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Thursday December 7 415 AM ET

Florida Official Admits Helping GOP

By VICKIE CHACHERE, Associated Press Writer




TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - One attorney charged there was a ``sinister'' conspiracy to aide George W. Bush. A former CIA agent said he was just trying to help GOP voters. A county elections official said she let Republican operatives correct absentee ballot applications.

Two trials that could affect tens of thousands of presidential votes played out just blocks from where Florida's highest court was set to hear legal arguments Thursday in the contested presidential election.

In Leon County Circuit Court, attorneys representing voters who alleged Republicans tampered with absentee ballot application forms asked judges to throw out as many as 25,000 absentee ballots from Seminole and Martin counties.

At issue in both cases is whether mistakes on absentee ballot request forms sent out by the Florida Republican Party in the waning days of the election were illegally corrected by state GOP officials when the mistakes were discovered.

``It was a sinister underground conspiracy'' to help Bush, said Edward Stafman, attorney for the Martin County challengers.

But Republican activists testified they did nothing wrong, saying they just were trying to correct mistakes their party made on the forms.

Attorneys for the counties and the Republicans are pleading with the judges to not throw out absentee votes. They argue that voters had no control over what was done and shouldn't be disenfranchised.

In the Seminole County case, Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark was to hear closing arguments Thursday afternoon. In Martin County, Judge Terry Lewis took nearly four hours of testimony Wednesday before recessing and asking attorneys to resume the trial at 8 a.m. Thursday.

The Seminole and Martin county trials were held back-to-back in the same courtroom. Testimony in the Seminole case finished after 13 hours Wednesday, then the Martin case began.

Bush won the absentee balloting by 4,797 votes in Seminole and by 2,815 votes in Martin, so throwing them out could place his 537-vote certified statewide lead in jeopardy.

Voter ID numbers were left off many applications through computer errors in Seminole County and incorrect numbers were placed on the forms in Martin County. Florida law says ballot applications may not be mailed out without the correct identification numbers.

In the Seminole County case, elections supervisor Sandra Goard admitted she allowed Republican officials to fill in the numbers and said it was the first time she had done so. Democrats did not ask for the same accommodation, she said.

Goard also testified that Florida law did not give her the authority to allow party officials to fill in the numbers. But she said she allowed GOP official Michael Leach and a second man she has been unable to identify to fill in the numbers at the party's request. Democratic Party state chairman Bob Poe later called to protest her actions, but Poe did not request the same opportunity to correct applications for Democrats, she said.

Goard did not appear in court Wednesday. Her previous deposition testimony was read aloud instead.

In the Martin County case, county GOP official Tom Hauck was asked on the stand whether he would acknowledge ``walking out of the office'' of Republican elections supervisor Peggy Robbins ``with a stack of applications for absentee ballots.''

``On one occasion, that's right,'' Hauck replied, adding that he took the ballots to county Republican headquarters to fill in the numbers.

Charles Kane, who testified he worked for the FBI and retired from the CIA in 1975, said nothing secretive nor sinister occurred.

``We had an obligation to them,'' he said of Republicans who had received the inaccurate ballot document. ``We had filled out their forms. We did not see this as altering. All we saw this as was correcting a problem caused by the Republican Party of Florida.''

Todd Schnick, the state Republican party's political director, testified that he did not remember key elements of the ballot form glitches, which occurred in the last weeks of the presidential campaign.

In the Seminole County case, Democratic activist Harry Jacobs filed the challenge. Defense attorneys said Jacobs had raised $50,000 for Democrat Al Gore (news - web sites)'s campaign and provided other assistance.

Gore is not a party in either lawsuit.

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