Fight over Mesa County election oversight moves into legal phase

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office asked a Mesa County District Court judge again this week to officially keep county Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters from overseeing the November election and instead appoint former Secretary of State Wayne Williams.

It’s the latest in a legal tangle over allegations that Peters let an unauthorized man access a secure area at the county election office on May 25 and that passwords from the voting equipment were published online in early August by a leader in the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Secretary of State Jena Griswold and Mesa County resident Heidi Jeanne Hess filed a lawsuit Aug. 30 to keep Peters and Deputy Clerk and Recorder Belinda Knisley from handling the next election.

Last week, Peters — who had been out of the state for more than a month and has become popular among 2020 election conspiracy theorists — responded to the lawsuit by providing to commissioners and the court a report that alleges wrongdoing by the secretary of state’s office and says that a state upgrade wiped out election records that elections officials are required to keep.

The Mesa County Board of County Commissioners appointed Williams in August as the designated election official and asked the court to affirm that decision, but Peters’ attorney argued this week that commissioners don’t have that authority. Wednesday night’s filing from Griswold’s office asked for the court to make a decision on the removal — and responded to allegations of wrongdoing by Peters.

“Clerk Peters and Deputy Clerk Knisley jeopardized Mesa County elections, and their actions were not consistent with the required practice for the preservation of election records,” Griswold said in a statement, reiterating that the alleged breach was serious, compromising election equipment and spreading misinformation. “That is why my office had to quickly act to ensure Mesa County residents have great elections this fall.”

There are three investigations into the possible breach: the secretary of state’s, the Mesa County District Attorney’s office and the FBI. Knisley has been suspended from her job and charged with felony burglary and a misdemeanor cybercrime, though the charges are independent of the ongoing investigations.

Peters’ attorney, former Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, acknowledged in a Sept. 17 legal filing that there was an “unauthorized release of information on one or more publicly available web sites,” but said the actions by Griswold and the county commissioners to remove Peters and Knisley were “wholly disproportionate and directly violate Colorado law.”

Gessler also wrote that Peters “suspected that the Secretary’s trusted build process (annual system update) wiped out election records that she is required to preserve under Colorado law.” So Peters had a consultant copy the hard drive of the county’s Dominion Voting Systems equipment and commissioned the report “which appears to validate (Peters’) suspicions,” Gessler wrote.

The Grand Junction Sentinel first detailed Peters’ new report, which was initially unsigned but is authored by forensic cyber expert Doug Gould — who spoke at a conspiracy theory event in August. The report says nearly 30,000 logfiles were deleted from the county’s election records.

Griswold’s office said counties are directed to save a copy of data needed to audit and verify a previous election before the routine upgrade. The data can be restored after the upgrade, according to the office. In a court filing, the secretary of state’s office says there’s no proof in the report that election records were deleted.

The all-Republican county commissioners sent Peters’ report to cybersecurity analysts that they trust, Commissioner Cody Davis said, adding that the board takes all claims seriously and are waiting for a thorough review.

“The initial response is (the report is) not saying anything new and there’s really no smoking gun in here,” Davis said of the analysts’ preliminary review. Mesa County also has replaced its voting equipment with new Dominion machines.

Davis said he wants Mesa County voters to know that officials are taking every measure to ensure the Nov. 2 election is secure and the results are trustworthy — regardless of what’s happening nationally or locally. The votes will be counted three times, including a hand count. Ballot images also will be uploaded online, and elections officials will conduct a post-election audit.

“We’ve essentially got five forms of verification this fall,” Davis said. “I don’t know of any other county or state that has gone to this degree, so one could that say we’ve got probably the safest and most honest, transparent elections at this point this fall.”

Peters, who was elected to the clerk and recorder position in 2018, left the state for more than a month before a Sept. 18 public appearance in Grand Junction at an event called “Stand with Tina.” Her last public appearance before that was on Aug. 10 at a conspiracy theory symposium in South Dakota that Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and an election conspiracist, hosted.

She did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 30.

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