An Interview with Investigative Journalist Greg Palast: By Chris Pepus

Sep 26, 2004

Though you wouldn't know it from the American news media, investigative reporter Greg Palast uncovered a big story in 2000. He reported that in the months before the election, Florida's Republican governor, Jeb Bush, and its Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris, had illegally purged tens of thousands of voters from the state's electoral roll. A majority of those affected were black and about 80% were Democrats. State officials said that those voters were felons, who are not allowed to vote in Florida. The state's felon list came from a private company called ChoicePoint, which used a computer program to find rough matches between Florida's electoral roll and a database of convicts. The list was 95% wrong and contained obvious errors. Birth dates and even names often did not match, and some "felons" had conviction dates that were in the future. Also, Florida records both the race and the party affiliation of its voters, so the state's Republican leaders could easily see the effect their actions would have on the election. Palast obtained a copy of the purge list with 57,700 names on it, but documents later surrendered to a federal court revealed that the complete version had 94,000 names. George Bush Jr. won Florida by 537 votes.

Florida Republican officials responded immediately, directly, and decisively to Palast's claims. When Palast asked Harris's deputy Clayton Roberts why no one verified the list, Roberts immediately declared the interview over, walked directly back to his office, and decisively locked the door. The response from the American media was about the same: Palast's reports appeared on the British Broadcasting Corporation and also in the Observer, a British newspaper, but American papers and television networks declined to run his stories. In this interview, the veteran reporter talks about the ongoing Florida scandal and other discoveries that appear in his new documentary, Bush Family Fortunes, which will be released September 28 on DVD.

Interview by Chris Pepus

Chris Pepus: In 2000, Florida election officials purged thousands of voters from the electoral rolls on the grounds that they were convicted felons, yet you discovered that very few of those who lost their voting rights were actually felons. What happened?

Greg Palast: Well, they were guilty of voting while black. We got about 94,000 people on a list, who the Jebster, first brother, said were felons, who can't vote in Florida. Basically, most of them, 54%, were just black people who had names similar to - often not even the same as - someone who committed a crime somewhere. It was a really nifty way to knock off black people. They knew, by the way, that 95% of the people on the list were innocent. They knew it. We have the documents, and that's one of the things in the new film: that Jeb Bush's office sent out a letter violating a court order. By the way, just for your information, they're doing it again! They came up with a new list this year, and they withdrew it when there was some heat put on.

You'll see that in the new movie, but there's another trick that's going on, something called vote spoilage, where literally the votes in black communities are not being tallied. This is no joke. I discovered it, but the U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigated it. I can't forget the number: 179,855 votes were cast and not counted in Florida in 2000, and half of those were cast in black precincts. In other words, the election was exactly as the exit polls said it was, with about a 90,000-vote plurality for Al Gore. It was not a close race in Florida at all, and they're doing it again in a very sophisticated manner. Jeb Bush had a committee of experts to prevent another Florida in Florida. They said to use paper ballots with optical scanning machines, which make it basically impossible to screw up a vote. Instead, some of his political henchmen insisted on computers, interestingly enough, in black areas. What's called the spoilage rate - in other words, votes messed up - on the computers is 2.4%. You may think, what's 2.4%? That's about 150,000 votes in Florida, and these are black votes that are going to be lost, as always.

Pepus: I want to get to that document that you were talking about with regard to Jeb Bush's knowledge of the voter purge. But just to back up, ChoicePoint, the company that provided the felon list, was supposed to verify it. What happened with regard to verification?

Palast: I was able to get a document marked "Secret and Confidential," which was a secret page of the contract between the state and its little political cronies, who had a nice political contract. It did say in that secret page that they were going to pay millions of dollars to use massive computer databases and phone calls to make sure that they weren't targeting innocent people. Here's the interesting thing: the reason it was marked "Secret" is that they didn't do the work. They got paid millions of dollars to not do work, and the reason they didn't do the work is that if they had checked the list, they would have thrown out 95% of the names. That would have changed the outcome of the election.

Pepus: How did you arrive at the 95% figure? I understand you were working with a team of researchers.

