Machine Politics

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

Sarner says that although Rodriguez had long expressed interest in investing in USVM, he recently told Luce that he wouldn't as long as Malpass was involved. Hence, says Sarner, Luce's play to get rid of Malpass.

Over the past six months the tug of war has spawned a half-dozen lawsuits. The legal spats, in turn, have taken their toll: Three weeks ago USVM was forced by its creditors to file for protection under Chapter 7 of federal bankruptcy laws.

Luce, says his attorney Clark, is simply trying to protect his investment and prevent being set up as a deep-pocketed mark for USVM's many creditors. "Put yourself in his situation," the lawyer says. "You've put in a substantial financial commitment in a company, there are a lot of creditors, and you've got the ability to pay."

Others see more sinister motives in Luce's gambits. Jim Roberts, the conservative ex-state senator from Loveland, was another USVM investor and director. He says Luce saw early on that Sarner's invention had the potential to make big money and so always had designs on gobbling the company--although Roberts agrees Malpass ran USVM poorly.

"His stock ownership kept getting larger and larger," says Roberts. "He kind of ran away with the company, and now he's stolen it. All this legal maneuvering is [Luce's] effort to simply take over United States Voting Machine and take the patents into his possession." Roberts says he is rapidly giving up hope of ever recovering his share of USVM.

Sarner has claimed in various legal filings that Luce is ruthlessly angling for Sarner's invention. Sarner says he holds one patent for the technology behind the Mark I voting system, with three others pending. Adds Sarner's wife, Linda Rosa, "My husband has been the injured party in all this. He's lost thirteen years of his life and his intellectual property."

Attorney Clark insists that's not true. Sarner's invention never worked, he says, and had to be substantially altered. In addition, Clark claims that the patents were assigned to USVM, thus making them fair game for Luce. Indeed, last year Luce, apparently still optimistic about Sarner's invention, formed a new company called United States Voting Systems. Like USVM, it is dedicated to bringing a new electronic election system to market.

Mark Hogan, who directs marketing for the new company, says it will be a while before people begin casting votes on any of the machines. "There's a lot more money that will be required before we're through," he says. "But right now, no investor in his right mind would touch us, because things are just so messy.

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