By Brad Friedman on 3/11/2009, 1:11pm PT  

Broward County, FL, has dropped all charges against a local Election Integrity advocate whose arrest, described by an election official and other colleagues at the time as "outrageous," was captured on video tape late last year.

Ellen Brodsky, who had been a non-partisan candidate for Supervisor of Elections in last November's election, was arrested at the apparent behest of the office of the county's current Supervisor of Elections --- Brodsky's Democratic opponent in the race --- Dr. Brenda C. Snipes, while trying to view public, post-election counting and canvassing of ballots.

She was charged, at the time, with "disorderly conduct" and "trespassing," forced to spend the night in jail, and not released until nearly 6:00am the next morning, even though her son had posted the required $25 (twenty-five dollar) bail for her by 8:30pm on the evening of her arrest.

The "disorderly conduct" charges were dropped some time later, following the release of a video tape of the incident as posted by The BRAD BLOG in the days following the arrest. The tape, reposted again at the bottom of this article, revealed that Brodsky's conduct had been anything but disorderly when the county police were summoned by Fred Bellis, a deputy election official from Snipes' office, and Brodsky was thrown into handcuffs and hauled away.

While Brodsky's trial on a "trespassing" charge had been set to start today, a last-minute offer to drop all charges, in exchange for admissions by Brodsky that she would not be disruptive in the future, was sent to her last night from Snipes' attorney.

"There was no way I was gonna agree to such demands," Brodsky told The BRAD BLOG today, following the county's dismissal of the court case. "We offered our own compromise," she said. "We will accept a withdraw of all charges, and will, as I've always done, agree to follow Florida law regarding public meetings." It was an oral agreement.

Her attorney, Tanner Andrews, echoed her sentiment. "We agreed to do what we're already doing. We'll obey the law," he explained during a phone call this afternoon. "I could agree not to rob the bank next Sunday and it'd have the same legal effect," he added...

"I guess they were afraid to go to trial based on the evidence," Brodsky told us.

The trespassing charge was based on her attempt to gain access to a "rented space, inside the Lauderhill Mall, in Broward County," where the Supervisor of Election had leased space to canvass the election --- property which Brodsky contends she "never stepped on."

After reviewing a copy of the county's lease, she found that "the lease demonstrated that...the majority is a public area, as part of the mall."

As to SoE "property" being accessible to the public, nonetheless, under Florida's Sunshine Laws governing public meetings, Brodsky explained that such access is granted "only as 'an invitee.' Which means they put up a notice that there's going to be a meeting of some kind, counting, or recounting. Broward County is famous for not putting up public noticing. So I had to do fishing to find out when they were meeting." That's when she was arrested, while inquiring about a meeting, outside of the leased space, as seen in the video tape.

"Anytime there is a public meeting, the public must be allowed in, and they can't consider which members of the public they consider members of the public," she said.

'Outrageous Abuse of Power'

Brodsky told us: "Brenda Snipes is ready to arrest people as a first resort, rather than only in a serious situation. You don't go arresting people as a first resort. It's a matter of the discretion of the use of power....It's an irresponsible abuse of power. I really see a danger there."

At the time of Brodsky's arrest last November, Snipes' colleague, Ion Sancho, the legendary Supervisor of Elections in Leon County (Tallahassee), noted similar concerns: "For a candidate, or a member of the public who wishes nothing more than to observe the process, to be taken into custody would be outrageous absent really extraordinary reasons --- none of which I've heard articulated in this matter," he The BRAD BLOG back in November.

Sancho, who was chosen by the FL Supreme Court to oversee the state's eventually-aborted Presidential Election recount in 2000, explained that in twenty years as an election official, "not even one time has it become necessary to even threaten someone's removal by law enforcement at any kind of meeting that I've ever attended."

"Elections officials in Florida really are uniquely placed, because of the power we have over the process --- and it's pretty immense --- so there's a tendency, a lot of times, for election officials to act in an autocratic manner," he told us at the time. "I'm not saying [Snipes] did, but it wouldn't surprise me."

Other colleagues of Brodsky's, including Ellen Theisen, of the non-partisan election integrity watchdog organization, and David Earnhardt, director of the documentary Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections were similarly troubled by the arrest last year.

"It's outrageous," Theisen said, calling the disruption charges "nonsense." Earnhardt described Brodsky as "a remarkable woman who has dedicated the better part of the decade to demanding fair and honest elections." He described the arrest as "offensive" and "ridiculous."

"The power that we as elected officials have, has to be used very, very, very judiciously," Sancho said. "I would caution officials over the removal of any observer from the elections process, because only by keeping the process as open as possible can we maintain credibility within the elections process."

"Quite frankly, I've never found the use of police powers an effective answer to people who are looking for the truth," Sancho told us.

Brodsky's arrest in November had the been the latest in what appears to be a growing trend of arrests of Election Integrity advocates attempting to excercise their rights to participate in the public process of voting and overseeing election counts. In August of last year, a Missouri activist was arrested while attempting to vote, because he had legally refused to offer a photo ID to pollworkers who had illegally required one before voting. In September, an Arizona activist was arrested after noticing, and questioning officials about seals that had been broken on ballot bags during a post-election audit.

"The power that we as elected officials have, has to be used very, very, very judiciously," Sancho, himself an Election Integrity advocate, said following Brodsky's arrest last year.

Pending Suits Against Snipes

Brodsky already has two pending civil suits on file against Snipes' office for violations of Sunshine Laws, requiring public access to public meetings.

One was filed last August when she says she was barred from attending a recount following Florida's primary election last Summer. She says that Fred Bellis, the same deputy who summoned county police prior to her arrest in November, had told her during the August incident that "Brenda Snipes doesn't want you in the building."

Her second suit was filed in January of this year, in response to her November arrest which barred her from overseeing the canvassing of even her own election against Snipes. Florida's Sunshine Law "requires that the public's business, be done in public," Brodsky's attorney Tanner told us. "We intend to uphold that portion of the law."

As to whether or not a civil suit would be brought against Snipes and the county for false arrest, Tanner refused comment. "We're not talking about any litigation that is not filed."

Brodsky's comments, however, seemed to indicate that such a suit might be forthcoming.

"There is no way we would let this thing slide by like this," she said. "There's been too much of abuse of power, too much cruelty. I believe it should be exposed. If we're going to have any kind of meaningful change in how our government is conducted, we can't let them get away with this stuff."

According to the election results as posted at the Broward County Supervisor of Elections website, Broward County Supervisor of Elections Snipes defeated Brodsky in November's election for Broward County Supervisor of Elections, 81.79% to 18.21%.

Snipes' office did not immediately return a voice message seeking comment for this story.

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The video tape of the November arrest, outside of Broward County's leased election facility, following a call to authorities from Snipes' deputy Fred Bellis, as also seen on the tape, is reposted below...

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