US looks at Venezuela's takeover of voting machine business

NY Times:

The federal government is investigating the takeover last year of a leading American manufacturer of electronic voting systems by a small software company that has been linked to the leftist Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chávez.

The inquiry is focusing on the Venezuelan owners of the software company, the Smartmatic Corporation, and is trying to determine whether the government in Caracas has any control or influence over the firm’s operations, government officials and others familiar with the investigation said.

The inquiry on the eve of the midterm elections is being conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or Cfius, the same panel of 12 government agencies that reviewed the abortive attempt by a company in Dubai to take over operations at six American ports earlier this year.

The committee’s formal inquiry into Smartmatic and its subsidiary, Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, Calif., was first reported Saturday in The Miami Herald.

Officials of both Smartmatic and the Venezuelan government strongly denied yesterday that President Chávez’s administration, which has been bitterly at odds with Washington, has any role in Smartmatic.

...

Smartmatic was a little-known firm with no experience in voting technology before it was chosen by the Venezuelan authorities to replace the country’s elections machinery ahead of a contentious referendum that confirmed Mr. Chávez as president in August 2004.

Seven months before that voting contract was awarded, a Venezuelan government financing agency invested more than $200,000 into a smaller technology company, owned by some of the same people as Smartmatic, that joined with Smartmatic as a minor partner in the bid.

In return, the government agency was given a 28 percent stake in the smaller company and a seat on its board, which was occupied by a senior government official who had previously advised Mr. Chávez on elections technology. But Venezuelan officials later insisted that the money was merely a small-business loan and that it was repaid before the referendum.

With a windfall of some $120 million from its first three contracts with Venezuela, Smartmatic then bought the much larger and more established Sequoia Voting Systems, which now has voting equipment installed in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

Since its takeover by Smartmatic in March 2005, Sequoia has worked aggressively to market its voting machines in Latin America and other developing countries. “The goal is to create the world’s leader in electronic voting solutions,” said Mitch Stoller, a company spokesman.

...

There is much more. There is also reason to be suspicious. With Chavez history, there is no reason to believe he is sponsoring full and fair elections. The ownership interest they are trying to hide also gives reason not to trust what they say. It will be difficult to complete an investigation of this company and its equipment and software before this years election, which will mean the result in the states where the machines are used will be in question.

Update: Wretchard has commentary at The Belmont Club. While he mentions the problems the US might have in bribing foreign officials, it is already illegal and if a public company is involved it is required to disclose the bribes in is quarterly statements.

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