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Smartmatic pays spa treatment to Venezuela's electoral chief

By Casto Ocando and Gerardo Reyes | The Miami Herald

09.12.05 | Venezuela's top electoral official faces a complaint of conflict of interests in Caracas for accepting a hotel stay from the Boca Raton-based company that sold the Venezuelan government its current electronic voting system.

Jorge Rodríguez, chairman of the National Electoral Council, and his wife enjoyed two days in April at the exclusive Boca Raton Resort and Club in April -- total bill: $926.76 -- at the expense of the firm, Smartmatic.

Smartmatic spokesman Mitch Stroller confirmed the company initially paid the bill but said Rodríguez later reimbursed all the money to Smartmatic. He declined to provide proof of the reimbursement or to say when the money was paid back.

In Caracas, Oscar Pérez, an opposition legislator from the state of Miranda that surrounds the Venezuelan capital, filed a complaint Tuesday, with federal prosecutors alleging a violation of the country's laws on corruption.

Smartmatic has obtained several government contracts since 2003 -- according to Venezuelan media reports totaling more than $150 million -- for the installation and maintenance of more than 23,000 touch-screen voting machines and other tasks.

Opponents of leftist President Hugo Chávez have bitterly challenged the reliability of the electronic voting system, first used in a recall referendum last year easily won by the president. Saying they lacked confidence in Rodríguez's electoral council and the voting system, most of the opposition parties boycotted weekend legislative elections.

The case was first published in a Venezuelan Internet newsletter, Descifrado, and in El Nuevo Herald. Rodríguez did not respond to El Nuevo Herald's phone calls or a questionnaire faxed to his offices in Caracas seeking comment. But one day after El Nuevo Herald published the story, Rodríguez called it ''garbage'' and told a news conference in Caracas that he paid for the ``expenses.''

Stroller said the hotel payment did not violate U.S. laws because they allow payment for travel and lodging to foreign public functionaries when done in connection with events related to ``the promotion, display and explanation of products or services.''

TRIP WAS FOR `REVIEW'

''Smartmatic paid for the hotel expenses of Chairman Rodríguez during his visit to review and evaluate our latest electronic voting system,'' Stroller told El Nuevo Herald, without specifying the system shown to Rodríguez.

The hotel stay came two months before the board of directors of the National Electoral Council approved a service contract with Smartmatic for $26.2 million.

EXCLUSIVE DESTINATION

The Boca Raton Resort and Club is an exclusive complex frequented by billionaires and stars such as Robert Redford, John Travolta, Oprah Winfrey and Elton John. The club has a golf course, tennis courts and a renowned spa.

A group of opposition Venezuelan engineers released a study last week showing that the Smartmatic machines, when used in conjunction with fingerprint machines to confirm the identity of voters, do not guarantee the secrecy of the vote. Rodríguez denied the allegation but agreed to disconnect the fingerprint machines for Sunday's vote.



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