ATLANTA — Editor's note: The story above is part of the series of reporting on the election probe.
The prosecutor investigating whether former President Donald Trump and others illegally tried to interfere in the 2020 election in Georgia is seeking information about the alleged involvement of a Trump ally in the breach of voting equipment at a county roughly 200 miles south of her Atlanta office.
The widening of the probe highlights the latest instance in which unauthorized people appear to have gained access to voting equipment since the 2020 election, primarily in battleground states lost by Trump. Election experts have raised concerns that sensitive information shared online about the equipment may have exposed vulnerabilities that could be exploited by people intent on disrupting future elections.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is seeking to have attorney Sidney Powell, who tried persistently to overturn Trump's loss, testify before a special grand jury seated for the investigation into possible illegal election interference. In her court petition filed Thursday, Willis said Powell is “known to be affiliated” with Trump and the Trump campaign and has unique knowledge about her communications with them and others “involved in the multi-state, coordinated efforts to influence the results of the November 2020 elections in Georgia and elsewhere."
The scope of Willis’ criminal investigation has expanded considerably since it began, prompted by a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call in which Trump suggested Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger could “find” the votes needed to overturn Trump’s narrow election loss in the state. Among other things, Willis wrote that she wants to ask Powell about rural Coffee County, where Trump beat President Joe Biden by nearly 40 percentage points.
Emails and other records first reported this month by The Washington Post and also obtained by The Associated Press show that Powell was involved in arranging for a team from data solutions company SullivanStrickler to travel to the county's elections office.
The records were produced in response to subpoenas issued by plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit that alleges Georgia’s voting machines, which are manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems, are vulnerable to attack. The plaintiffs want the machines replaced by a system that uses hand-marked paper ballots.
The lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Good Governance and individual voters long predates and is unrelated to false allegations of widespread election fraud pushed by Trump and his allies.
Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits against high-profile Trump supporters, including Powell, who made false claims about Dominion voting machines being used to steal the 2020 election.
In an email sent to Powell on Jan. 7, 2021, SullivanStrickler COO Paul Maggio said he and his team were “on our way to Coffee County Georgia to collect what we can from the Election/Voting machines and systems." He included an invoice for an “initial retainer” of $26,000 to pay for a team of four people for one day. The subject of the invoice is “Voting Machines Analysis.”
“Everything went smoothly yesterday with the Coffee County collection. Everyone involved was extremely helpful,” Maggio wrote in an email the next day. “We are consolidating all of the data collected and will be uploading it to our secure site for access by your team.”
A document listing the contents of Maggio's hard drive shows that it includes forensic images of an election management system server, a precinct tabulator, compact flash cards and thumb drives used to program tabulators and touchscreen voting machines, a computer used to check in voters and a laptop computer supplied by Dominion. It also includes scanned images of paper ballots from the January 2021 U.S. Senate runoff election.
The company defended its actions in a statement sent by its attorney, Amanda Clark Palmer.
"SullivanStrickler was retained by and took direction from licensed, practicing attorneys to preserve and forensically copy the Dominion Voting Machines used in the 2020 election," the statement said. “The firm had no reason to believe that, as officers of the court, these attorneys would ask or direct SullivanStrickler to do anything either improper or illegal.”
The attorneys told the firm to contact county election officials to access certain data and then to distribute it to certain other people, the statement said. The company maintains that “at the time they engaged in that work, they were operating under the good faith belief that their client was authorized to access the voting machines and servers.”
“With the benefit of hindsight, and knowing everything they know now, they would not take on any further work of this kind,” the statement said, adding that the company intends to fully cooperate with any investigation.
Willis noted that there also is “evidence in the public record” that Powell was involved in similar efforts in Michigan and Nevada around the same time. A lawyer representing Powell didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Ryan Germany, general counsel for the Georgia secretary of state’s office, said in a declaration filed in court on Aug. 2 that the office opened an investigation in mid-March and brought in an expert to perform a forensic inspection of the Coffee County election server. The next steps, he said, are to complete the forensic investigation and interview witnesses.
The secretary of state's office requested help earlier this month from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which on Aug. 15 opened “a computer trespass investigation of a Coffee County elections server,” spokesperson Nelly Miles said in an email.
During an event last summer held by Trump ally Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO who has sought to prove voting machines are being manipulated, copies of voting systems from Mesa County, Colorado, and Antrim County, Michigan, were distributed and made available online.
A month earlier, Pennsylvania election officials decertified voting equipment used in one county — also named Fulton — after officials there allowed an outside firm access to “certain key components of its certified system, including the county’s election database, results files, and Windows systems logs.” The firm also was allowed to make copies of voting system hard drives.
In Mesa County, Colorado, Clerk Tina Peters and her deputy were indicted in connection with a May 2021 security breach at the election office. Prosecutors allege the pair were part of a “deceptive scheme” to provide access to their voting system technology to unauthorized individuals.
This week, the deputy clerk, Belinda Knisley, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Peters, who has denied wrongdoing and claimed she had an obligation to investigate.
Also in Colorado, state election officials have been investigating a potential breach in Elbert County, where they say the clerk made two copies of the county’s voting system and provided them to two attorneys not authorized to have them.
In Antrim County, Michigan, a judge had allowed a forensic exam of voting equipment after a brief mix-up of 2020 election results led to a lawsuit alleging fraud. The lawsuit was dismissed, but somehow a copy of the voting system ended up being distributed publicly at the Lindell event, according to attendees.
Michigan authorities also are investigating security breaches at four local election offices that are alleged to have occurred between March and late June 2021.