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Ethics panel to scrutinize Md. lobbyist

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. asked the State Ethics Commission yesterday to examine the relationships of a well-known Annapolis lobbyist after learning that he represents competing interests in the debate over whether Maryland should buy costly new touch-screen voting machines.

Top Ehrlich aides said they did not learn until this week that Gilbert J. Genn, who was registered to lobby on behalf of Diebold Election Systems, the manufacturer of the electronic voting machines, was also authorized to represent Science Applications International Corp., hired by Ehrlich to determine whether the voting system is secure enough to use.

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"We did not know about his representation of both clients," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor. "We wish that that had been disclosed."

The ethics commission, Fawell said, could help resolve questions about whether Genn's dual roles constitute a conflict of interest that may have compromised the independence of the consultant's review, portions of which were released for the first time this week.

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"We volunteered this information to the state ethics commission today [Friday] so they can begin to answer those questions," Fawell said.

The examination by California-based SAIC revealed serious security flaws in Maryland's voting system, but state officials determined the problems could be fixed before the March primary election and decided to proceed with the purchase and installation of $55.6 million worth of Diebold touch-screen technology.

Genn and representatives of the two companies said they did not believe the relationships - publicly available through filings with the ethics commission - posed a problem.

Although Genn is registered on behalf of the consulting company, he has not received money from them since 2000, when he worked on an unrelated matter, they note.

Genn, a former Democratic delegate from Montgomery County, said all of his recent work on the voting-machine issue has been on behalf of Diebold, which paid him $67,182 in the past year, making the company his top client, records show. Genn earned $213,000 overall from lobbying activities during this year's legislative session.

"There was no conflict because there was nothing being done" for SAIC, Genn said.

Genn collected $69,000 in 1999 and 2000 from the consulting company for work on a proposal to allow private companies to conduct cancer research paid with tobacco company settlement funds. He does not appear to have done work for the outfit since then, although he has continued to list it as a client annually.

State ethics laws, passed in the wake of lobbying scandals, prohibit a lobbyist "while engaging in lobbying activities on behalf of an entity, knowingly conceal[ing] from an official or employee, the identity of the entity."

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The law also says that lobbyists cannot knowingly make false statements of "material fact relating to lobbying activity that the regulated lobbyist knows to be false."

Suzanne S. Fox, executive director of the ethics commission, would not comment yesterday on Genn's case. But speaking generally, Fox said that conflicts among clients of lobbyists occur regularly, and it is the responsibility of lobbyists to make clear for whom they are advocating in dealings with state officials.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said he uncovered Genn's connections when researching Diebold and SAIC weeks ago. Browning said he's troubled by the appearance of connections between the companies, but that their significance is "not clear-cut."

The research also revealed that Diebold and SAIC are members of the Information Technology Association of America's Information Security Committee, which according to a recent article in the Akron Beacon Journal has begun an effort to improve the public image of electronic voting.

He also learned that Bill Owens, a former SAIC president, sits on the board of VoteHere Inc., a company that competes with Diebold in the electronic-voting market.

"There are not many degrees of separation between these voting machine companies," Browning said. "There can be no virgin birth here. Only insiders will know how the software works."

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The Diebold machines have been under scrutiny since a July study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins and Rice universities that examined the computer code underlying the voting machines and found security flaws that make them vulnerable to hackers who could disrupt election results.

Ehrlich asked for the consultant's examination in the wake of the Hopkins study. The SAIC review was conducted under an existing contract the firm had recently secured with Maryland, which Genn said he was not involved in obtaining, even though he was the company's registered lobbyist at the time.

Steven D. Rizzi, a corporate vice president with SAIC, called Genn's earlier cancer-related work for the company and the voting study "absolutely independent events."

"SAIC sees no real or perceived conflict of interest on our part, nor do we see a perceived conflict of interest for the lobbyist in this case," Rizzi said. Rizzi said the lobbyist never told him he was representing Diebold, but didn't need to because "we were not seeking his services."

Mark Radke, head of voting for Diebold, said Genn told several people in the company about his work for SAIC, and that Diebold also determined there was no conflict.

Still, Browning of Common Cause has concerns about the results of the study, particularly because three-quarters of it was taken out by the state, which pointed to security reasons.

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"I'm more concerned about the material not released in the SAIC report," he said. "The report looks like one of those old Mad Libs - insert your word here. Either we should get the information or the reasons why it was withheld."

State officials say they withheld the information to avoid providing a "road map" for hackers to disrupt election results.


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