a partisan organization, was to call upon the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU was the perfect way to fight Balaban for denying us unrestricted access to public voting records.
At the ACLU's next executive session in a big law firm's office with a lot of local lawyers around the table, we took turns telling how our constitutional rights had been violated by being kept away from public election documents, and we warned how the American vote was in danger.
"I'll take the case," offered Shya Estrumpsa, a dark, quiet man. He said that he felt he was on solid legal ground in fighting the restraining order, and that he couldn't imagine what the counter argument might be.
He planned to get Judge Balaban to lift his order in circuit court, and if that failed, to go into federal court for relief based on constitutional grounds.
"We've got a lawyer now, and it's certified that we aren't paying him," Ken said.
Our poetic limitation in Votescam was never to pay a lawyer. If you pay a lawyer, he's got to be your advocate, right or wrong. Just paying a lawyer doesn't make you right. If a lawyer takes your anti-Establishment case pro bono publico, he usually feels he's sticking his neck out but that he has a winnable case.
We also asked Ellis Rubin what he thought, but we didn't ask him to take the case. Rubin assured us that he would help ferret out the truth.
He thought we were doing something worthwhile and important, and we couldn't help liking him for that.
At a hearing a week later in Balaban's chambers, the ACLU lawyer did his best. But instead of allowing us to dig deeper in the warehouse, the judge simply impounded all the evidence and refused to lift his order.
We didn't want to bother with the long procedure of going through federal court to challenge Balaban's orders. Realizing that Balaban was not a man to be trusted, and that he kept a secret political agenda, we decided to take another tack. Jim left a message at Rubin's office that said: "We are going to ask Balaban to appoint you as Ombudsman for Vote Fraud in Dade County, and you can be the guardian for vote fraud evidence. Will you accept?"
Ken called Judge Balaban's office at the courthouse and through his secretary left a message: "Will you appoint Ellis Rubin ombudsman for vote fraud in Dade County?"
A few hours later, Balaban passed Rubin in the courthouse corridor and cryptically said:
"You got it," and strided on.
Rubin, totally puzzled, said to himself: "Got what?"
When he returned to his office, he was able to put it together. Rubin was now an ombudsman.
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