Issues of oversight: John Gardner returned to the county with baggage, and now questions about his honesty arise
September 25, 2008
by Anthony Lane
COLORADO STATE INDEPENDENT
Like the electronic voting machines he programs for El Paso County, John Gardner gives the impression of dependability. Clean-cut with a receding hairline, he sounds confident and authoritative answering questions through most of a 40-minute interview with the Independent.
Programming the county's touch-screen machines is simple, he suggests, and he sounds like he's reading a manual as he explains: "There's a graphic interface that we use to input the candidates, races, districts, precincts, all the combinations that come out of that."
He seems surprised when he's asked to translate "graphic interface."
"Microsoft Word is a graphic interface for data processing," he continues, speaking in the same unwavering voice.
Yes, Gardner seems dialed in with answers about technical subjects.
He's less forthcoming about his background. He declines, first off, to give his age.
"Whatever's in my personnel file," he says.
The portion of Gardner's personnel file released to the Independent does not give that information. What it does show, however, is that when Gardner applied for the job of information systems manager in June, he wrote on his application that he had studied architecture for four years at Montana State University without getting a degree.
That differs from what he wrote on his application in 2001, when he was hired for his first stint as information systems manager for the clerk and recorder's office. On that application, he claimed a bachelor's degree in architecture from Montana State after six years of study, though he didn't give a graduation date.
It also differs from application materials he submitted to the Colorado secretary of state's office in 2005, when he applied for the voting-machine testing job that ended up taking him away from the county. In those, his résumé said he graduated in 1992, and his official state application — which carries a warning that giving false information is a criminal offense — gave the date as 1993.
At the secretary of state's office, Gardner quickly became head of the program for testing voting machines. His performance drew heavy criticism from voting activists, and he wound up playing a central role in a 2006 lawsuit about flaws with the testing system.
At that point, Gardner said in sworn testimony that he graduated in 1994.
Gardner didn't budge this week from claiming he has a degree, insisting he made a mistake on his 2008 application. But he can't explain how that could have happened.
"That could be just an error," he says.
A conversation with Bonnie Ashley, associate registrar at Montana State University, suggests otherwise. She confirms Gardner was a student there in the early 1990s, but after searching multiple databases, says, "I did not find a record of any degree awarded to Mr. Gardner."
Gardner hesitates only briefly when told about the registrar's comment.
"Uh, I don't know without talking to them," he says.
During several minutes talking about discrepancies between his applications, his testimony and Ashley's fruitless search, Gardner refuses to offer proof he graduated from Montana State, and eventually suggests it doesn't matter.
"A degree wasn't required for this position, in either case," he says, over-enunciating the last three words.
But credibility certainly is required. In the second-most populous county in a swing state, in a presidential election year, Gardner is the lead tech guy responsible for making sure voting machines work correctly.
After learning of the discrepancies Wednesday morning, Dennis Hisey, chair of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, says he wants to learn more.
"If in fact he does not have a degree," Hisey says, "that's a problem."
Learn as you go
Bob Balink, El Paso County clerk and recorder, insisted that Terry Sholdt, the chief deputy clerk, attend Gardner's Independent interview Monday afternoon. Sholdt says little during most of the interview, but does note that she's unaware of discrepancies between Gardner's two county applications.
When questions related to Gardner's inconsistencies on official documents — and what seems at least a possible case of perjury — come up, Sholdt refers questions to Balink.
But following up with the clerk and recorder isn't easy.
Around 5:30 Monday night, Balink's office sends out a press release related to election fraud. Within the next couple hours, he responds to Independent inquiries only via quick notes from his Blackberry.
"I haven't had a chance to meet with Terry or discuss the mtg you had with them as that isn't a priority," he writes just before 7, adding, "we're gearing up for an election — we're still working tonight — this election is our focus right now."
By Tuesday morning, Balink is featured in a KKTV News Channel 11 report as blaming "radical liberal groups" for submitting fraudulent registrations during the voter registration drives they hold every presidential election year.
While giving interviews Tuesday to other media outlets, and responding to at least one citizen frustrated by his KKTV interview (Balink replies by saying his "liberal" comment was quoting from a book), Balink delays an interview with the Independent about possible fraud in application materials submitted by his information systems manager.
He responds late Tuesday night to e-mailed questions from the Independent, answering a list of concerns about Gardner's degree status with a simple comment: "WE DO NOT HAVE KNOWLEDGE OF ANY FACTS OF A VILATION [sic] OF LAW OR POLICY, EITHER COUNTY OR STATE THAT WOULD REQUIRE SEPARATIN [sic] OF EMPLOYMENT FROM EL PASO COUNTY."
Gardner and Balink started working together in early 2003, after Balink was elected clerk and recorder the previous November. The diehard Republican has been vocal on election issues, for instance urging lawmakers to pass a law requiring would-be voters to show photo identification before registering.
