ATLANTA — Note: This story was modified to include comments made Friday by Gabriel Sterling, a top official in the Georgia Secretary of State's office.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger says an investigation into a south Georgia security breach got stalled by local officials who covered up what happened. Much of the evidence has emerged only in recent weeks.
The Secretary of State told 11Alive News in an exclusive interview his office got its first tip about the Coffee County security breach weeks after it happened. It has taken months for details to emerge.
"When our investigators went down there, the former election director – she's now the former election director – she did not provide truthful statements to us," Raffensperger said.
At that time, investigators had not seen the surveillance video of Coffee County officials holding the door open for operatives connected to former Donald Trump attorney Sidney Powell – allowing them into a secure area to access the county’s computerized election equipment.
Raffensperger said former Coffee County elections director Misty Hampton was interviewed by an investigator from his office in May of 2021.
"She did not speak truthfully," Raffensperger said. "So we were not aware of some of these components until a little bit later, then when the new election director had been hired. That’s when we found out their passwords had been shared with an outside company."
A day after the 11Alive News interview, an official with the secretary of state's office said Raffensperger misspoke in response to questions about the timeline. "The claim was made in February 2022" about the breach, said Gabriel Sterling, chief operating officer under Raffensperger. "The Secretary of State's office found supporting evidence in July 2022," after an audio recording surfaced with one of the men who boasted about accessing the Coffee County office. "We scanned every freaking ballot," Scott Hall said in a recorded phone call, submitted as evidence in an ongoing civil case between Raffensperger and residents challenging the security of computerized election voting systems.
The timeline starts in south Georgia on Jan. 8, 2021, the day after the U.S. Capitol riot in Washington, when a group of Trump supporters entered the office and accessed software and data.
Hampton and another election officials were fired six weeks later by the Coffee County election board.
In May of 2021, one of their replacements contacted the secretary of state’s office to raise concerns about a possible breach. In June, the secretary of state’s office seized a county’s election servers.
Then 10 months later, Gabriel Sterling with the Secretary of State’s office stated it had been debunked.
"There was people saying, 'We went into Coffee County. We imaged everything," Sterling told an audience at the Carter Center in April 2022. "There’s no evidence of any of that. It didn’t happen."
Four months later, the GBI opened a criminal investigation. Raffensperger said in the interview he hopes there will be criminal prosecutions. Asked if the secretary of state's office took the allegation seriously when it was initially raised, he said:
"We were provided information and it appears to be apparent that these people were not speaking truthfully to our investigators."
Raffensperger was asked if the exact same thing that happened in Coffee County would be done if there was a bad actor who wanted to undermine the upcoming election.
"They would attempt to do that," Raffensperger said. "But you have to also understand...if there’s any [security] question what happened with a ballot marking device, you’ll see it immediately."
Raffensperger says voters this fall can make sure the breach won’t impact November’s election by actually double-checking the paper ballots printed out by the state’s Dominion voting machines.
He is unwilling to agree to calls to switch this fall to a hand-marked paper ballot format.
You can watch 11Alive's exclusive full video Raffensperger below.