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Published: Tuesday, 7/19/2005

Elections chief punished for taking check

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - The Franklin County Board of Elections yesterday docked its executive director a month's pay for accepting a $10,000 check in his office last year from a Diebold Inc. consultant seeking county business.

Matt Damschroder accepted the check on behalf of the county Republican Party.

He came forward after a Diebold competitor, Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software, sought to depose him as part of a lawsuit alleging special treatment for Diebold on the part of Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell.

Mr. Blackwell plans to seek the GOP nomination for governor in 2006.

His office denied any connection between campaign contributions and his decisions affecting Diebold.

Diebold's device has the only computerized touch-screen machine so far to win state certification for its paper-receipt backup system.

Such a system was mandated last year by the Ohio General Assembly.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien had suggested that Mr. Damschroder be fired. He would not confirm yesterday that an investigation was under way.

According to Mr. Damschroder, political consultant Pasquale "Pat" Gallina, who works for consultants Celebrezze & Associates, walked uninvited into his office in January, 2004, on the day the board was considering a contract for voter-registration software. He offered to make out a check to him on the spot.

Mr. Damschroder said he instead accepted a "voluntary" contribution to the county GOP. A former executive director for the party, Mr. Damschroder accepted the check even though the law prohibits using government property for political business.

"I don't believe I committed a crime," he said. "I think I did something that would best be described as a lapse of judgment and clearly in the gray area ... The biggest thing I wish I had done was throw the guy out on that day he came in and certainly not have taken physical receipt of the contribution."

Mr. Damschroder did not recommend Diebold that day, and Diebold didn't win the software contract. The board has yet to pick a vendor for new voting machines financed with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act.

The county has joined the ES&S lawsuit, which seeks to break Diebold's monopoly on touch-screen machines available to counties.

Celebrezze & Associates is on a monthly retainer for Diebold.

"Any contribution he made was on behalf of Celebrezze & Associates and of his own volition," said Diebold spokesman Mike Jacobsen. "Diebold had no knowledge of any such contribution.

"Diebold does not condone any political contributions made on its behalf, implied or otherwise," he said. "In particular, our company's ethics policy restricts political contributions since June, 2004."

That policy was, in part, a reaction to a letter authored by Walden O'Dell, chief executive officer of Diebold, Inc., of North Canton, Ohio. In the letter, Mr. O'Dell promised to help deliver Ohio to President George Bush, triggering a firestorm during the presidential election campaign.

The Lucas County Board of Elections has selected Diebold to supply its touch-screen machines. A review of filings with the county elections bureau by the county Republican and Democratic parties revealed no contributions from Mr. Gallina.

In a phone conversation that took place a year after the contribution to the party, Mr. Damschroder said Mr. Gallina bragged that he had given $50,000 to Blackwell interests and worked with Blackwell campaign adviser Norm Cummings to position Diebold for state business.

"I have never asked, accepted, received, or was offered any money [from Mr. Gallina], period," Mr. Cummings said.

Mr. Gallina, of Reynoldsburg, could not be reached for comment, but he told the Associated Press there was no $50,000 contribution for Mr. Blackwell and that the $10,000 to the county party was his own money.

Mr. Gallina has given a total of $8,000 to Mr. Blackwell's campaigns since 1998, according to records filed with the secretary of state. Also in January, 2004, he gave $10,000 to Citizens for Tax Reform, a Blackwell-backed group that unsuccessfully sought to force repeal of a temporary penny-on-the-dollar sales-tax surcharge enacted in 2003.

Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said Mr. Blackwell made several decisions adverse to Diebold, negotiating contracts at first with four manufacturers of touch-screen and optical-scan voting machines to give counties a menu from which to choose.

Later, after lawmakers enacted the requirement for the voter-verified paper audit trail, Mr. Blackwell took all touch-screen devices, including Diebold's, off the table because none had been certified as meeting the new mandate.

Mr. Blackwell later reversed position when Diebold's receipt-equipped machine won federal and state approval.

"It wasn't the secretary of state who forwarded the VVPAT requirement," Mr. LoParo said. "It wasn't the secretary of state who prevented vendors from meeting that requirement. From the beginning, this process has been transparent and fair."

Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) yesterday urged U.S. Attorney Gregory White to investigate Mr. Blackwell's dealing with Diebold.

"We need to get to the bottom of this," she said. "I don't care if it was $50,000 or $5, you're not supposed to be able to buy influence in America."

Mr. Damschroder said the loss of 30 days' pay will cost him $11,220. William Anthony, Jr., chairman of the Franklin County elections board and that county's Democratic Party, said the board believes there was no criminal intent on Mr. Damschroder's part.

As for Mr. Gallina, Mr. Anthony said, "If somebody gives you a check for $10,000, I guess they would want something."

Blade Staff Writer Erica Blake contributed to this article.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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