Gardner had been in his information systems manager position since August 2001. Previously, he had done IT work for an architecture firm and had become a "Microsoft certified professional" after taking a four- or five-month training course. Though he had no experience with elections, motor vehicle certification or other functions of the clerk and recorder's office, he saw the county job as a good opportunity.
"Just like any job, you kind of learn the various aspects of the industry as you go," he says. "It wasn't, 'Gosh, I really have an interest in elections,' it was, 'I really have an interest in information systems, [and] I'd like to work for the government ... because I think this is a good place to serve the community and just the type of job that I'm interested in.'"
Performance reviews filled out by Sholdt show Gardner quickly got the hang of things after a shaky start.
On the stand
By June 8, 2005, Gardner believed he had gained enough experience to apply for a job testing voting machines at the Colorado secretary of state's office.
He was hired and started work the next month. Through a series of departures and scandals, he came to lead the program testing voting machines for much of the next three years.
Colorado law requires the secretary of state's office to certify any voting machines to be used in elections. A group of citizens brought a suit in 2006 against then-Secretary of State Gigi Dennis, arguing the certification process that Gardner led was deeply flawed.
Gardner's deposition leading up to the September 2006 trial took three days. Paul Hultin, lead attorney in the lawsuit, questioned Gardner about his experience, education and preparation.
After swearing to tell the truth, Gardner said he finished high school in New York in 1987 (which would probably put him around 40 years old today). He asserted repeatedly under oath that he graduated from Montana State in 1994.
"Do you have any technical training in computer security?" Hultin asked.
"Not to my knowledge, no," Gardner replied.
"Do you have any technical training in the evaluation of computer systems?"
"I don't believe so."
The full transcript from the deposition runs about 700 pages. Hultin questioned Gardner about cases in which he used his "judgment" to pass voting systems. Hultin showed that the testing process, which followed rules largely written by Gardner, did not have minimum standards for the machines to pass.
Denver District Judge Lawrence Manzanares ruled Sept. 22, 2006, that the tests were inadequate, but he said the machines still could be used in the November 2006 election to avoid upheaval associated with switching to another voting method.
As to whether or not Gardner qualified as an expert, Manzanares said he could make no ruling since that decision was a personnel matter for the secretary of state.
Reached at his Denver office this week, Hultin says it would represent an "outrageous fabrication" if Gardner did not in fact graduate from Montana State University.
"I think this further undermines any shred of credibility about the certification work Gardner did on electronic voting systems in 2006, 2007 and 2008," he says.
Mike Coffman, now campaigning for Congress, was elected Colorado's secretary of state in 2006, and Gardner continued running the voting-machine tests under his leadership.
Four voting-machine companies had sold equipment in Colorado and were going through the certification process. In late 2007, Coffman announced that machines from three of those vendors had been decertified.
Only machines from Premier Election Solutions, formerly known as Diebold, passed the tests, puzzling critics who point out that Diebold machines are vulnerable to viruses and use software that the company admits can miscount votes.
Gardner says Premier machines, which are used in El Paso County, came closest to meeting state requirements.
Coffman briefly argued the state should use paper ballots for the 2008 election, but county clerks fretted that they had to use their machines. In February, all of the machines were recertified, often with long lists of required security fixes and procedures.
Good news, bad news?
A June 20 story in the Colorado Statesman, a periodical focused on state politics, examined Gardner's departure from his testing job, sifting through e-mails from Gardner and other secretary of state employees to give the background for sloppiness and errors in the certification process.
Hultin was quoted in the story saying Gardner's departure is "good news for him, and it's good news for Colorado."
It might not be good news for El Paso County. He applied for the job June 1 and was at work in Balink's office June 9, with a salary of $70,000 a year. That's a more than $10,000 increase from the $59,614 he was making here in 2005. (In his e-mail, Balink explains Gardner has taken on added responsibilities as assistant chief deputy clerk.)
Hisey says questions about Gardner's record demand follow-up.
"With the information you've given to me, it's the kind of thing I will undoubtedly be talking to Bob Balink about," says the commissioner, noting he does not have direct authority over his fellow elected official's office.
Balink did not respond before deadline Wednesday morning to further questions about what he will do next.
Al Kolwicz is an election integrity advocate living in Boulder, and he remembers a voting-machine demonstration offered in 2007 by one of the four machine vendors. Many audience members were skeptical of the machine, but Gardner, who was running the meeting, prevented them from asking questions or making comments.
That approach to public involvement, Kolwicz suggests, is unacceptable when the goal of elections should be transparency and accountability. He suggests Gardner was "covering up" for the vendors.
"People who are not open, who hide facts, should excuse themselves from doing the people's work," he says.