Election data breach attracts Georgia investigators

Sen. Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) speaks during a news 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 member of the team was Paul Maggio, an executive at 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 Trump-advising attorney charged with auditing voting systems in Georgia and other states. It was part of an effort by Trump allies in several 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 election/voting machines and systems,” Maggio wrote to Powell on the morning of Jan. 7, 2021, according to a newly surfaced email exchange in the civil trial. Weeks later, Scott Hall, an Atlanta-area Trump supporter and jailer who traveled to Coffee County on a chartered plane, described what he and the group did there.

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

This week, court filings revealed that the Coffee County data breach is now part of the broader election interference investigation being conducted by Fani T. Willis, the district attorney for Fulton County, Georgia, which covers most of Atlanta .

Although Coffee County is well outside her jurisdiction, Willis seeks to build a broad conspiracy and racketeering case involving multifaceted efforts by Trump allies to disrupt and subvert the legitimate election of Joe Biden. On Aug. 16, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also confirmed it was working with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office on an investigation into the Coffee County data breach, according to court records. Many of the details of the Coffee County visit were included in emails and texts that appeared in civil litigation brought by voting rights activists against Georgia’s secretary of state. News of the breach was reported earlier by the Washington Post.

Similar breaches orchestrated by Trump allies took place 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 recuse herself from the case because one of the people possibly involved in the scheme is her potential Republican opponent in the election, Matthew DePerno.

Powell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

SullivanStrickler, in a statement released by a law firm representing the company, said he was “never part of a ‘pro-Trump group’ or any ‘group’ whose goal is to undermine our democracy,” adding that he was “politically agnostic” company hired to “maintain and forensically duplicate Dominion voting machines used in the 2020 election.” The statement said it was “categorically false” that SullivanStrickler was part of an effort that “illegally compromised” servers or other voting equipment, adding that it was maintained and directed by “authorized, practicing attorneys.”

“The company has chosen to cease any further new work on this matter after the January 7 time period,” the statement said. “With the benefit of hindsight, and knowing all they know now, they would not undertake any further work of this nature.”

Legal experts say the Fulton County probe could be especially dangerous for Trump allies, and perhaps for Trump himself, given the phone call Trump made as president to Georgia’s secretary of state on Jan. 2, 2021, asking of “finding” enough votes to help him overturn his state election defeat.

A special judicial commission has been appointed for the sole purpose of investigating meddling in the state election and has already heard testimony from more than 30 witnesses, including Trump’s former personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani is one of at least 18 people who have been notified by prosecutors that they could face charges in the case.

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

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

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

Fulton County prosecutors are seeking to have Powell testify before a special grand jury next month. In court filings this week, they said he had “unique knowledge” about the post-election meetings held at the South Carolina plantation of L. Lynn 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 to influence the outcome” of the 2020 election “in Georgia and elsewhere. .”

Willis’ office cited the Coffee County data breach in its filing Thursday seeking Powell’s testimony, which was the first time the issue had come up in connection with her investigation. It remains unclear to what extent Willis’ office will focus on the Coffee County matter in its investigation or what, if any, charges could result from it.

“There are a number of ways the state has to pursue criminal charges,” said David D. Cross, an attorney representing plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit brought by citizen groups against the Georgia Secretary of State’s office over election security. “There are specific laws in Georgia that prevent access to voting equipment in particular,” he said, as well as “general laws about accessing computer equipment that you don’t own.”

Trump won nearly 70 percent of Coffee County, which is home to just 43,000 people. Trump officials likely targeted the county’s election system because the county was run by friendly officials who were willing to cooperate. Kathy Latham, who was chairwoman of the local Republican Party at the time, was also one of 16 pro-Trump mock electors who gathered at the Georgia State Capitol on December 14, 2020, despite Trump’s loss in the state. All of them, including Latham, have been identified as targets of Willis’ investigation.

The cost of election security breaches has been heavy. In Michigan’s Antrim County, which has been at the forefront of efforts to overturn the election, Sheryl Guy, the clerk, said Thursday that officials had to rent voting equipment to replace equipment held as evidence in municipal various.

In Colorado, the secretary of state’s office estimated that taxpayers were on the hook for at least $1 million to replace voting equipment in Mesa County after a pro-Trump election supervisor was indicted on charges she tampered with the equipment after the 2020 election.

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

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

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