Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters and her deputy, Belinda Knisley, are barred from conducting this fall’s election, District Judge Valerie Robison ruled Wednesday.
In a lawsuit filed by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office over Peters’ alleged involvement in breaching election security protocols, the embattled clerk cannot have anything to do with overseeing the November election, ballots for which have already been sent to voters.
Instead, Robison ruled that former Secretary of State Wayne Williams and Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner will conduct the election, both of whom have already been doing so for the past two months.
“Based on the circumstances of this case, including the findings of the court ..., the court rules that Peters and Kinsley have committed a breach and neglect of duty and other wrongful acts,” Robison ruled. “As such, Peters and Knisley are unable or unwilling to appropriately perform the duties of the Mesa County Designated Election Official.
“The court further determines substantial compliance with the provisions of the code required an injunction prohibiting Peters and Knisley from performing the duties of the designated election official.”
The lawsuit, which is expected to be appealed directly to the Colorado Supreme Court, alleges that Peters and some members of her staff compromised the Dominion Voting System tabulation machines that the county had been using. Those machines, 41 in all, were later decertified and the county entered into a new agreement to replace them.
The state first learned about the possible breach when secret passwords controlled by the Secretary of State’s Office appeared on a voter-fraud conspiracy theory social media post.
The state has such passwords that are unique to all 64 counties.
They are used in conjunction with passwords each clerk’s office also has to access their own election equipment, and are intended to prevent any single person from altering software.
As a result, Peters is the subject of criminal investigations by the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
SCOPE OF THE RULING
Knisley was placed on paid administrative leave in August and barred by the county and the courts from having any contact with clerk employees while a separate investigation continues by the county’s Human Resources Department on numerous allegations of creating a hostile work environment, allegedly telling workers not to cooperate with those criminal investigations.
“There is no specific provision in the (election) code that addresses the situation where both the county clerk and recorder and the deputy county clerk are unable to perform their required duties,” Robison wrote in her 22-page ruling. “Here, Peters and Knisley have been found to have breached their duties, neglected their duties and committed wrongful acts. Knisley is prohibited from performing her duties, both by Mesa County and through the criminal protection order.”
Griswold said the judge’s ruling makes clear the seriousness of the situation.
“Clerk Peters seriously compromised the security of Mesa County’s voting system,” Griswold said in a statement. “The court’s decision today bars Peters from further threatening the integrity of Mesa’s elections and ensures Mesa County residents have the secure and accessible election they deserve.”
The ruling is valid throughout all aspects of the fall election, including additional ballot counts the county plans to do, and the final audit of election results, which will take months.
In an affidavit filed with Robison’s court as part of the lawsuit, Peters said she agreed with everything that Williams and Reiner have been doing since they started overseeing the election, telling Robison that she wouldn’t change anything they’ve done.
But at a rally on Monday, Peters said she instead would do a hand count of all ballots, not use the new Dominion tabulation machines and then questioned actions by the state and Mesa County Board of Commissioners in naming Williams and Reiner to take over her dual job of being the county’s designated election official.
“I concur with the described steps taken by him (Williams) under his assumed duties in preparation for the upcoming coordinated election,” Peters said in her affidavit. “I will not seek to reverse, undermine or alter those steps. I will work collaboratively with Wayne Williams as the agent of the Secretary of State in the exercise of its supervisory role under the election code and will fully cooperate with the Secretary of State in the discharge of my duties in conducting the upcoming coordinated election.”
At the Monday rally, however, Peters said Griswold didn’t have the authority to replace her with Reiner, adding that the county commissioners also didn’t have the authority to name Williams in her stead.
“The Secretary of State has attempted to vastly overuse her powers, her limited powers by attempting to appoint Sheila Reiner as the head of elections,” Peters said at the rally. “The SOS does not have that authority. The Mesa County commissioners also do not have the authority to appoint the director of elections.
“I do support a hand count, and I would have been there without machines to do a hand count,” Peters added. “We don’t need a scanner. Tabulation equipment is just a scanner. Why does it have all this software and secret passwords?”
Robison not only ruled that both the state and county acted appropriately, but that Peters had lied about various aspects of the security breach.
“Peters was untruthful with the secretary and her staff by stating that Gerald Wood was an employee of Mesa County and was an administrative assistant in her office,” Robison wrote.
“Peters failed to follow the rules and orders of the secretary by facilitating and allowing a non employee (Gerald Wood) without a disclosed background check to have access to a secured area via Mesa County access card,” the judge added. “Knisley aided Peers in her wrongful acts by requesting that the cameras be disabled. In doing so, Knisley ensured that the wrongful behavior of Peters could not be viewed.”