Does Hugo Chavez own U.S. voting machines ?

Feds probe money trail behind company for ties to Venezuelan president

Just 10 days before Americans vote in midterm congressional elections that could result in a historic shift of power, the federal government is investigating whether anti-American Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may control the company that operates electronic voting machines in 17 states.

Many questions have been raised about the reliability of the new machines, which leave no paper trails for the purposes of recounts. But now federal officials are investigating whether Smartmatic, owner of Sequoia Voting Systems, is secretly controlled by the Castroite revolutionary leader of Venezuela who denounced President Bush as Satan in his most recent United Nations address, the Miami Herald reports.

An informal investigation of Smartmatic's ownership begun last summer has, the paper reveals, become a formal probe.

One of the other major concerns raised about the electronic voting systems is that they could, under the right circumstances, be tampered with to deliver fraudulent results.

The investigation stems from a May 4 inquiry to the Treasury Department by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., raising concerns about Smartmatic's purchase of Sequoia last year. Maloney said she was disturbed by a 2004 article in the Miami Herald revealing that the Venezuelan government owned 28 percent of Bizta � a company operated by two of the same people who own Smartmatic.

Despite the probe, Smartmatic categorically denies any link to the Ch�vez regime.

"Smartmatic is a privately held corporation, and no foreign government or entity � including Venezuela � has ever held an ownership stake in the company," Mitch Stoller, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail to the Miami Herald.

"The government of Venezuela doesn�t have anything to do with the company aside from contracting it for our electoral process," the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, told the New York Times tonight.

But the Venezuelan connections have haunted the company whose machines have been plagued with problems in U.S. elections.

The Smartmatic investigation is being conducted by the Treasury-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, CFIUS � which determines whether deals involving foreign investors compromise national security.

Determining whether there really is a hidden connection to Ch�vez or anyone in his government is difficult because of Smartmatic's complex, though legal, corporate structure, reports the Miami Herald.

"The government should know who owns our voting machines � that is a national-security concern," said Maloney, who started the investigation with her letter last May. "There seems to have been an obvious effort to obscure the ownership of the company."

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