Machine Politics

The bankruptcy of a tiny voting-machine company ensnares a gaggle of big names.

Business and politics have been known to make uneasy bedfellows, but an obscure Boulder company is showing just how strange the marriage can be. Last month United States Voting Machine Inc. declared bankruptcy. The announcement was hardly earthshaking: USVM listed a mere $20,000 in assets. Yet the company's union of politics and money--USVM hoped to manufacture and sell new electronic voting machines--has proved just as irresistible as it does during an election season.

By the time it crashed, United States Voting Machine, despite its tiny size, had ensnared some of the biggest names in Colorado politics and finance, including the scion of Time magazine co-founder Henry Luce; a descendant of the Marshall Field retail fortune; a former Colorado governor; a former lieutenant governor; a former state senator; a close friend and political ally of Denver mayor Wellington Webb; a millionaire co-founder of one of the state's biggest high-tech companies; one of Colorado's best-known tax protesters; and, just to top things off, a top-ranking executive of Microsoft Corporation.

"This project has been a multiple magnet," agrees former governor Dick Lamm, who consulted with the company in its infancy. "Anybody interested in the electoral process is intrigued by this. And I guess entrepreneurs are, too: I think there's a hell of a market out there."

The fate of United States Voting Machine is still in a tangle. That's because the only thing USVM has been producing recently is a growing stack of legal documents: No fewer than six lawsuits involving the company are pending, all of which hope to sort out who owns what. Others may be filed soon.

In some respects, the USVM's saga is not unusual. Every year thousands of inventors hitch their wagons to money men and other investors to tote ideas to market. Many times they fail; after plowing through millions of dollars, glitches arise and the company sinks with no one the wealthier. What sets USVM apart is its sterling pedigree--the amount of blue-blooded money and political power that poured into a tiny, unknown company whose chance for success was, it turned out, a very long way off.

United States Voting Machine was born to a Loveland inventor named Larry Sarner, who, during a commute to work one day in 1982, discovered a way to merge his college degrees in political science and applied mathematics. "I was listening to the radio and I heard about this new election system that Denver was trying out," he recalls. "So I took the next day off from work to check it out."

What he saw didn't impress him, but it gave him an idea: a totally electronic method of tabulating votes that would be accurate, fast and secure. He set to work on his Mark I voting system.

One of the first partners Sarner hooked up with was a young Boulder political junkie named Ken Malpass. The two had met earlier at various political functions; now both were intrigued by the idea of a new way of voting. Despite their mutual interest, however, things moved slowly. Sarner says United States Voting Machine did not begin to get off the ground until 1986.

Malpass, who did not return repeated calls from Westword, apparently did not bring much in the way of technical expertise to the partnership. Those who worked with him say that, although a member of the bar, he has not practiced law. Still, he did not come to the company without worth. Acquaintances say that Malpass, who eventually was named president and chief executive officer of USVM, is an eloquent and persuasive speaker. "He was the fundraiser; I was the techno-nerd," Sarner recalls.

One early investor in the pair's new voting system was Vern Bickel, best known as the founder and director of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, a Boulder anti-tax group. Bickel, who now describes his affiliation with United States Voting Machine as "accidental," says he met Sarner and Malpass through the taxpayers' union. "[Sarner] was desperately short of money, so I agreed to lend him some," Bickel recalls. The loan amount was "minor," but even so, says Bickel, "I've given up getting my money back. I've got a drawerful of stuff on the lawsuits, but I don't look at it. I wish them well, but I'm not expecting anything."

Another person interested in the project was Dick Lamm, who says he became involved in the company after meeting Malpass through the Democratic Party. "He's a very bright, imaginative person," says Lamm, who adds that he was immediately struck by the idea of a new voting machine. "What we're using now is early 1900s technology," he points out. "Using old, heavy, slow machines offends my sense of efficiency." Sarner says Lamm never invested any money in United States Voting Machine.

One early investor was Charles Schweppe, a Boulder real estate agent. Although he declined extensive comment, Schweppe says he is related to the Chicago Schweppes, former owners of an $8 million mansion that still bears their name and heirs to the Marshall Field & Co. fortune.

Malpass began to rely more and more on lucrative family connections. For example, one USVM investor was the classmate of Malpass's brother at Colorado College, a man named Peter Neupert. Neupert works for Microsoft, the giant computer software company. But he is hardly a faceless programming drone. As Microsoft's vice-president for strategic partnerships, Neupert most recently made news last December as the man primarily responsible for structuring Microsoft's $210 million partnership with NBC. Thanks to Malpass's connection, Neupert invested in USVM (the amount is unclear) and also was named a director of the company.

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