ATLANTA (AP) — Two months after the 2020 presidential election, a team of computer experts traveled to south Georgia to copy software and data from voting equipment in an apparent breach of a county election system. They were greeted outside by the head of the local Republican Party, who was involved in efforts by then-President Donald Trump to overturn his election loss.
A security camera outside the elections office in rural Coffee County captured their arrival. The footage also shows that some local election officials were at the office during what the Georgia secretary of state’s office has described as “alleged unauthorized access” of election equipment.
Security footage from two weeks later raises additional alarms — showing two people who were instrumental in Trump's wider efforts to undermine the election results entering the office and staying for hours.
The security video from the elections office in the county about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta offers a glimpse of the lengths Trump's allies went to in service of his fraudulent election claims. It further shows how access was facilitated by local officials who are entrusted with protecting the security of elections while raising concerns about sensitive voting technology being released into the public domain.
Georgia wasn't the only state where voting equipment was accessed after the 2020 presidential election. Important information about voting systems also was compromised in election offices in Pennsylvania,Michigan and Colorado. Election security experts worry the information obtained — including complete copies of hard drives — could be exploited by those who want to interfere with future elections.
"The system is only as secure as the people who are entrusted to keep it secure,” said lawyer David Cross, who represents plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit over Georgia’s voting machines.
The Coffee County security footage was obtained through that lawsuit, which alleges that Georgia’s touchscreen voting machines are vulnerable to attack and should be replaced by hand-marked paper ballots. The suit long predates and is unrelated to false allegations of widespread election fraud pushed by Trump and his allies after the 2020 election.
The alleged breach in Coffee County's elections office also has caught the attention of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is overseeing an investigation into whether Trump and his allies illegally tried to influence the 2020 election results in Georgia.
Last month, Willis cited the Coffee County activity, among other things, when she sought to compel testimony from Sidney Powell, an attorney who was deeply involved in Trump's effort to undo the election results.
Emails and other records show Powell and other attorneys linked to Trump helped arrange for a team from data solutions company SullivanStrickler to travel to Coffee County, which Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points.
The surveillance video, emails and other documents that shed light on what happened there in January 2021 were produced in response to subpoenas issued in the voting machine lawsuit and were obtained by The Associated Press. Parts of the security video appear to contradict claims by some of the local officials:
— Footage captures Cathy Latham, then chair of the Coffee County Republican Party, arriving at the elections office shortly after 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 7, 2021, the day after the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. Just a few weeks earlier, she was one of 16 Georgia Republicans who signed a certificate falsely stating that Trump had won the state and declaring that they were the state’s “duly elected and qualified” electors.
A few minutes after her arrival, she is seen outside greeting SullivanStrickler chief operating officer Paul Maggio and two other people. Less than 10 minutes later, she escorts two other men into the building.
The video shows her leaving the elections office just before 1:30 p.m., roughly two hours after she greeted the SullivanStrickler team. She returns a little before 4 p.m. and then leaves around 6:15 p.m.
Latham said under oath during a deposition in August that she stopped by the elections office that evening for “Just a few minutes” and left before 5 p.m. Pressed on whether she had been there earlier in the day, Latham said she couldn’t recall but suggested her schedule as a teacher would not have allowed it.
A lawyer for SullivanStrickler said in an email attached to a court filing that Latham was a “primary point of contact” in coordinating the company’s work and “was on site” while that work was done.
Robert Cheeley, a lawyer for Latham said in an emailed statement that his client doesn't remember all the details of that day. But he said she “would not and has not knowingly been involved in any impropriety in any election" and “has not acted improperly or illegally.”
— The video also shows Eric Chaney, a member of Coffee County's election board, arriving shortly before 11 a.m. the same day and going in and out several times before leaving for the night around 7:40 p.m. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the voting machine lawsuit wrote in a court filing that a photo produced by SullivanStrickler's COO shows Chaney in the office as the copying is happening.
During a deposition last month, Chaney declined to answer many questions about that day, citing the Fifth Amendment. But when an attorney representing the county reached out to him in April regarding questions from the The Washington Post, Chaney wrote, “I am not aware of nor was I present at the Coffee County Board of Elections and Registration's office when anyone illegally accessed the server or the room in which it is contained.” Chaney resigned from the elections board last month, days before his deposition.
Attempts to reach Chaney by phone were unsuccessful, and his lawyer did not respond to an email seeking comment.
— About two weeks after the initial breach, video shows Misty Hampton — then the county elections director — arriving at the elections office at 4:20 p.m. on Jan. 18, when it was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She unlocked the door and let in two men — Doug Logan and Jeff Lenberg, who have been active in efforts to challenge the 2020 election results.
Logan founded Cyber Ninjas, which participated in a partisan and ultimately discredited review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Arizona. The two men remained inside until just after 8 p.m. and then spent more than nine hours there the next day. Lenberg returned for brief visits on at least three more days later that month.
Hampton resigned as elections supervisor in February 2021 after elections board officials said she falsified her timesheets. Attempts by the AP to reach her were unsuccessful.
In a statement released by its attorney, SullivanStrickler said the company was retained by attorneys to forensically copy voting machines used in the 2020 election and had no reason to believe they would ask its employees to do anything improper.
The Georgia secretary of state’s office said it opened an investigation in March and asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for assistance last month. State officials have said the system remains secure because of multiple protections in place.