COFFEE COUNTY, Ga. — Lawyers for the 2020 Trump campaign who reportedly orchestrated a campaign to access and copy election systems data in Georgia and other states could be the subject of a state criminal investigation into the effort, according to a legal expert.
That potential criminal liability could possibly extend as high as Sidney Powell, the Trump attorney who filed the string of infamous "Kraken" lawsuits.
"It's not a complicated case. If these lawyers and the computer folks actually got access to these machines and they removed sensitive information, that's a crime," said Georgia attorney and 11Alive legal analyst Page Pate.
The GBI and Georgia Secretary of State's Office have previously confirmed they are conducting a criminal investigation into a "computer trespass" of election servers in Coffee County in early 2021.
Neither the GBI nor the Secretary of State's Office have to date confirmed any subjects of the investigation. 11Alive's Doug Richards reported on the possible security compromise in May.
The Washington Post earlier this week reported the effort involved allies of former President Donald Trump copying "sensitive" election systems data from Georgia's voting machines.
The Post described it as a multi-state effort directed by Powell, with at least one other identified individual involved in Georgia - pro-Trump activist and Atlanta area businessman Scott Hall.
The Coffee County episode occurred on Jan. 7, 2021, according to the Secretary of State's Office. They described it in a statement as an alleged "unauthorized access of election equipment."
RELATED: Election board sidesteps calls for paper ballots while possible server breach under investigation
The state said a local election official gave access to the machines to a forensics team, who, according to The Post, were paid by Trump lawyers. The state said that person has since "been removed," and the server itself was replaced in June 2021.
According to The Post, Powell organized the effort for the cybersecurity firm, Atlanta-based SullivanStrickler, to go to county officials in several states to access voting equipment. Hall reportedly said in a recorded telephone call - filed as part of a lawsuit challenging the security of Georgia's voting system - that he was present as the team "went in there and imaged every hard drive of every piece of equipment."
“We basically had the entire elections committee there. And they said: ‘We give you permission. Go for it,'" Hall reportedly said.
Those actions could implicate Powell and others involved in the effort, Pate said.
"The potential problem here is those lawyers apparently directed a computer forensics firm to go access sensitive voting information from the machines before that information was turned over to the Secretary of State - that is a potential violation of Georgia law," he said. "And so once this information came to light, the GBI opened a criminal investigation into this conduct to see if any laws were violated."
According to Pate, the most relevant potential criminal charge in the case could be the removal of election information without proper authority.
"There are several crimes in Georgia that deal with getting into the guts of these electronic voting machines and removing them or copying them or altering them in any way," he said. "And that punishment could be as low as a misdemeanor or it can be a felony offense."
He said that could fall on Trump campaign attorneys, the forensics team that physically copied the data or even the local officials who let it happen.
In May, 11Alive's Richards reported that the chairman of the Georgia State Elections Board said the security compromise would not prompt officials to take any emergency actions to change how voting is conducted for the November midterms.
Dr. Rich DeMillo, head of Georgia Tech's cybersecurity program, said that this sort of breach - conducted in person, either directly by or aided by someone with authorized access to voting systems - represents a "single point of failure that is a nightmare for cybersecurity experts."
"Someone who wants to install malware on a server normally has to do this at arm's length. You’ve given now (potential hackers) the ability to directly access the machine and do it," DeMillo told Richards.
The State Elections Board chairman, Matt Mashburn, said he did not see it as a "proper use" of the board's emergency powers to change the voting system.
"We use our emergency power very, very rarely," Mashburn said in May. "I would think that the best recourse for the fastest action would be to file a lawsuit and see if you can get a judge to issue a (temporary restraining order)."
The Post reported the incident came to light as part of a long-running lawsuit over Georgia voting system security. A lawyer for the plaintiffs, David D. Cross, told The Post that the "scope of it is mind-blowing."
The lawsuit, to which he and other groups such as the Coalition for Good Governance are parties, is pushing for the state to use paper ballots instead of the Dominion machines that became a focus of Powell's expansive conspiracy theories about the 2020 election in what came to be known as the series of "Kraken" lawsuits. The Georgia "Kraken" lawsuit was, like the others in the rest of the country, dismissed in court.
The Coalition for Good Governance has long been pursuing a legal action to force the state to use paper ballots, dating well before the 2020 election back to when Georgia first adopted the Dominion system. A lawyer representing the group who spoke to The Post, Bruce P. Brown, said the paper ballots lawsuit argues "Georgia counties are not equipped to protect their software from attacks from people bent on disrupting the democratic process."
In a statement, the Secretary of State's Office said, "Election officials who fail to follow the standards and guidelines set by Georgia law and administered by the office of Secretary of State are not, and will never be, acceptable to either the Secretary or the people of Georgia, whether those failures are due to criminal intent or mere incompetence."
"Georgia’s procedural and operational integrity measures are in place to ensure the accuracy of Georgia’s elections," the statement added.
Coffee County was, prior to the now-disclosed Jan. 7 security compromise, already in December 2020, a problematic district for state officials in the highly-contested election process that year.
The county was investigated for its handling of the recount process. Coffee election officials would not recertify their electronic recount results, claiming they could not duplicate the results credibly and that the state voting system was "not repeatable or dependable."
The state countered that they suspected the local election supervisor had simply scanned a batch of ballots twice and created a 50-vote discrepancy that she then wrongly attributed to a problem with the machines.
(Correction: This article was edited to remove an erroneous description of attorney David Cross, who shares the same name with a financial advisor who runs a website supporting former President Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen 2020 election).