In nearly four months as information systems manager and assistant chief deputy in El Paso County's clerk and recorder's office, John Gardner has kept a low profile.
Perhaps he started forgetting the flak he took while running Colorado's testing program for electronic voting equipment in the secretary of state's office. Today, Gardner's responsible just for monitoring computer systems here and for making sure our electronic voting equipment works properly.
But the appearance that Gardner lied about his educational background has focused attention on him again. After all, he claimed a bachelor's degree on job applications with the county and state, and under oath in a court case (see "Degrees of deception"), only to have Montana State University report he never received that degree. It casts a shadow over someone with a pivotal role in what's expected to be a tight Nov. 4 election.
"If you are giving false information in one realm of your life, what's to stop you from giving it in another?" asks Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonprofit focused on open and accountable government. "Everyone should be doing all they can to impart confidence in the electorate."
Democratic state Sen. John Morse says he sees the Gardner issue as simply adding to a range of questions about county Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink's preparation for the election.
"I think [Balink] has a very systematic, multi-pronged approach to suppressing the vote in El Paso County," Morse says.
Hiring "unqualified people" is just one of what Morse sees as 12 prongs (see this Colorado Independent story). Among the others: The office has provided too few locations for early voting, and has tried to discourage college students from registering to vote.
For now, Balink isn't answering questions about Gardner, who's making $70,000. The week of Sept. 22, Balink declined to be interviewed about Gardner in person or by telephone, inviting e-mailed questions instead.
In response to two final questions in the e-mail, he wrote, "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."
A follow-up e-mail asking if he would require Gardner to provide proof of a Montana State degree received the simple response, "THIS QUESTION HAS ALREADY BEEN ANSWERED."
Balink has not replied to further requests by e-mail or voicemail for an interview about Gardner.
As a policy matter, Balink might be on solid ground. Though El Paso County's employment manual lists "Falsifying ... job information to secure a position" as one of 24 offenses warranting punishment such as demotion or termination, it makes no mention of what happens in cases like Gardner's: He apparently lied on a 2001 application when he initially worked for the county, on his 2005 application to work for the state, and in 2006 court testimony. But he appears to have told the truth on the subject when he applied to El Paso County in 2008 and said he didn't have a Montana State degree.
Of course, Gardner claimed during a Sept. 22 interview with the Independent that he did graduate, and just made a mistake on his latest application. (He couldn't explain why Montana State would have no such record.)
Morse suggests Gardner's record may ultimately be a personnel matter that is up to Balink to handle.
It's up to the rest of us, Morse says, to ask, "What kind of operation is he running?"
Degrees of deception
Perjury is basically telling a lie under oath. It's only a crime under Colorado law when the lie passes a relevance test.
John Gardner apparently met the basic definition when, in 2006, as head tester of the state's electronic voting equipment, he said under oath that he had a bachelor's degree in architecture from Montana State University.
The university has no record of him graduating, and Gardner himself answered the "Graduated?" question on his most recent county job application by checking the "no" box.
Whether it was a relevant part of his testimony is more complicated. The 2006 lawsuit against the Colorado secretary of state centered on two questions: Did the tests conducted by Gardner meet state standards? And was he qualified to be the expert in charge of them?
Denver District Judge Lawrence Manzanares said "no" on the first question, forcing the tests to be repeated in 2007.
On the second question, Manzanares considered Gardner's degree as well as his experience from four years as information systems manager for the El Paso County clerk and recorder's office. Manzanares ruled the definition of "expert" was vague enough for Gardner to be considered one.
Since Gardner isn't being investigated for perjury, whether he committed a crime is, for the moment, an academic question. Some would say an architecture degree is an irrelevant qualification for someone testing voting machines.
But Gardner has claimed that degree repeatedly, both in testimony and on job applications. His state job description explicitly said that a bachelor's degree was required.
Paul Hultin, the plaintiff's attorney in the 2006 lawsuit, suggests the degree question was relevant to the case in Manzanares' courtroom. If Gardner actually has no degree, Hultin says, he "lied about his qualifications to be doing the work at the secretary of state's office, and that was an issue in the case."
"That's not like lying about what color of shoes you were wearing," Hultin adds.
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