Supervisors deny allegations, call for end to “sham” audit

By: - May 17, 2021 6:38 pm

Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates speaks about the Senate’s election audit at a press conference on May 17, 2021. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror

After Senate President Karen Fann’s audit team accused Maricopa County election officials of illegally deleting files and other improprieties, the Board of Supervisors responded with a full-blown denunciation, denying the allegations and decrying the audit as a sham that should be put to rest.

For 45 minutes during a special meeting on Monday, and for nearly an hour at a press conference afterward, the supervisors, along with Recorder Stephen Richer and Sheriff Paul Penzone, derided Fann’s audit team as unqualified and biased and refuted the allegations the Senate president and the audit team, through its Twitter account, have leveled at the county.

Relations between Fann and the supervisors had been tense since the Senate president issued subpoenas to the supervisors in December for ballots, tabulation machines and other election materials so the Senate could conduct an audit in response to baseless conspiracy theories claiming the election was rigged against former President Donald Trump. The county fought those subpoenas in court, and a judge ruled that the supervisors had to comply. 

But Monday marked an apparent turning point in the months-long dispute between the Senate and the county. 

The board, which has a 4-1 GOP majority, along with recently elected county Recorder Stephen Richer, also a Republican, began waging a rhetorical war against Fann and the Senate on Friday, and continued that on Monday as they pushed back against allegations from auditors that they deleted files from a database before turning over equipment, that they failed to document chain of custody for the nearly 2.1 million ballots for the election, and that the number of ballots in batches turned over by the county doesn’t match the numbers cited in documentation.

The supervisors sent a blistering 14-page letter responding to Fann and the audit team’s recent accusations. The letter will serve as the board’s only response, Chairman Jack Sellers said during the special meeting on Monday. He referred to the audit as “a grift disguised as an audit,” a reference to undisclosed contributors who are funding the overwhelming majority of the work.

The audit’s official Twitter account initially broadcast allegations that the audit team had discovered that county officials had “deleted a directory full of election databases from the 2020 election cycle. Fann, R-Prescott, asked the supervisors and other county officials to attend a hearing at the Senate on Tuesday to discuss the allegedly deleted files, along with the other allegations.

Sellers made it clear on Monday that he and his colleagues will not attend.

“This board is done explaining anything to these people who are playing investigator with our constituents’ ballots and equipment, paid for with peoples’ tax dollars,” Sellers said. “It’s time to be done with this craziness and get on with our county’s critical business.”

Supervisor Bill Gates called the meeting “political theater broadcast by OAN” — a reference to the ardently pro-Trump One American News Network, which has gotten special access to the audit despite a documented history of spreading falsehoods about the election in Arizona — while Richer called it a “show trial.”

In their letter to Fann, the supervisors denied deleting any files, and attributed the allegation to ineptitude on the part of Cyber Ninjas, the Florida-based cybersecurity firm that Fann hired to lead her audit team.

The screenshot the audit’s Twitter account included with its allegation doesn’t actually indicate that files were deleted, the supervisors said. It shows a “modified” date for the files, which the supervisors said could have been the result of the software updating the files’ metadata. X-marks next to the file names show only that the auditors were unable to locate them from the digital copies they made of the machines, which the supervisors said could have a number of explanations.

“That the Senate would launch such a grave accusation via Twitter not only before waiting for an answer to your questions, but also before your so-called ‘audit’ demonstrates to the world that the Arizona Senate is not acting in good faith, has no intention of learning anything about the November 2020 General Election, but is only interested in feeding the various festering conspiracy theories that fuel the fundraising schemes of those pulling your strings,” the supervisors wrote to Fann.

Sellers said during Monday’s meeting that it’s concerning “the ninjas can’t even find files that were given to them by Maricopa County.”

“They can’t find the files because they don’t know what they’re doing, and we wouldn’t be asked to do this on-the-job training if qualified auditors had been hired to do this work,” he said.

