Bad stuff for Black Box
The Life and Tragic Times of An American Activist
By Carol Sterritt
On May 12th, Andy Stephenson believed that he was heading for life-saving surgery. Who stopped his needed medical operation from taking place? And why does this matter so much to so many voting rights organizers?
For many American activists, much of last year was spent working with or alongside an organization known as “Black Box Voting.”
BBV was the brainchild of Bev Harris, a self-styled rabble-rouser who crisscrossed the country demonstrating the vulnerability inherent inside the new technology of the electronic voting machinery. Through BBV, Harris disseminated important information about electronic voting machinery. She laid out specific county-by-county information about those locations where fraud would play a heavy part in the election. Her website (blackboxvoting.org) gave activists a place to organize, brainstorm and hold well-attended discussion forums.
To many people, including this reporter, Harris was a hero. She was a tireless ball of energy. Knowledgeable and dramatic, she effectively shed light on the most important element of the 2004 presidential race – that the Democratic candidate’s main contender would not be George W Bush, but a voting system so easy to corrupt that in one Washington DC demonstration, Harris had a chimp slide the votes from one candidate over to the other.
Here in California, during Spring of 2004, she turned up at the Sacramento hearings on voting machinery that were held by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. Her presentations to the audience helped galvanize the convictiotion information delivered with passion.
Of course the constant eighteen-hour days spinning into nights took their toll. Both Stephenson and Harris spent long hours on cross country flights flying from one County Registrar’s Office to another. They checked audit logs. They examined voter registration tapes. They made life difficult for election officials whose districts had questionable results.
And then it all fell apart.
Shortly after the election, Stephenson got word that his sister had died. He headed back to Texas for her wake and burial. Meanwhile, Harris was engaged in a battle for prime time news coverage. To many participants in the election investigations, it seemed that the fraud involved in the Presidential election should be loudly trumpeted by the media. However, this was not the case. Rumor was wild on the Internet that the press had been “locked-down” on this issue. Since less than fifty days earlier, the White House had helped to exile veteran reporter Mary Mapes and her boss, Dan Rather, from CBS news, the mainstream media was only too eager to fall in line with whatever the President wanted and the truth be damned.
The only small glimmer of hope was Keith Olbermann of MSNBC News, who had a news program on Cable TV. He alluded to voter fraud on more than one show. He put out feelers that he would be open to hearing from Harris. Olbermann’s people called Stephenson about the need to reach Harris. There was a mix-up in Stephenson contacting Harris. And somehow or another, Harris and Olbermann came to blows.
The incredible fallout for all of this was the following posting, on the extremely popular Black Box Voting website: “–December 14th, 2004-- The six-member Board of Directors of Black Box Voting has unanimously voted to terminate the employment of Associate Director Andy Stephenson, for:
- Repeatedly lying to various members of the board of directors
- Misrepresenting results of investigations
- Mishandling telephone communications and withholding information
- Temper tantrums and hanging up on members of the organization
- Outburst at the Florida Supervisor of Elections meeting, offending public officials
- Failing to assist, show up, or even call while Kathleen Wynne and Bev Harris repeatedly reached him to request assistance when they were accosted by Volusia County police. Black Box Voting apologizes for these problems. (After tomorrow afternoon, this message will be moved to the discussion forums.)”
The reputation-ruining announcement was read by tens of thousands of people.
Rumors circulated on the Internet. It was whispered that Stephenson had embezzled; he had blown off important meetings; he had failed Bev Harris in basic ways. To people who had dealt with Stephenson for much of the past four months, there were suspicious naggings. He had just seemed too good to be true. Intelligent, generous, jovial, witty and brash. A kind word when you needed one. Impeccably honest. And of course, that Southern charm tempered by a most progressive heart. Was perhaps all of this a carefully constructed front? It seemed that his very goodness worked against him.
But sometimes goodness is simply goodness. Within a week or so, most activists sided with him. They felt revulsion that the many clearly trumped up charges were publicly aired. Some felt that most of the charges were projections. “Harris is claiming ANDY has temper outbursts!?!” one activist emailed me incredulously.
Stephenson didn't protest the denunciations. Instead, he was stunned. He issued no statement of rebuttal. He offered no defense. He was devastated by his sister’s death on the one hand, and by a loss of energy from the many overly long days when he had pursued the prize of preventing the theft of the Presidency. Late in December, when I finally spoke with Bev Harris, she remarked, “And he was handling all of the Olbermann phone calls – not passing them on to me. Because HE wanted to be on the TV show with Keith. And HE was determined to beat me out of that.”
I passed word of this conversation with Harris back to Stephenson. “Oh,” he said slowly, “So that is what she meant by phone communications. I didn’t know what in the world she was referring to until you said this now.” Then he laughed, an amused but sardonic laugh. “How in the world could she imagine that I saw myself going in her place on Olbermann’s TV Show? I was in Texas, burying my sister. Even if Olbermann and Harris had insisted I be on that show that week, I wasn’t available. My sister had just died!”
As Stephenson rallied after his sister’s death, he began to take part in various Verified Voter activities. He participated in oversights and audits of the Ohio recounts, witnessing a technician installing dubious files into election recount hardware. His place with the other notable activists of the voting investigations seemed assured. He stood with Susan Truitt, and Bob Fitrakis, and thirty some other individuals demanding that the world insist on establishing the same legitimacy in Ohio as they would in the Ukraine.
Then the second shoe hit the floor. In early January, he was hospitalized for placement of an emergency stent in his gallbladder. His energy levels were down, and finally he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Without insurance, and having had no real salary for the many months prior, Stephenson was in a difficult spot. In early May, using one of the discussion forums on Democractic Underground, a campaign to pay for his needed pancreatic cancer operation was underway. In about nine days, the campaign raised $ 31,000.
On May 12th, 2005, he arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital where his operation was scheduled. But his operation did not take place. Instead, someone (or a group of someones) had shut down the PayPal account holding much of the money. Conservative newsgroups on the web had played up the theme that Stephenson was scamming the Internet community. Although their identity has not been released, a persuasive individual(s) had managed to convince PayPal officials that since Stephenson’s illness claims were fraudulent, neither he nor the hospital should have the funding made available.
Again, rumors and gossip raged across the Internet. Not knowing what to make of the scenario, Democratic Underground finally shut off all discussion relating to it. However, this reporter decided that the one lead that could establish Stephenson’s innocence was the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, Peter Angelos. Angelos is the attorney famous for the legal showdown over asbestos. Among the facts that Stephenson claimed about his illness was this interesting tidbit: Angelos had helped contact the heads of Johns Hopkins and convinced them to make the operation possible for Stephenson.
On Tuesday, May 19th, I called Mr. Angelos. His secretary said that if the call was related to Stephenson, then Angelos had asked that I be put right through. After a short introduction, I explained my predicament. I needed to ask: "Was it true that Angelos had offered help in the matter of the Johns Hopkins operation?"
Coastal Post Home Page