Election Data Breach Lures Georgia Investigators

Senator Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 10, 2022. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

Senator Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 10, 2022. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

The day after Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, a small group working on his behalf traveled to rural Coffee County, Georgia, about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta.

One of the group was Paul Maggio, an executive with an Atlanta-based company called SullivanStrickler, which helps organizations analyze and manage their data. His firm had been hired by Sidney Powell, a conspiracy theorist and attorney advising Trump, who was tasked with scouring voting systems in Georgia and other states. It was part of an effort by Trump allies in a number of swing states to access and copy sensitive election software, with the help of friendly election administrators.

“We are on our way to Coffee County, Georgia to collect what we can from the electoral/voting machines and systems,” Maggio wrote to Powell on the morning of January 7, 2021, according to an email exchange that recently emerged in civil litigation. Weeks later, Scott Hall, an Atlanta-area Trump supporter and surety who traveled to Coffee County on a charter plane, described what he and the group did there. -down.

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“We scanned every creepy ballot,” he said in a taped phone conversation in March 2021. Hall said the team had the blessing of the local elections board and “scanned the whole equipment, imaged all hard drives and scanned every ballot. ”

This week, court documents revealed that the Coffee County data breach is now part of the sprawling election interference investigation led by Fulton County, Georgia, attorney Fani T. Willis, which encompasses the most of Atlanta.

Although Coffee County is well outside his jurisdiction, Willis is seeking to mount a sweeping conspiracy and racketeering case that encompasses the multifaceted efforts of Trump allies to disrupt and nullify the legal election of Joe Biden. On Aug. 16, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also confirmed that it was working with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office on an investigation into the Coffee County data breach, according to court records. Extensive details of the Coffee County visit were included in emails and texts that surfaced as part of a civil lawsuit brought by suffrage activists against the Georgia Secretary of State; News of the breach was reported earlier by The Washington Post.

Similar violations coordinated by Trump allies have unfolded in several swing states. This month, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate data breaches there. She is seeking to back out of the case because one of the people potentially involved in the scheme is her likely Republican election opponent, Matthew DePerno.

Powell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sullivan Strickler, in a statement released by a law firm representing the company, said he “has never been part of a ‘pro-Trump team’ or a ‘team’ whose purpose is to undermine our democracy”, adding that it was a “political team”. agnostic” who was hired to “preserve and forensically copy Dominion voting machines used in the 2020 election.” The statement said it was “categorically untrue” that Sullivan Strickler was part of an effort that “illegally” hacked into “servers” or other voting equipment, adding that he was retained and run by ” licensed and practicing attorneys.

“The company has elected to cease all further work on this matter after the January 7 period,” the statement said. “In hindsight, and knowing all they know now, they wouldn’t undertake any more work like this.”

Legal experts say the Fulton County investigation could be particularly perilous for Trump allies, and possibly for Trump himself, given the phone call Trump made as president to the Secretary of State. Georgian state on January 2, 2021, asking him to “find” enough votes. to help him reverse his electoral defeat in the state.

A special grand jury was appointed for the sole purpose of investigating election interference in the state and has already heard testimony from more than 30 witnesses, including former Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani is one of at least 18 people who have been told by prosecutors they could be charged in the case.

This week, prosecutors filed court documents indicating they were seeking testimony from a number of other Trump allies, including Powell and Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff. The motion to compel Powell’s testimony notes that Powell coordinated with Sullivan Strickler “to obtain election data” from Coffee County, adding, “There is other evidence in the public record that indicates the witness has been involved in similar efforts in Michigan and Nevada during the same period. »

As a lawyer who advised Trump after the election, Powell made a number of specious allegations about voter fraud, including a claim that Democrats had “developed a computer system to alter votes electronically.” .

Powell is among those sued for defamation by Dominion Voting Systems, the company that provides voting machines for Coffee County and the rest of Georgia. As part of that lawsuit, Powell’s attorneys argued that “no reasonable person would conclude” that some of his wildest statements “were really statements of fact.”

Fulton County prosecutors are seeking to have Powell testify before the special grand jury next month. In their court filing this week, they said she had “unique knowledge” of post-election meetings held at the South Carolina plantation of L. Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer and conspiracy theorist. Wood, prosecutors wrote, said he and a group of other Trump supporters, including Powell and Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser, met at the plantation to explore “options for influencing the outcome.” “2020 Elections” in Georgia and Elsewhere.”

Willis’ office cited the Coffee County data breach in its filing Thursday requesting testimony from Powell, which was the first time the matter had surfaced as part of its investigation. It remains unclear to what extent Willis’ office will focus on the Coffee County case in its investigation, or what charges, if any, may arise.

“The state has a variety of avenues for pursuing criminal lawsuits,” said David D. Cross, an attorney representing plaintiffs in a longstanding lawsuit brought by civic groups against the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office for the election security. “There are specific laws in Georgia that prevent access to particular voting materials,” he said, as well as “general laws about accessing computer materials that don’t belong to you.”

Trump won nearly 70% of Coffee County, which has just 43,000 residents. Trump officials most likely targeted the county’s electoral system because the county was run by friendly officials willing to cooperate. Cathy Latham, who was then president of the local Republican Party, was also one of 16 fake pro-Trump voters who gathered at the Georgia State Capitol on December 14, 2020, despite Trump losing to the state. . All of them, including Latham, were identified as targets of Willis’ investigation.

The costs of election security breaches have been onerous. In County Antrim, Michigan, which was at the forefront of efforts to overturn the election, Sheryl Guy, the clerk, said on Thursday that officials had to rent voting equipment to replace equipment retained as evidence in civil litigation.

In Colorado, the secretary of state’s office estimated that taxpayers had incurred a bill of at least $1 million to replace voting equipment in Mesa County after a pro-Trump election supervisor was charged with tampering with the material after the 2020 election.

Election experts noted that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has recommended that the safest course of action is to decommission voting equipment that has been compromised.

“We’re getting to the point where this is happening at an alarming rate,” Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Elections and Government program at the Brennan Center, said in an interview Thursday. “When election officials allow or facilitate access to the system by untrusted actors without any oversight, that in itself will leave the public wondering if they trust those systems.”

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