Palast: A couple places: the election supervisors in Florida, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and the Harvard Law School Civil Rights Center. Before I was an investigative reporter, I had a more interesting job: I was a statistician. So I know how they fuck with these numbers. I have the list, and you'll see that in the film too, because I was the only reporter who actually said, "Give me the list." One of my favorites is Thomas Cooper, who was shown as convicted in January 2007. I had five hundred criminals of the future. You'd just go down the list and almost every name, any nitwit could say, "Oh, that's wrong," because they'd have the name of some con and the name of some voter and it was supposedly a match, but there would be different birth dates or there would be some other difference. Yeah, they knew what they were doing, and that's what makes it so ugly and so evil.

Pepus: Now, you wrote that the election officials in Katherine Harris's office were actually told that there were future conviction dates on the list. What did they do when they found out about those?

Palast: The clerks said, "Hey, what do we do about these people convicted in the future?" And the Republicans said, "Well, if you blank out the conviction dates, no one will know." They knew. They were just saying, "Cover your tracks, man." The clerks were going, "Well, wait a minute," but, you know, most of these guys want to keep their jobs. How do you think I get this stuff? Insiders were saying, "Do you know what they're making us do here?"

Pepus: Harris said that the reason neither her office nor ChoicePoint verified the list was because the county election officials asked to check it themselves. You've spoken to many of the county officials. What do they say about Harris's claim?

Palast: Well, it depends if they're Republican. A lot of them are political hacks. Two things: the law says she is supposed to provide a list of felons, not a list of innocent people. And her hit men, like this guy that I chased around, Clayton Roberts, had a meeting before the last election telling the (county) registrars, "You'd better remove those names." This year - listen to this - with a new list as crappy as the first one, Katherine Harris's replacement, Glenda Hood, who makes Harris seem like Thomas Jefferson, wrote a note to county election supervisors saying, "If you don't knock off these people, you're liable for criminal sanctions." In other words, "We're gonna jail you." How about that? These are not nice people. They don't want black people to vote, and it's not because they don't like the color of black people's skin. They don't like the color of their vote. A point I want to make is that the tricks that are being used in Florida, which I think is the worst, are also being done in other states. I'm looking for this next election to be stolen in New Mexico, for example. That's the state: watch it right there, while they basically knock out the Hispanic vote.

Pepus: Could you tell me more about the Jeb Bush letter?

Palast: What happened was the U.S. Civil Rights Commission subpoenaed his records, and it's not clear that he ever turned over this letter that I found because his office denied that a letter existed, in which he illegally ordered a purge of voters who were entitled to vote. Then I got a copy, and I remembered that the Civil Rights Commission had subpoenaed his records. The Civil Rights Commission asked me to come in, and I showed them the document, and I said: "Did you ever get this from Brother Jeb? You subpoenaed his documents. Did you ever get it from him?" Well, I've got to tell you that Chris Edley, who's dean of the law school at Berkeley - and they're all lawyers, right? - they all turned purple, man. They were not in a good mood about this. In the old days, this was called obstruction of justice. If Bill Clinton pulled a trick like this, he'd be breaking rocks on a chain gang. You don't withhold evidence from a federal subpoena. On July 15th, the commission voted for a criminal investigation based on what we've uncovered at BBC, and now for Harper's, and the bad punch line is that the investigation is run by John Ashcroft [laughs]. You know, I'm laughing but I might as well be crying. In fact, I actually just spoke to them (Justice Department) last week (mid-September) and they haven't even begun.

Pepus: Was this document the one you got because of the letter from Katherine Harris?

Palast: Yes.

Pepus: How did you obtain it?

Palast: What happened was that I was reporting for BBC, but I also put the report in print in Harper's magazine in the US. Katherine Harris wrote this letter (to the editor) saying, "Greg Palast is twisted and maniacal." However, she didn't say I was wrong, and she said: "Yeah, I knocked off all these black people, but it's not my fault. I got a letter from the governor." I said, "Whoa." So I thought, there's my letter. I had the date of the letter: I knew it was September 18th, 2000. So I called up her office and I didn't say I was Mr. Twisted and Maniacal. I just said: "The secretary of state wrote me about a note she got from the governor. I'm sure she wants me to see it." You know, you call a low-level secretary. I love to talk to these people. They know exactly what you're doing, by the way: they just hate their bosses. I can't tell you how many people who work in Jeb's office are waiting for him to walk out in leg irons. So, ten minutes later, the letter came to me via fax from (Harris's) office. That's how you get these guys.

