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NPR News

Colorado clerk is indicted for election tampering and misconduct

Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters is seen in a Feb. 10 booking photo. Peters is under investigation for alleged election security breaches.
Mesa County Sheriff's Department via AP
Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters is seen in a Feb. 10 booking photo. Peters is under investigation for alleged election security breaches.

Updated March 9, 2022 at 11:12 PM ET

A grand jury has indicted a Colorado county clerk, Tina Peters, and her deputy on a laundry list of charges related to an election security breach in her office last summer that was influenced by former President Donald Trump's false claims that he won the 2020 election.

The charges against Peters come as election workers around the U.S. face death threats amid a national disinformation campaign that has falsely alleged wide-scale election tampering in 2020. Peters' case is particularly worrisome to many who run elections as a sign that insiders might act upon those conspiracy theories, further undermining confidence in the voting process.

Peters, who's the county clerk and recorder in Mesa County, in western Colorado, faces 10 counts, including seven felony charges and three misdemeanors. The felony charges include attempting to influence a public servant, identity theft, criminal impersonation and conspiracy to commit criminal impersonation. The misdemeanors include first-degree official misconduct, violation of duty and failure to comply with the requirements of the secretary of state.

Her deputy, Belinda Knisley, has been indicted on six counts, including attempt to influence a public servant, conspiracy to commit criminal impersonation, violation of duty and failure to comply with the requirements of the secretary of state.

The pair is accused of helping an unauthorized person make copies of sensitive voting-machine hard drives and attend an annual software update. Information from the machines and secure passwords were later shared with election conspiracy theorists online. Shortly after the data was leaked, Peters appeared at an event put on by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the leading promoters of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was rigged.

"Something didn't seem right in our county from years ago to the 2020 election. And they wanted answers. And I said, 'You know what? If there's a there there, we'll find it.' And I've made that pledge to the citizens of Mesa County and all over Colorado," said Peters during the 2021 event.

The maker of the equipment, Dominion Voting Systems, has been the focus of false conspiracy theories claiming it helped steal the 2020 election for President Biden. Dominion is suing a number of the most prominent proponents of those claims for defamation.

In a joint statement announcing the indictment, Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said, "This investigation is ongoing, and other defendants may be charged as we learn more information. We remind everyone that these are allegations at this point and that they are presumed innocent until proven guilty."

The indictment argues that Peters and Knisley together lied to other Mesa County staff, as well as workers in the secretary of state's office. It also alleges that the two committed identity theft against a local man, Gerald "Jerry" Wood, in order to give someone — the indictment doesn't say who — access to the hard drives and the software update in his name.

It states that the women "devised and executed a deceptive scheme which was designed to influence public servants, breach security protocols, exceed permissible access to voting equipment, and set in motion the eventual distribution of confidential information to unauthorized people."

Peters said the indictment was another in a series of politically motivated accusations by Rubenstein, who she called a "self-identified never-Trumper," and Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who she said had "ties to George Soros funding."

"Using a grand jury to formalize politically-motivated accusations against candidates is tactic long employed by the Democrat Party," Peters said in a statement. "Using legal muscle to indict political opponents during an election isn't new strategy, but it's easier to execute when you have a district attorney who despises President Trump and any constitutional conservative like myself who continues to demand all election evidence be made available to the public."

Peters has long maintained that she has every right to look into potential election fraud and was simply responding to the concerns of her constituents.

"I have attempted to investigate the results of the elections, a duty that I have to my constituents," she told Colorado Public Radio. "They were coming to me."

Peters recently announced she is running for secretary of state against Griswold, who has been a driving force in the investigation against her. She said the indictment is an attempt "influence voters enough with indictments and arrests and media drama during the primaries, to elect a weaker general election opponent" against Griswold.

Griswold first said her office would look into a possible security breach last August.

"Every eligible Coloradan – Republican, Democrat, and Unaffiliated alike – has the right to make their voice heard in safe, accessible, and secure elections," said Griswold in a statement after the indictment was announced.

"To do that, we need election administrators who are committed to following the law and election rules. Officials tasked with carrying out elections do so in public trust and must be held accountable when they abuse their power or position."

Republican Party leaders in Colorado urged Peters to suspend her campaign.

"It is our belief, as leaders of the Colorado Republican Party, that any Republican candidate who is indicted with felonies by a grand jury and who will be charged by a Republican District Attorney should suspend their campaign while they undergo the legal challenges associated with those indictments," said a joint statement from the party's top leaders.

A judge banned Peters from overseeing Mesa County's 2021 election, and the county had to turn to outside help to manage the office's staff. A current lawsuit requests that Peters be removed from playing any role in managing the 2022 vote.

The county was also required to replace the Dominion Voting machines after the state decertified them last fall, just weeks before the election.

The bipartisan Colorado County Clerks Association called the "breach of trust" devastating and said from the beginning that it was unified in its desire to see the situation in Mesa County investigated fully and that if there was wrongdoing, the association wanted it exposed and prosecuted.

"From the initial public reports of Clerk Peters' actions, it was clear she violated her oath of office and likely broke the law. Since that time, she has repeated in sworn court filings that she carried out acts that violated her oath. Now, a grand jury of her peers seated by her own district attorney has determined she allegedly committed several crimes, including official misconduct."

The investigation has divided Republican elected officials in the deeply conservative part of Colorado who have spoken out against her actions.

Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis, a Republican, has described the months-long investigation into Peters as a cascading series of mini-crises with so many legal questions, public hearings and fights with Peters and her supporters.

He said if Peters really believed her county's voting machines were hacked, she should have called the proper authorities to look into it.

"There's a right way to do it, and there's a wrong way she chose intentionally, because I think she wanted the attention. And she wanted to show the country that she had discovered why Trump lost the election. This is my opinion."

Colorado lawmakers will be considering legislation this session to try to prevent similar types of possible security breaches in the future.

Copyright 2022 CPR News

Corrected: March 8, 2022 at 11:00 PM CST
Due to inaccurate information provided by officials, an earlier version of this story said Tina Peters has been indicted on 13 counts. It's 10 counts.