Whether that question will be answered in court has yet to be seen. What's clear is that even the defendants in the case disagree.
Current site owner Hans Bernhard says, absolutely, such commerce is under way. The creator and former adviser, James Baumgartner maintains that his brainchild is only a work of satire and does not engage in illegal vote-trading activities.
"The question of if it's a hoax, I can answer with a clear no," Bernhard said in a phone interview Thursday. "It's very obvious, because we're not running projects like that to make hoaxes. We're running businesses."
Dan Stewart, a lawyer in Albany, New York representing Baumgartner, say
s it's not so.
"The whole point of this was not to have people sell their votes," said Stewart, who said Bernhard sold Voteauction.com in mid-August for 1 euro (less than $1). "The point was to have people draw their attention to the issue of money and politics... . James Baumgartner would not have consented to selling the site if he did not think Mr. Bernhard held the same position."
Clearly, Baumgartner has reason to deny he's involved in selling votes. As a defendant in the suit, he could be slapped with damages.
But at least one interested observer believes Bernhard is telling the truth.
"I've always been skeptical of the satire argument," said Deborah Phillips, chair of the Voting Integrity Project, which has followed the Voteauction story since its early days in August, when it was run as an MFA thesis project in New York state.
"Satire doesn't usually involve the exchange of money, nor does it usually cross international boundaries or involve international security threats," she said.
"If it's true it's just been a hoax, then the only way they can prove that is to open their site to FBI technologists," Phillips said. "Otherwise, we have no way of verifying."
But Stewart said, "That's exactly what we did. The FBI conducted an investigation.... I'm not in a position right now to comment on the outcome of the investigation, but we have provided them everything they requested."
Pressed for verification of the quarter-million-dollar bid tallies now being posted at the site -- which Baumgartner deflated last week by alleging that Voteauction never actually received any offers to buy votes, even when it was posting bid totals of over $100,000 -- Bernhard laughs.
"We have absolutely no possibility to disclose any information," he said. "This would be like handing it over to the feds. And the bidders especially are very, very concerned about the security. That's the reason they don't just come in via e-mail, but also via fax and telephone. They exactly know that this is not public information."
Bernhard's credibility as a straight-shooting businessman is certainly undercut by Baumgartner's revelation that his sale of Voteauction.com in August was brokered by the corporate satire collective RTMark.
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