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Vote controversy turns to computer records

On a cultural mission a continent away, Secretary of State Katherine Harris on Monday was yanked into the post-election controversy that lingers months after George W. Bush won the presidency.

Harris said she acted "fairly, consistently and evenhandedly" in sorting out Florida's election recount last fall.

Democrats want an investigation of whether Harris' office erased material from state computers, as the New York Times suggested Sunday. Harris insisted no public records were erased, and her top attorney, Debby Kearney, said reporters would not be allowed to view computer hard drives because such access is not "contemplated" by state law.

Harris issued a statement from Buenos Aires, where she is on a weeklong international trade trip with Gov. Jeb Bush, state officials and business leaders. She said a six-month investigation of the Florida vote by the New York Times "has broken no new ground."

"I administered Florida's election laws fairly, consistently and evenhandedly throughout the election controversy," Harris' statement said. "The proof of this fact is in the New York Times article itself, which quotes both the Bush and Gore camps as having complained about the law I cited in my public statements."

The article said 680 questionable absentee ballots were counted, even though they did not comply with state election laws. Most of those ballots were accepted in counties carried by George W. Bush, who won Florida and the presidency by 537 votes.

As the chief state elections officer, Harris advises county election supervisors and interprets the sometimes fuzzy clauses in the state elections code. The newspaper reported that two computers in a conference room outside Harris' office were used to draft Harris' Nov. 13 statement in which she said overseas ballots must be "executed" by Election Day.

State administrative rules state that overseas ballots must be "postmarked or signed and dated" by Election Day and received within 10 days of the election. Some Democrats groused that Harris' use of the word "executed" seemed designed to confuse election supervisors and allow as many overseas ballots as possible to be counted.

Harris said a Democrat, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, also sought a broader definition of overseas votes. She dusted off Butterworth's memo of Nov. 20, in which he urged canvassing boards to "revisit" the issue of whether some overseas ballots may have been cast aside solely because they lacked a postmark.

Kearney, Harris' attorney, confirmed that a New York Times reporter was denied access to the computers' hard drives, and she denied a similar request Monday from the St. Petersburg Times, saying hard drives contain personal e-mail that is not public record.

"I would say no. It's not a public record. It's not appropriate for that to occur," said Kearney, who added that all public information from the computers in question has been copied to disks or on paper and released to newspapers requesting it.

Before denying the New York Times access to the hard drive, Kearney said, she consulted Pat Gleason, general counsel to Butterworth and an expert on Florida's public records law.

Kearney said Gleason initially had said that any material in a state-owned computer is public record. But about the same time, Kearney said a circuit judge in Pinellas County ruled in a case brought by the St. Petersburg Times that personal e-mail between public employees, even on government-owned computers, is not public record.

In another development Monday, Florida Democrats asked Gov. Bush to order a criminal investigation of Harris. Democratic Chairman Bob Poe sent Bush a letter citing the article, saying "Harris' attorneys have acknowledged the destruction of public records, which is a likely violation of the state's Sunshine Laws."

Responding for Gov. Bush, Communications Director Katie Baur said: "It's always painful to lose an election, but everyone, excluding the national media and diehard liberals, is anxious to move on."

Also on Monday, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fort Lauderdale, filed an ethics complaint against U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind.

The New York Times reported that Buyer, chairman at the time of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, had asked for phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Florida military personnel living abroad whose votes had been disqualified. That information was in turn relayed to Republican Party officials in Florida.

Buyer said he contacted the Pentagon to get the names of 15 soldiers whose ballots had not been counted. He said congressional staffers wanted to contact them to find out what might have led to the disqualification of their ballots.

"At no time did I provide any voter contact information to anyone, nor direct anyone or have knowledge of anyone providing such material to any outside group, period," Buyer said.

_ Times staff writer John Balz contributed to this report.