Election Data Breach Attracts Georgia Investigators
The day after Donald J. Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol, a small group working on his behalf traveled to rural Coffee County, Ga., about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta.
One member of the group was Paul Maggio, an executive at a firm based in Atlanta called SullivanStrickler, which helps organizations analyze and manage their data. His company had been hired by Sidney Powell, a conspiracy theorist and lawyer advising Mr. 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 election/voting machines and systems,” Mr. Maggio wrote to Ms. Powell on the morning of Jan. 7, 2021, according to an email exchange that recently emerged in civil litigation. Weeks later, Scott Hall, an Atlanta-area Trump supporter and bail bondsman who traveled to Coffee County on a chartered plane, described what he and the group did there.
“We scanned every freaking ballot,” he said in a recorded phone conversation in March 2021. Mr. Hall said that the team had the blessing of the local elections board and “scanned all the equipment, imaged all the hard drives and scanned every single ballot.”
This week, court filings revealed that the Coffee County data breach is now part of the sprawling investigation into election interference being conducted by Fani T. Willis, the district attorney of Fulton County, Ga., which encompasses most of Atlanta.
Though Coffee County is well outside of her jurisdiction, Ms. Willis is seeking to build a broad conspiracy and racketeering case that encompasses multifaceted efforts by Trump allies to disrupt and overturn the lawful election of Joseph R. Biden Jr. 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, court records show. Many of the details of the Coffee County visit were included in emails and texts that surfaced 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 coordinated by Trump allies played out in several swing states. This month, Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, a Democrat, sought the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate data breaches there. She is seeking to remove herself from the case because one of the people potentially implicated in the scheme is her likely Republican election opponent, Matthew DePerno.
Ms. Powell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
SullivanStrickler, in a statement released by a law firm representing the company, said it “has never been part of a ‘pro-Trump team’ or any ‘team’ whose goal is to undermine our democracy,” adding that it was a “politically agnostic” firm that was hired to “preserve and forensically copy the Dominion voting machines used in the 2020 election.” The statement said it was “categorically false” that SullivanStrickler was part of an effort that “illegally ‘breached’ servers” or other voting equipment, adding that it was retained and directed by “licensed, practicing attorneys.”
“The firm elected to cease any further new work on this matter after the Jan. 7 time period,” the statement said. “With the benefit of hindsight, and knowing everything they know now, they would not take on any further work of this kind.”
Legal experts say the Fulton County investigation could be particularly perilous for Mr. Trump’s allies, and perhaps for Mr. Trump himself, given the phone call that Mr. Trump made as president to Georgia’s secretary of state on Jan. 2, 2021, asking him to “find” enough votes to help him overturn his election loss in the state.
A special grand jury has been impaneled with the sole purpose of investigating election meddling in the state and has already heard testimony from more than 30 witnesses, including Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. Mr. Giuliani is one of at least 18 people who have been notified by prosecutors that they could face indictment in the case.
This week, prosecutors filed court documents indicating that they were seeking testimony from a number of other Trump allies, including Ms. Powell and Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff. The petition seeking to compel Ms. Powell’s testimony notes that Ms. Powell coordinated with SullivanStrickler “to obtain elections data” from Coffee County, adding: “There is further evidence in the public record that indicates that the witness was involved in similar efforts in Michigan and Nevada during the same time period.”
As a lawyer who advised Mr. Trump after the election, Ms. Powell made a number of specious claims about election fraud, including an assertion that Democrats had “developed a computer system to alter votes electronically.”
Ms. Powell is among those who have been 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 suit, lawyers for Ms. Powell have argued that “no reasonable person would conclude” that some of her wilder statements “were truly statements of fact.”
Fulton County prosecutors are seeking to have Ms. Powell testify before the special grand jury next month. In their court filing this week, they said that she possessed “unique knowledge” about postelection meetings held at the South Carolina plantation of L. Lin Wood, a pro-Trump lawyer and conspiracy theorist. Mr. Wood, prosecutors wrote, stated that he and a group of other Trump supporters, including Ms. Powell and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, met at the plantation to explore “options to influence the results” of the 2020 election “in Georgia and elsewhere.”
Ms. Willis’s office cited the Coffee County data breach in its filing on Thursday seeking Ms. Powell’s testimony, which was the first time the matter had surfaced in connection with her investigation. It remains unclear to what extent Ms. Willis’s office will focus on the Coffee County matter in her inquiry, or what, if any, charges could flow from it.
“There are a variety of avenues the state has to bring criminal charges,” said David D. Cross, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit brought by civic 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 doesn’t belong to you.”
Mr. Trump won nearly 70 percent of Coffee County, which is home to just 43,000 people. Trump officials most likely targeted the county’s voting system because the county was run by friendly officials who were eager to cooperate. Cathy Latham, who was chair of the local Republican Party at the time, was also one of 16 pro-Trump fake electors who convened in the Georgia State Capitol on Dec. 14, 2020, despite Mr. Trump’s loss in the state. All of them, including Ms. Latham, have been identified as targets of Ms. Willis’s investigation.
The costs of election security breaches have been onerous. In Antrim County, Mich., 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 that is being held as evidence in civil litigation.
In Colorado, the secretary of state’s office estimated that taxpayers incurred a bill of at least $1 million to replace voting equipment in Mesa County after a pro-Trump election supervisor was indicted on charges that 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 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 on Thursday. “When election officials permit or facilitate untrustworthy actors in gaining access to the system without any oversight, that is in and of itself going to leave the public questioning whether they trust these systems.”
Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.