Collins said the official in her office in charge of disposing of public records wasn’t able to easily distinguish between a state and federal election. “The Secretary of State’s office will continue to ensure that every Supervisor of Elections understands and follows the law.
MIAMI – The elections supervisor in Florida’s second-most populous county broke state and federal law by unlawfully destroying ballots cast in Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz‘s 2016 Democratic primary, a judge ruled Friday in a case brought by the congresswoman’s challenger who wanted to check for voting irregularities.
In light of the ruling, Gov. Rick Scott’s administration – which has expressed concerns with how Broward County Election Supervisor Brenda Snipes has handled the case – told POLITICO that he’s reviewing the judge’s order and will have her office monitored.
“During the upcoming election, the Department of State will send a Florida elections expert from the Division of Elections to Supervisor Snipes’ office to ensure that all laws are followed so the citizens of Broward County can have the efficient, properly run election they deserve,” Scott’s office said in a written statement.
Snipes and her lawyer, Burnadette Norris-Weeks, did not return an email from POLITICO for comment, though a consultant working on the office’s behalf confirmed its receipt. Snipes’ predecessor was removed from office by former Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Senate for botching the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Tim Canova, a Nova Southeastern University law professor who ran against Wasserman Schultz in 2016 and is challenging her again this year as an independent, said Scott should suspend Snipes for destroying the paper ballots while his lawsuit is was ongoing. Snipes has said it was a mistake and has noted her office made copies of the ballots.
But federal election law and state public records laws clearly show the paper ballots should have been preserved by the office.
“The governor has the power to dismiss Snipes from office for malfeasance and misfeasance,” Canova said. “The judge also pointed to the supervisor’s bad faith for continuing to litigate for months after admitting she destroyed the ballots, which will certainly run up the cost to taxpayers.”
Estimated attorney’s fees for Canova’s lawyer: More than $200,000 for more than a year of litigation.
In recent years, Snipes has faced a handful of controversies and lawsuits, one of which she recently won, over her handling of elections and voter information. A bipartisan group of election law experts told POLITICO last year that Snipes broke the law in destroying the ballots during the court case, but she kept fighting Canova in court.
The controversy unfolds as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has warned Florida election supervisors of the threat of hackers who could at least attack voter registration systems and undermine confidence in elections in the nation’s biggest swing state. With nearly 1.2 million registered voters, heavily Democratic Broward County is second only to Miami-Dade County in population.
Canova has expressed concerns about elections integrity as well.
After Canova lost his Aug. 30, 2016 primary to Wasserman Schultz, Canova began voicing doubts when documentary filmmaker Lulu Friesdat posted a blog item calling the results of the primary race between Canova and Wasserman Schultz “improbable,” prompting the congresswoman to later accuse Canova of trafficking in conspiracy theories.
Wasserman Schultz’s office said it had nothing to do with the decision by Snipes’ office to destroy the ballots.
But Snipes’ lawyer, Norris-Weeks, insisted in one hearing that she “certainly could get [a sworn statement] from Debbie Wasserman Schultz” to say that “she knows that they’re preparing a documentary, and they’re running all around talking to different people trying to do that.”
Canova has denied the accusation but noted that it suggests communication between the two offices.
In March of 2017, Friesdat, acting as Canova’s “agent," made a public records request to inspect the ballots in the 2016 primary, according to the court ruling. At one point, Snipes’ office wanted to charge $71,868.87 to sort and produce the ballots for inspection, according to documents filed in the case. In June of 2017, Canova sued.
As the suit dragged on, Snipes signed a Sept. 1 document to destroy the ballots – without informing either Canova or the court. The document she signed specifies that there should be no pending litigation.
“Nonetheless,” the following month, Snipes filed an answer to one of Canova’s motions and then “the destruction of the original paper ballots was not revealed until November 6, 2017," Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal said in his ruling.
That wasn’t the only problem.
Under longstanding federal law, ballots cast in a federal race aren’t supposed to be destroyed until 22 months after the election. And under state law, a public record sought in a court case is not supposed to be destroyed without a judge’s order. Also, state law says public records can’t be “for a period of 30 days after the date on which a written request … was served.”
Snipes’ office, however, contended that it made high-quality digital copies of the ballots, so the records weren’t completely destroyed.
The judge wasn’t persuaded.
“This Court finds the Defendant’s violation is two-fold: (1) violation of state and federal retention requirements and (2) violation of the affirmative responsibility to preserve evidence,” Singhal wrote. "This Court finds such premature destruction of the records unlawful and in violation of the Public Records Act."
Snipes argued in court that Canova made unreasonable requests and believed she “has broad discretion in determining if a records request is reasonable,” according to the suit. But Singhal said her argument was “contrary to the statutory requirements and plain and ordinary meaning of the Public Records Act.”
“Defendant’s lack of intent to destroy evidence while this case was pending is irrelevant,” the judge noted.
Canova’s attorney, Leonard Collins, said Snipes’ intent in destroying the paper ballots would be a factor in determining criminal sanctions. He said the state attorney should investigate.
“We can’t bring the ballots back. But there are consequences to violating the law,” Collins said. “There are provisions in the law that: A) allow for criminal penalties for doing something like this and B) allow Gov. Rick Scott to suspend a records custodian for this. And we have a supervisor of elections in Broward who has shown complete malfeasance in terms of her ability to function and run and operate an office.”
Collins said the official in her office in charge of disposing of public records wasn’t able to easily distinguish between a state and federal election. That’s a problem because ballots cast in state elections can be destroyed 10 months earlier than ballots cast in federal elections. The man is paid $87,000 yearly, Collins said.
Scott’s office said he needs to know more about the case.
“We will review the order,” spokesman Jonathan Tupps said in a written statement. “The Secretary of State’s office will continue to ensure that every Supervisor of Elections understands and follows the law.”
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