(TNS) — A public corruption scandal in a rural Florida elections office just an hour west of the state capital reveals how easily federal dollars meant for election security can be diverted to cover up malfeasance, a government watchdog says.
The former elections supervisor in the panhandle's Liberty County is charged with using election security funds to hide $42,000 in personal spending sprees — a potential accountability problem in any small office where one person holds the purse strings and nobody else is watching, observers said. The case's first hearing is Monday.
The lack of oversight was exacerbated by a state-mandated nondisclosure agreement supervisors had to sign to get the election security money in the first place, they said.
"Especially when funds are meant to be used for a certain purpose, there needs to be transparency to let the public know the funds were used for the purpose given," said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonprofit government watchdog. The alleged cover-up of misspent funds in Liberty County occurred around the same time Florida's elections officials were required to sign a confidentiality pact to obtain their share of $15.4 million in federal Help America Vote Act grants, money Congress approved for enhancing election security in advance of the 2018 mid-terms.
The far-reaching pacts, revealed in February in a USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida investigation, included a nondisclosure agreement that public records experts called bizarre and unenforceable and threatened to make a casualty out of transparency in the Sunshine State.
"In this case, it's public corruption," Wilcox said. "Essentially, the only protection we have against that kind of corruption is transparency and how public officials are using public funds. The fact that she wasn't caught until an audit was done on her elections office tells me there might have to be routine audits of election supervisors."
Election Security Spending 'Should be Made Public'
Congress approved $385 million in 2018 to distribute to states to help enhance election security after the Mueller report found evidence of Russian hacking.
One grant was for elections offices to join the nationwide Albert Network Monitoring System, which provides security alerts for traditional and advanced network threats.
Another grant came through the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for elections officials to buy equipment and software to enhance election security at the local level.
Liberty County received $12,556 to join the nationwide Albert Network Monitoring System, and it received $55,386 in HAVA funds for enhanced election security measures for the 2018 general election.
Florida's county elections supervisors had to sign a confidentiality agreement to receive the grant money. The reason given was that elections systems are considered part of the national security network and too much information would help hackers identify ways to breach the system again.
Through public records requests, USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida asked the 67 supervisors for an accounting of how they spent that money. About a third of the supervisors, including Liberty's, failed to reply or refused to comply, citing state and federal exemptions to public records laws.
Nondisclosure agreements "create opportunities for what happened there in Liberty County, for people to use money other than for what it was intended and cover it up," Wilcox said.
Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said her organization supports transparency when it comes to how money is spent on election security.
"How that money is being used should be made public," Brigham said. "All registered voters participating in the voting process have the right to know how the money appropriated for election security or for putting on elections is being spent."
Elections Grants Were 'Borrowed'
With fewer than 9,000 people, Liberty County has the smallest population in Florida. It's a blue dog Democratic county that tends to vote Republican — 76% voted for Trump in 2016. Its elections office has three full-time staffers to run balloting for its 4,500 registered voters.
Until May, the elections office was run by Gina McDowell, 46, who was first elected supervisor in 2012 after working in the office for most of her adult life.
An independent audit in 2019 found she had used $67,000 in federal election security money to cover up a $25,000 spending deficit caused by her and her boyfriends' use of office funds for personal expenses.
"These grant funds were effectively 'borrowed' to cover normal operating expenditures. The grant funds were ultimately used for allowable purposes after year end," the Tallahassee CPA firm of Moran & Smith said in the mandatory state audit.
That and other spending irregularities were shared with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which in turn conducted an investigation that led to the state filing felony fraud charges against McDowell and her boyfriend, Nolan Kobe Pigott.
Their investigation uncovered $42,000 in what looked like personal expenditures throughout Alabama, Georgia and Florida's Big Bend over a four-year period. The money was spent on things like shampoo, razor blades, gift credit cards, cell phones, gift cards, Christmas gifts and two vacations to northern Georgia.
The investigation also found expenses connected to visits to Pigott while he was incarcerated at the Wakulla County Jail in 2017. In interviews with the FDLE, McDowell blamed Pigott for much of the alleged fraud.
"That was not me," she said when questioned about some of the personal expenses. "That had to be him."
If it weren't for the sharp eye of an independent auditor, who shared his findings with FDLE, the discovery of misspent federal elections funds wouldn't be public knowledge.
Acting on a tip from former Deputy Supervisor Mary Strickland in October 2018, shortly before she was fired by McDowell, CPA Chris Moran discovered a huge increase in the amount paid to the supervisor's Capital One credit card — $33,000 in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018.
That practice continued into the 2019 budget cycle, resulting in another $30,000 in questionable expenses.
After reviewing the monthly credit card statements, the auditors concluded that "the majority of the charges could not be supported as necessary to the operations of the office."
Based on his preliminary examination, the auditor concluded the charges were for personal use. The supervisor paid credit card bills with "office funds and was unable to produce the documentation to support the business purpose served," the audit report said.
Other abnormal expenses based on the office history included $5,500 in payments to McDowell for travel without supporting documentation and $7,056 to McDowell's own Discover Card.
FDLE investigators confirmed that McDowell had sole control of the office credit card, maintained the QuickBooks ledger and approved all payments by the Liberty County Supervisor of Elections office.
The investigation found that the ledgers McDowell submitted to the FDLE were different than those originally examined by the auditor. The changes show how she altered the ledgers to cover up the personal expenditures by claiming they were for election security.
For example, several items charged to her Discover card that were originally classified as office supplies were changed in the FDLE-handed ledgers to read "cyber security" and "election supplies." McDowell said the payments to Discover were a mistake caused by a cellphone banking app, an excuse debunked by the investigators.
Likewise, ledgers for fiscal 2018-19 showed payments to the Capital One card "falsely categorized" as either "contractual services," "election supplies" or "VR Systems."
VR Systems is a Tallahassee-based company responsible for the state's online voter registration system as well as electronic polling books, software and training for all 67 Florida counties.
According to the Help America Vote Act financial status report submitted to the Department of State in December 2018, Liberty County spent $55,125 of its federal allotment on election security, leaving about $260 unspent.
The grant money came in around August, a month before the close of the 2018 fiscal year, and was spent at the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year, the audit showed.
The status report, signed by McDowell on December 18, 2018, shows the county spent $3,855 on VR Systems' Direct Print Ballot On Demand license fee, $7,950 on VR Systems direct print computers and $15,360 on EVID electronic poll books by VR Systems.
It took staff about two weeks to track down all the items on the status report, said Grant Conyers, the Bristol businessman appointed to replace McDowell after she was suspended in May by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
But Conyers has yet to produce invoices, receipts or other proof of purchase as requested by USA TODAY NETWORK - Florida: "All of the items have been accounted for and are present in our office inventory," said Conyers, who declined an interview request.
©2020 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.