Integrity is top issue in secretary of state's race

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Candidates vying to be Louisiana secretary of state said Monday they’re running to restore confidence in an office whose last elected leader resigned amid sexual harassment allegations and whose voting machine replacement work was criticized as botched.
State Rep. Julie Stokes, a Kenner Republican, said she wants to “remove scandal from the office.” Renee Fontenot Free, a Baton Rouge Democrat and former top aide to two secretaries of state, said “trust in that office has been compromised.” State Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican, has made integrity a centerpiece of his campaign.
They were among five candidates who squared off at a candidate forum, joined by interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Turkey Creek Mayor Heather Cloud, both Republicans. Nine contenders are on the ballot in the Nov. 6 special election that was called after Republican Tom Schedler resigned, accused of sexually harassing an employee.
Ardoin, Schedler’s first assistant who took over in May, has run on his experience in the office, saying he won’t need “on-the-job training.” Cloud described her success in a voter fraud lawsuit as giving her a unique perspective to focus on voting integrity. Stokes said her work as a certified public accountant would offer voters someone who can scrutinize the inner workings of the secretary of state’s office. Free said she would keep partisan politics out of the agency.
Edmonds said he would create a specialized cybercrime division to protect election systems. Ardoin responded by announcing he just named a new cybersecurity chief.
Ardoin has sought to distance himself from the sexual harassment scandal that pushed him into the job, saying he didn’t know about the misconduct allegations until the woman filed a lawsuit against Schedler. Ardoin said Monday that he’s enacted the “strictest policy in all of state government” against sexual harassment since he’s been in charge.
But Ardoin’s opponents in the race also have panned the secretary of state’s work to replace Louisiana’s 10,000 voting machines — work that started when Schedler was in charge of the office and continued when Ardoin took over.
One of the losing bidders for the multimillion-dollar contract is protesting the contract award, saying the process used to choose the winning vendor was improperly handled.
Contract negotiations are on hold while the protest is under review.
Ardoin described the evaluation process as fair to all bidders and said allegations of impropriety were part of a hard-fought competition for the high-dollar work. He said he expected a lawsuit to be filed, but said the last voting machine purchase in 2005 followed a similar pattern.
“The process is going exactly the way it’s supposed to go, and you know what? It’s going to be fine in the end,” he told the Baton Rouge Press Club.
Edmonds said he’s “not happy at all” that Ardoin refused to stop the contracting process. Cloud steered clear of criticizing Ardoin directly, but said “at all cost, a public servant should avoid the appearance of controversy.”
“I think that it’s high time that we have a fresh set of eyes, we remove the scandal from the office and start fresh,” Stokes said.
Free worked in the secretary of state’s office during the 2005 voting machine selection process and rejected comparisons to the current controversy.
“There was a lawsuit, but the courts quickly dismissed it because there was no merit,” she said.
Ardoin said his opponents were “trying to create baloney” because they want the job he has.
Edmonds shot back with “some mayo with that baloney,” hitting Ardoin for telling lawmakers he wouldn’t run for the office and then later signing up for the race.
“Keep your word, then next time around we won’t have to doubt it,” Edmonds said.


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