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Ferrer Adviser Is Being Paid to Lobby NY Legislature Against Paper Ballots

by Michael Slackman, The New York Times
March 10th, 2005

The chief political adviser for Fernando Ferrer accepted a $120,000-a-year contract last month to lobby state lawmakers to block passage of legislation in New York that would require voters to use paper ballots.

Roberto Ramirez, a longtime adviser and aide to Mr. Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, is a partner in a company, Mirram Global, that is being paid $10,000 a month by VoteHere Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., in part, to "prevent a new law that requires paper ballots," according to a contract on file with the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying.

Mr. Ramirez has tried to neutralize any conflict between his role as a lobbyist for various special interests and his job as a political consultant by saying that if Mr. Ferrer is elected mayor, he will not lobby City Hall, the mayor or any city agencies.

And while the type of ballots to use is before the State Legislature and not city government, the discussions will put Mr. Ferrer's chief adviser in the middle of two highly charged political issues.

In New York City, there has been a lot of discussion about whether the city's Conflicts of Interest Board should prohibit political consultants from lobbying the officials they help elect. While that practice is not new, it has become more common in New York recently, and Mr. Ramirez's company, a partnership with the political polling concern Global Strategies, is among those at the forefront of that trend.

At the same time, lawmakers in Albany are working to come up with legislation that will allow the state to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was intended to help overhaul the nation's election system in the aftermath of the 2000 election debacle.

Businesses, like the company Mr. Ramirez is representing, are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to push the State Legislature to allow for computer-based touch-screen voting machines. Other groups, like the League of Women Voters of New York State, have called for using optical scanners, which would require voters to first fill out a paper ballot, a system that would be less lucrative for the manufacturers of these products.

In his contract with VoteHere, Mr. Ramirez is called on to help persuade state lawmakers to push for legislation "requiring or permitting receipt-based verification," which would allow for voting machines that operate like a bank A.T.M., providing a receipt after a transaction.

Mr. Ferrer's spokesman, Chad Clanton, said yesterday that Mr. Ferrer wanted to see "paper backup on every vote cast on electronic voting machines," though he did not say whether that meant a ballot or a receipt.

Mr. Ramirez's aides say that his private business dealings should not reflect on Mr. Ferrer's campaign and that this case, in particular, should not be linked to Mr. Ferrer because it involves lobbying state government.

"We work with clients who share our values and our principles and we are very proud to work with VoteHere," said Jen Bluestein, a vice president and spokeswoman for Mirram Global.

Mr. Ferrer and Mr. Ramirez together have a stake in the integrity of the state's voting system. In 2001, both made an issue of that system, with Mr. Ferrer refusing to endorse Mark Green, who defeated Mr. Ferrer in a run-off primary, until issues concerning ballot counts were resolved.

In this case, state lawmakers are being asked to choose between two types of voting machines. While there is no consensus in Albany about which one is better, many groups say that election officials should at least have the choice to use optical scanners, which provide a guaranteed paper trail that would permit manual recounts.

VoteHere is a small start-up company that produces audit software that it says would assure the accuracy of electronic voting without paper ballots and would be as safe as electronic banking.

Government-watchdog groups and New York City ethics officials have said that there is the potential for a conflict of interest whenever a political consultant begins working as a lobbyist. They say the potential conflict can cut two ways: It can give special interests the chance to buy special access to politicians by hiring their politician consultants. But it also raises the prospect that political clients are getting advice that first and foremost serves their consultant's lobbying clients.

"This is the problem of modern-day American politics," said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, who has monitored state government activities for decades. "Lobbyists, campaign fund-raisers and campaign managers are often all the same people - and it creates an obvious conflict of interest."

Mr. Ferrer is not the only candidate for mayor whose political advisers have also worked as lobbyists. The speaker of the City Council, Gifford Miller, who also is running for mayor, has paid the Parkside Group for political work - even while it was lobbying him directly.

"Mr. Ferrer has made policy decisions independently throughout his career," Mr. Clanton said. "There are no exceptions. That goes for Mr. Ramirez or anyone else."

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