The Senate is also demanding that the county turn over computer routers that were part of the original subpoenas. The supervisors say handing over the routers would cost the county about $6 million to replace, and that they would severely disrupt the operations of county government because other agencies outside of the recorder’s office and elections department use them. 

Furthermore, Penzone said it would also put confidential law enforcement information that could jeopardize the safety of his deputies in the hands of “a private, uncertified hacking company, based on a hunch, without any factual basis, legitimate evidence or detailed justification.”

Richer said there is no election-related information on the routers, and that the Senate has not explained why the routers would be needed for the audit. Fann told KTAR’s Mike Broomhead last week that the auditors want to examine the routers to ensure that tabulation machines weren’t connected to the internet. A separate audit commissioned by the county earlier this year by federally accredited companies concluded that the machines had never been connected to the internet.

The supervisors and Richer also addressed another unfulfilled request from the subpoenas. 

The Senate has demanded passwords to the county’s ballot tabulation machines that would allow them to access the source code of the software they use. The county says it doesn’t have the passwords because they’re not needed to run elections, and that Dominion Voting Systems, the company that makes the machines, would only provide those passwords to accredited companies, such as the two firms the county hired earlier this year to inspect the machines, both of which have accreditation from the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission.

The supervisors said they were “stunned” by the allegation that the county didn’t properly document chain-of-custody for the nearly 2.1 million ballots, and listed 11 bullet points detailing how chain-of-custody was documented for the Senate’s audit liaison, Ken Bennett, and for the Senate’s attorneys.

“It demonstrates a spectacular lack of understanding on your part of what occurred during the County’s transfer of its material to your custody,” the letter said of the claim.

In response to Fann’s question asking why bags that were used to store ballots weren’t sealed, the supervisors said the broken seals that the audit team found in the bottom of the ballot boxes came from the tamper-proof bags used to transport ballots from voting centers to the Maricopa County Tabulation and Election Center. The contents of those bags are transferred to long-term storage boxes after a statutory five-day period for contesting election results concludes.

And as to allegations that the number of ballots in some batches provided by the county didn’t match numbers listed in documentation that was included, the supervisors said the Senate’s contractors simply don’t understand the way duplicated ballots — ballots that must be recopied by hand because they machines won’t read them — affect such counts, along with other issues. 

“This is the result of enlisting auditors who have no experience or background in elections and … failing to understand how to read election transmission slips,” Richer said at the meeting.

The supervisors ended their letter with a call for Fann to end the audit. They noted, for example, that the audit teams is investigating far fetched conspiracy theories, such as searching for bamboo fibers in the ballots in response to baseless claims that counterfeit ballots from Asia were inserted into the count; that the audit team originally gave blue pens to workers in violation of election department rules, which bar blue and black pens around ballots because stray markings could be read by the tabulation machines; and that the audit team has lost control of its Twitter account, which Bennett only reclaimed last week

“None of this is inspiring confidence. None of this will cause our citizens to trust elections. In fact, it is having the opposite effect. You certainly must recognize that things are not going well at the Coliseum,” the letter read, referencing Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, where the audit is taking place. 

The auditors don’t know the laws, procedures or best practices for elections, the letter read, and, “It is inevitable that they will arrive at questionable conclusions.” Sellers said at the press conference after the meeting that if the audit report reaches erroneous conclusions about what happened in the election, the county will challenge those assertions in court.

The supervisors called on other Republican senators to pressure Fann to put an end to the audit. 

Fann declined to comment, saying the Senate’s response will come during Tuesday’s 1 p.m. meeting with herself, Bennett, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen and Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, which she said will take place, even if the county doesn’t participate.

“Contrary to the personal attacks thrown out today by the BOS, the Senate will keep on the high road and conduct our hearing in the spirit of professionalism,” Fann told the Arizona Mirror. “This is about election integrity and nothing more. Our constituents deserve answers to their questions.”

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”

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