Pepus: The NAACP sued Florida on behalf of those who were prevented from voting and there was a settlement in the case. Does the settlement provide any legal mechanism for stopping Florida officials from doing in 2004 what they did in 2000?

Palast: It should have, but it didn't. The problem with the NAACP suit - and I know the lawyers well and I helped them in the case - is that they assumed a level of honesty and good faith on the part of the state. They cut a deal with the state. The state said, "Okay, we're gonna get these people back on the voter rolls and we're not gonna do it again." But out of 94,000 people from the original list, only a couple thousand people have been returned to the rolls. Then they came up with another list of 47,000 and had the nerve to say, "Well, this is all approved by the NAACP." And the NAACP said: "We didn't even know about it. Approve what?!" These people have no shame. After the election, there are going to be more lawsuits and they're going to make more deals and say, "Gee, we're sorry that people lost their vote."

Pepus: After the last election, the Bush brothers pledged to fix what was wrong with the voting process, both in Florida and nationally. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. What kind of impact is that law going to have?

Palast: When the president tells us he's going to help us vote, I get very nervous. I know how to vote. The problem is that the Help America Vote Act is already a complete disaster. It's being used to computerize polls, it's being used to allow something that used to be prohibited, which is to start asking people for multiple IDs. What that does is start voter intimidation. It's a horrendous law. It's very much this 1984-speak that you get from the Bush administration. You've got these "Hug a Tree" laws, which are about clear-cutting forests, and you've got the Help America Vote Act, which is about institutionalizing vote theft.

Pepus: What other discoveries do you include in your new film, Bush Family Fortunes?

Palast: I have in the film the story of how the FBI could not investigate the bin Laden family in the U.S., even though they'd have loved to. Now that's serious stuff. You know, let's not go bonkers here. We're not saying that George Bush knew about the September 11th attack in advance. As we say at the BBC, we don't think that George Bush knows about anything in advance.But our intelligence agencies were blindsided, to some extent by Bill Clinton, who didn't want to upset the Saudis. But it was Bush who actually spiked investigations which upset the Saudis, including the investigations of the bin Laden family and of the Islamic bomb. Here we are, we've got 140,000 kids getting their keisters shot at in Fallujah to stop weapons of mass destruction, and yet George Bush stopped an investigation of the building of an atomic bomb by Pakistan, which was selling those secrets to Libya and North Korea. Bush stopped that and, by the way, the reason is because the money for that little la bomba Islamica came from Saudi Arabia. In other words, it came from Bush's buddies. The reason why some of these investigations couldn't go forward is that some of the people under investigation, for example by French intelligence, were also people who had funded the Bush family oil businesses. Again, it's not about the Bushes saying, "Hey, go give money to people who are going to attack America." That's nonsense. What we are finding is that you just could not target Saudis (for investigation). Clinton kind of took that position himself until the U.S. embassies were bombed in Africa (in 1998). After that - and this is in the film - he sent two delegations to Saudi Arabia. Sandy Berger (Clinton's national security advisor) headed one. These were confidential delegations saying, "Stop telling your little princelings that they can give money to people who are killing us." Bush came in and discussion dropped. Instead, we have (Saudi) Prince Bandar, who basically has a key to the executive washroom in the White House. What is this? FBI agents gave us documents, obviously not the happiest of agents, and it had to be with some fairly high-up approval, because it would have taken about four seconds for the top guys at the FBI to trace back the origins of the documents. They did not challenge the authenticity of those materials.

Pepus: So you found dissatisfaction with the Bush administration in the ranks of the FBI?

Palast: Here's a weird one. I've actually developed quite a respect for FBI and CIA agents, the ones in the field, who are really out there hoping that they can go get bad guys. They are feeling like the politicos at the top are blocking them. They don't need a Homeland Security KGB operation. They don't need to repeal the Bill of Rights. They just need the Bush boys to get their feet off their necks so they can do their job. You can't say, "Let's arrest everyone named Akmed in Cleveland," and then say, "But the bin Laden family is off limits." It's not only bin Ladens but Adnan Khashoggi (see endnote 1) and Abdullah Baksh, a financial backer of Bush operations, who may be a very innocent guy, but you've got some intelligence agencies around this planet wondering what he's doing with his money.

