Florida congressman demands answers

Rep. Peter Deutsch wants to know if a GOP colleague broke the law by encouraging G.I.s to vote after the deadline.

Published July 20, 2001 11:31PM (EDT)

Since the New York Times printed its story on the selective counting of overseas Florida absentee ballots Sunday, much of the media and most congressional Democrats have reacted with a shrug. But a handful of House Democrats, including Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fla., are trying to keep the story alive.

On Monday, Deutsch filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee against Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who asked the Defense Department for the e-mail addresses of registered Florida military voters serving overseas whose ballots had been disqualified, according to the Times. The Associated Press reported that Michael Higgins, a Republican aide to the House Subcommittee on Armed Services Military Personnel, sent e-mails to 17 military voters telling them that their absentee ballots had been disqualified, and passed their contact information along to Rob Carter, finance director of the Florida GOP. Deutsch says that's conduct worthy of censure; Buyer says it's much ado about nothing.

The Ethics Committee has 14 days to respond to Deutsch's complaint. Deutsch spoke to Salon from the House floor in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon.

Why did you file the complaint against Rep. Buyer?

Obviously, the Times story raises some very serious issues, at several levels. At the one level, it is clear that official resources were used for a political purpose. It's clear that that occurred. That is a violation of federal statutes, and it's a serious issue. More significant or as significant is the violation of one of the things that I think has served American democracy for over 200 years -- the noninvolvement of the military in political affairs. This action not only got the Department of Defense directly involved in political things, but literally decided who was elected president of the United States.

What do you make of Rep. Buyer's remarks to the Associated Press that you are simply a partisan Democrat who "hasn't gotten over the fact that Gore lost the presidential run?"

I've read a couple stories and seen him quoted saying different things. Let me say that at this point, it's unclear whether he specifically violated any statute. What's clear is that federal statutes were violated. He ascertained information using his position as chairman of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee and that information made its way to Republican Party operatives in Florida. My understanding is that information was actually used literally to generate votes. Not just to contact people about how they feel, but literally to generate votes.

So what specifically is the nature of your complaint against Buyer?

The Times reporters spoke to people who said they voted after the election and their votes were counted. Under Florida law, the person who requests an absentee ballot is a [matter of] public record. Their names and addresses would be a [matter of] public record. The Times story indicated Congressman Buyer requested e-mail addresses and phone numbers of some of those people serving overseas from the Department of Defense. Not the ship's e-mail address, but personal e-mail addresses. These people had been contacted after the election, apparently, to ask them to vote or to send in their vote. It's clear under Florida law: If your ballot was postmarked after Nov. 7, it shouldn't have been counted. Period.

My hope is that the investigators on the committee can determine how information made its way from Congressman Buyer's office to the Florida Republican Party. What did occur was that the law was violated and that official resources were used for personal use. The question is, "Who violated the law?"

No one is denying that the information was used by the Republican Party of Florida. The issue is how it got from Congressman Buyer's office to the Republican Party of Florida. At some point I think we will know. Whoever violated federal statutes hopefully will be dealt with in the appropriate manner.

And this complaint was filed as a direct result of the Times story?

The Times story had new information, yes. Apparently in the book that was written ["Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency" by Salon's Jake Tapper] someone was aware that this had occurred. I was aware that the canvassing boards were counting illegal ballots at the time. Absolutely I was aware of that. The piece of information that I was not aware of was Congressman Buyer getting personal e-mail addresses. [Tapper's] allegations are more serious. His report indicates the people who were contacted were non-African-American Republicans. The Times says it interviewed people who voted after the ballots were counted. It would be useful to know who was contacted, how, and what was said.

Are you concerned that everything surrounding the Florida election has become too partisan, and that it might affect the integrity of the investigation?

The Ethics Committee is obligated to investigate, which I believe they're doing. If they're convinced that Congressman Buyer didn't send the information to the Republican Party or he did it in good faith, the ethics violation on his part did not exist. And I hope that is the case. But there are several areas of investigation. Clearly federal statutes were violated, and I think a U.S. attorney ought to be involved. Official resources were used for political purposes.

But I think the chairperson [Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo.] and ranking members have been very serious about this stuff. I think they will do an appropriate job. They don't have the resources of the entire FBI, but they have resources they can use. This is not a very complicated issue. You cannot use official resources for political purposes, period. How were they used and who allowed them to be used, that's really the issue. They have subpoena power to compel testimony. At some point, someone's going to be under oath answering questions about how they got this information.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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