Before he was famous as an economic analyst and an investment guru, Al Parish had a contract job working for the State Ports Authority. During that time, he came up with some numbers that helped the SPA justify a massive expansion in 2002. Parish reported that state ports had created 281,660 jobs in South Carolina, ergo, it was a good idea for taxpayers to fund the investment.
Charleston commodities trader Frank Heindel was instantly suspicious, in part because the Legislative Audit Council had studied the question and found that the state’s ports directly created a mere 5,326 jobs. When Heindel asked Parish to reveal the input and process for his analysis, the professor sent him an e-mail, which Heindel has kept and cherished: “I will be glad to provide you with copies of the survey questionnaire,” Parish wrote, “but once the data is collected, I shred the responses to ensure confidentiality; if that bothers people, too bad.”
The SPA expansion plans were eventually shelved, but Heindel still finds it mind-boggling that a state agency would attempt to justify a $1.2 billion expansion using numbers and processes which no one was allowed to review.
Why didn’t Heindel simply trust Parish and accept his numbers on faith? Well, a lot of people did just that recently, turning over more than $100 million for him to invest in his proprietary investment programs, which promised 30 percent returns. As the world now knows, the good professor has since pleaded guilty in state and federal courts to running a giant Ponzi scheme. He is awaiting sentencing.
Heindel finds some chilling similarities between Parish’s arrogant just-trust-me way of doing business and the attitude exhibited by the State Election Commission.
As South Carolina has followed the rest of the nation in the use of electronic voting machines, Heindel is concerned that hackers can tamper with these devices. Voting machine manufacturers say their machines are tamper-proof, yet they refuse to offer machines that will print a paper receipt to verify a voter’s choices. In other words, there is no way for citizens or candidates to verify what goes on in that electronic black box on Election Day. When critics complain that this is a recipe for disaster, the manufacturers take the Al Parish defense: Just trust us.
Heindel thinks the election commission has sided with the voting machine industry in this controversy. It certainly has done nothing to help the public peer into that black box that is the State Election Commission.
On Jan. 24, 2008, Heindel sent an e-mail to Chris Whitmire, public information officer for the election commission. Under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, he asked for a copy of all correspondence — including e-mails — between the commission and Election Systems & Software, maker of the state’s iVotronic voting machines, from Jan. 1 to Jan. 23, 2007.
On Feb. 1, 2008, Whitmire responded that the contract with ES&S “must be obtained from the Information Technology Management Office (ITMO) of the division of the Division of the State Chief Information Officer…”
Beyond the 20 cents per page copying fee, Whitmire informed Heindel that “Our provider estimates that it will take one person working three days at a cost of $109/hour” to retrieve the correspondence.
Four days later Heindel fired back: “Your proposal to charge me $2,616 … to retrieve and copy e-mails is simply outrageous … The public has a right to this sort of information at much more reasonable rates than you are proposing … Your attempt to overcharge a voter and taxpayer who wishes to understand more about the relationship between a private company who controls our voting machines and our elections commission creates even more doubt about South Carolina’s entire voting process.”
Whitmire must have felt the heat. He quickly recalculated the fee to $49.20 for retrieving and printing the requested e-mails, including the 20 cents per page for 21 pages.
Heindel responded, “I see no reason for you to convert your digital e-mail files to paper and charge me for the time and expense of doing so.
“Since we vote electronically and apparently have no need for paper receipts or ballots, I see no need to handle an FOIA request any differently.
“I will deduct the 20 cents per page copying expense from your proposed bill of $49.20 and will send you a check for $45…”
On Feb. 26, Whitmire e-mailed Heindel the requested e-mails and attachments with the message, “Your check for $45.00 has been received. Thank you.”
The e-mails offered Heindel no smoking gun, but they demonstrated the Election Commission’s antipathy to public scrutiny. Democracy is built on transparency and access to information, two commodities historically lacking in South Carolina. We can be thankful for people like Frank Heindel, who take the trouble to keep our government honest.