Pepus: It's interesting that you bring up Khashoggi, because of his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. Also, you said elsewhere that it's been hard for you to find any kind of line separating the Bush administration's foreign policy from the Bush family's financial interests. Could you elaborate?

Palast: Well, our foreign policy is determined by Bush family finances. That is, they are well-rewarded for things that they have done and will do. We know that obviously George Bush made millions in the oil business and never struck oil. Now, how did that happen? The answer is that he successfully drilled into the pockets of some sheiks. You have to understand, it was very unusual. You don't have Persian Gulf money handed out to Texas desert-drillers, which is what Bush was. That's the strange thing. His operation, Harken Oil, it got contracts; it got money from the Gulf. Harken couldn't find oil in a gas station, but nevertheless, they're getting all this money. That's made the Bush family very close to these guys. When I say "the Bush family," you have to understand it's the entire retinue. James Baker (see endnote 2) has an office right in the White House. He represents Exxon-Mobil Oil - he's a lawyer - and he represents the defense ministry of Saudi Arabia. What's that guy doing there? He's not appointed by the president. He's appointed by the government of Iraq. So, our puppets appoint the Saudis' lawyer and the president's crony, and he gets an office in the White House and, by the way, an Air Force jet - Air Force One-and-a-half or something. I'm writing about this stuff, but basically, the only two magazines I can seem to get into in the United States are Harper's, the highest-toned, and Hustler, the best-illustrated.

Pepus: Well, we at Razorcake have different claims to fame than either of those two.

Palast: That's cool [laughs], and that's the other thing: it's the music and rock community that have played a really important part in getting this information out. I'm pretty mainstream in Europe, but here it's quite a different story. Part of my DVD is on the new Punk Voter release (Rock Against Bush) with Green Day and Anti-Flag, which uses a lot of my material in their songs. Jello Biafra, of course, is one of my producers, and that really makes a big difference. It's not going to come through the mainstream; it's going to come through the culture underground.

Pepus: Most people I know who had heard of your writings found out about them at the Alternative Tentacles website.

Palast: Yeah, exactly. AT put out some of my spoken-word commentaries and Jello uses it a lot in his rants. We're trying to get it out one way or the other and it looks like the other. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called - you know, very high-toned stuff - and they want to run Bush Family Fortunes. Why do you have to be Canadian to watch a film about the United States?

Pepus: We were talking before about the Bush family's ongoing business relationships. There's another thing I'm curious about: what has ChoicePoint been up to since the 2000 election?

Palast: Well, having fixed 2000 for the Republican Party, they have now picked up no-bid contracts for the war on terror, which basically seem to be about trying to fix elections in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. They've been getting election rosters in these South American countries, under secret agreements with Homeland Security. Now, just a second: how come we've got the Venezuelan electoral list, when I don't remember any Venezuelan hijackers? The answer is that George Bush doesn't like the president of Venezuela, maybe because the guy was elected, unlike Bush. Second, because he's sitting on the biggest amount of oil outside of the Mid-East. Venezuela has big reserves of oil and we're trying to get rid of their president. So that's what ChoicePoint is doing now, but even more, that's what our president is doing with our money - after all, it is our tax money. It's that type of nonsense where we end up with the Marines in somewhere. That's what I'm very concerned about: Marines in Caracas (Venezuela) next year. Don't forget: they're not done. They're not done. Iraq is stage one. They've just got to get through November.


1.) Adnan Khashoggi was born in Saudi Arabia and made a fortune brokering international arms sales to the Saudi government. He was a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, serving as a go-between in the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.

2.) James A. Baker III is a long-time Bush family friend and political operative. He ran a number of George Bush Sr.'s political campaigns, including Bush's 1988 presidential bid. Baker served as secretary of the treasury under Reagan and as secretary of state under Bush Sr. Today, Baker serves as a "senior counselor" for the Carlyle Group, which handles investments for a number of members of the Saudi royal family. At one time, George Bush Sr. was also a consultant for Carlyle.

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