Sweeney and the Siege of Miami

Why isn’t Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., being held accountable for his alleged role in starting the Miami mayhem that may have cost Al Gore the election? In a Nov. 24 editorial page column in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Gigot (who was there) wrote that when the Miami-Dade canvassing board made its (admittedly unfair) decision to move its manual recount to a room that could not accommodate reporters, Rep. Sweeney, “a visiting GOP monitor, told an aide to ‘Shut it down,’ and semi-spontaneous combustion took over.” In their complaint contesting the Florida election, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman describe what happened this way:

Republican and other supporters of George Bush launched a campaign of personal attacks upon the Canvassing Board members and election personnel. … Some news reports described the protests as a “near riot.” The New York Times … reported on November 24, 2000: “One nonpartisan member of the board, David Leahy, the supervisor of elections, said after the vote [to halt the manual recount] that the protests were one factor that he had weighed in his decision.”

According to the Nov. 28 Washington Post, protesters chased one Democratic leader and shouted “thief, thief,” because they believed (mistakenly) that he was stealing a ballot. (It turned out to be a sample.) According to Time, that leader, whose name is Joe Geller, said he was “pushed by two dozen protesters screaming, ‘I’m gonna take you down!’ ” Time also reports that a Democratic observer named Luis Rosero said he was punched and kicked.

What happened in Miami may not have been a riot, but it was certainly an organized disturbance aimed at stopping the hand recount. It was successful, and, possibly, it was against the law. “A group of out-of-state, paid political operatives came to south Florida in an attempt to stop county-wide recounts,” Democratic Rep. Peter Deutsch told the New York Times today. “They crossed state lines and intimidated the counting in a federal election, which is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.” Actually, the part about crossing states lines appears to be superfluous. The law states:

No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote, or intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any person for urging or aiding any person to vote or attempt to vote. …

Which brings us back to Rep. Sweeney (who, remarkably, has himself used the word “thugs” to describe the Florida officials whose efforts he allegedly “shut down”). In the days since Gigot’s column appeared, hardly anybody seems to have asked Sweeney whether he said what Gigot claims he said. Chatterbox phoned Sweeney’s office yesterday (twice!) and was told no statement had been put out and that somebody would get back to him. No one did. Today, Chatterbox called back twice more and finally got through to Sweeney’s chief of staff, Brad Card (who happens to be the younger brother of Andrew Card, whom George W. Bush just named to be his White House chief of staff). “It wasn’t necessarily ‘shut it down,’ as I understand it,” Card said. He added that he wasn’t there, that he didn’t know which aide it was to whom Sweeney said whatever it was he said, and that whatever it was Sweeney said was aimed not at stopping the hand recount but merely at restoring the process to public view, in keeping with Florida’s sunshine laws. “I’m not convinced that the words were ‘shut it down,’ ” Card repeated.

Card said he’d try to get Sweeney to call Chatterbox, but Sweeney never called. Apparently, though, Sweeney got asked about the Gigot column today during an interview with an Albany radio station. Here’s what he said, according to the Associated Press:

What I essentially told my people is, “You’ve got to stop them.” Whether I said, “You’ve got to shut it down” or “stop them,” I frankly don’t quite recall.

Like Card, Sweeney said his intent was only to stop the canvassing board’s withdrawal from public view. (Have these guys been scrutinizing the text of the Voting Rights Act, too?) Sweeney called his actions “completely and absolutely legitimate.”