ATLANTA (AP) —
A day after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, as the country was still reeling from the violent attempt to halt the transfer of presidential power, a local Republican Party official greeted a group of computer experts outside the election office in a rural county in south Georgia, where they were given access to voting equipment.
Their intent was to copy software and data from the election systems in an attempt to prove claims by President Donald Trump and his allies that voting machines had been rigged to flip the 2020 election to his challenger, Democrat Joe Biden, according to a wide-ranging indictment issued late Monday.
Several of those involved are among the 19 people, including the former president, charged with multiple counts in what Georgia prosecutors describe as a “conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump.”
The charges related to the breach of election equipment in Coffee County highlight that the pressure campaign by the former president and his allies didn’t stop with state officials and lawmakers, but extended all the way down to local government. Relying on Georgia’s racketeering law, the type of prosecution more typically associated with mobsters, the indictment alleges the events in Coffee County were part of a wider effort by Trump associates to illegally access voting equipment in multiple states.
“The one thing that Coffee County shows, and these other counties as well, is that the effort behind Jan. 6 didn’t stop on Jan. 6,” said Lawrence Norden, an election security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law. “The ongoing effort to undermine and sabotage elections has continued.”
The security breach inside the election office in Coffee County, about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta, is among the first known attempts by Trump allies to access voting systems as they sought evidence to back up their unsubstantiated claims that such equipment had manipulated the presidential vote. It was followed a short time later by breaches in three Michigan counties involving some of the same people and again in a western Colorado county that Trump won handily.
While the county-level equipment breaches have raised alarms about election data falling into the wrong hands and prompted two other prosecutions, they were absent from the recent federal indictment of Trump alleging interference in the 2020 election. The Georgia case is the first to argue that the breaches were part of a conspiracy by Trump and his allies to overturn the results.
Four people face six counts related to the breach in Coffee County, including conspiracy to commit election fraud, conspiracy to commit computer theft and conspiracy to defraud the state. They are lawyer and Trump ally Sidney Powell, former Coffee County elections director Misty Hampton, former Coffee County GOP Chair Cathy Latham, who also served as a false elector for Trump, and Scott Graham Hall, an Atlanta-area bail bondsman who prosecutors say is associated with longtime Trump adviser David Bossie.
A lawyer for Powell declined comment, while messages seeking responses from the others were not immediately returned.
Although Trump continues to promote his claims about the election, multiple reviews, audits and recounts in the battleground states where he disputes his loss — including in Georgia, which counted the presidential ballots three times — have confirmed Biden’s win. Trump’s claims also were rejected by dozens of judges, including several he appointed. His attorney general and an exhaustive review by The Associated Press found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the results.
After the 2020 election, Trump and Powell pushed various conspiracy theories about voting machines, specifically related to the Dominion Voting Systems equipment used in Georgia. Dominion earlier this year reached a $787 million settlement with Fox News over false claims aired on the network, including by Powell.
Court documents in Georgia show Powell hired a forensic data firm on Dec. 6, 2020, to collect and analyze Dominion equipment in Michigan and elsewhere, and prosecutors allege the breach of election equipment in Coffee County was “subsequently performed under this agreement.”
On Jan. 7, 2021, Hall and employees of the data firm traveled to the election office to copy software and data from voting equipment and were greeted outside by GOP official Latham and then taken on a tour of the office by elections director Hampton, according to the indictment and video surveillance obtained in an unrelated case about Georgia’s electronic voting machines.
Later videos showed Hampton opening the office on Jan. 18, when it was otherwise closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. She allowed in Douglas Logan and Jeff Lenberg, both of whom have been active nationally in efforts to challenge the 2020 election and were part of the effort to examine voting machines in Michigan.
Neither Logan or Lenberg were charged in Monday’s indictment.
Logan’s company, Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based firm with little election experience, was later hired by GOP lawmakers in Arizona to conduct a review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County. It ultimately confirmed Biden’s win but claimed to find various irregularities — claims that election experts said were inaccurate, misleading or based on a flawed understanding of the data.
In Coffee County, the men worked late into the evening, returning the following day. Lenberg also was seen at the office on at least three more days later that month, according to information collected in the separate voting machine lawsuit. Hampton resigned soon after their visits amid allegations of fraudulent timesheets.
This week’s indictment also mentions a Dec. 18, 2020, session in the Oval Office, where Trump allies including Powell and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, proposed ordering the military to seize voting machines and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations of voter fraud in Georgia and other battleground states Trump lost.
In Michigan, authorities have charged three people in connection with breaches in three counties, including former Republican state attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno, who along with the others has pleaded not guilty.
So far, the special counsel assigned to the case has not charged any of the employees who handed over the voting equipment nor has he charged those who were asked to analyze them. In a statement, the special counsel said they had been deceived.
With Monday’s indictment, Hampton becomes the second top county election official to be charged in connection with a security breach in their office. The first was Tina Peters, the former clerk in Mesa County, Colorado, who has emerged as a prominent figure among those who say voting machines are rigged. Both are no longer working in elections.
Prosecutors allege Peters and her deputy were part of a “deceptive scheme” to provide unauthorized access to the county’s voting systems during a May 2021 breach that eventually resulted in a copy of the voting system hard drive being posted online.
Weeks afterward, Peters appeared at an event hosted by Trump ally Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who has been seeking to prove the 2020 election was stolen and has called for a ban on voting machines.
Peters has denied wrongdoing and faces trial later this year, Her deputy pleaded guilty to lesser charges as part of an agreement with prosecutors.
Experts have described the unauthorized Colorado release as serious, saying it could provide a “practice environment” that would allow anyone to probe for vulnerabilities that could be exploited during a future election. Experts also worry it could be used to spread misinformation about voting equipment.
Colorado’s chief election official, Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, said accountability is crucial to deterring any future attempts to illegally access voting systems.
“We cannot allow election officials to destroy elections from within,” she said.
Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta; Joey Cappelletti in Lansing, Michigan, and Eric Tucker and Farnoush Amiri in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.