Mesa County elections clerk replaced after security breach; here’s the evidence so far

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Mesa County Clerk and Recorder on Aug. 12, 2021 (KREX)

DENVER (KDVR) — Mesa County’s treasurer has been appointed to oversee the county’s elections after investigators linked its top elections official to a security breach that allowed unauthorized access to the county’s election system.

Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner will take on the role overseeing elections for the county. Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters is under local, state and federal investigations after she was linked to a security breach that allowed election-system passwords to be posted publicly online.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold issued the appointment in a Tuesday order.

“As Secretary of State, my top priority is to ensure all election security protocols are followed and to safeguard Coloradans’ right to vote and we will continue to conduct the business required of our office to provide oversight, to ensure the integrity of the state’s elections,” Griswold said in a press release announcing the appointment.

Griswold also appointed a three-person advisory committee to help Reiner — who’s served as Mesa County clerk before — with her duties. The committee includes state Rep. Janice Rich, R-Mesa; Ouray Clerk and Recorder Michelle Nauer; and former Democratic Secretary of State Bernie Buescher.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the Colorado County Clerks Association said they support Peters’ replacement.

“While unusual, this important step of placing a top-notch election expert in the office will ensure a safe and secure election is conducted for the citizens of Mesa County,” said Matt Crane, the association’s executive director.

In a meeting Tuesday night, the Mesa County commissioners recognized the Secretary of State could remove Peters but did not acknowledge Reiner’s appointment, instead choosing to appoint former Secretary of State Wayne Williams to supervise elections this year.

It’s unclear whether the commissioners’ move has standing.

The Secretary of State’s Office issued a statement in response to the commissioners’ meeting:

“The Secretary of State’s Order ensures supervision of Mesa’s elections; it does not remove Clerk Peters. Mesa County doesn’t have the authority to remove Peters or to appoint Williams as the Designated Election Official (DEO). Given that the upcoming election is rapidly approaching, the Secretary of State’s Office is considering next steps,” the office said.

Evidence collected in Mesa County elections security breach

Colorado’s Department of State continues to investigate the security breach.

Here is the evidence they said they collected so far:

  • Mesa County allowed a nonemployee, Gerald Wood, to attend a May 25 secure software upgrade — known as a “trusted build” — for the county’s election system, which violates election rules. Investigators found two clerk and recorder employees, Belinda Knisley and Sandra Brown, helped facilitate Wood’s access “by misrepresenting the individual’s employment status and role.”
  • Video and photos posted online show passwords to Mesa County’s voting system. Timestamps suggest the information was filmed and collected during the May 25 trusted build that Peters and Brown attended with the non-employee, Wood.
  • Someone in the clerk’s office directed staff to turn off video surveillance of voting equipment before the May 25 trusted build, and the cameras were not turned back on until the process had been completed.
  • The week of Aug. 9, two images from Mesa County election servers were posted online. Analysts found the images “belong to Mesa County hard drives” only accessible by physically accessing the machines. The images were created both before and after the May 25 trusted build.
  • Investigators believe one of the images was taken on Sunday, May 23 — the same day Peters, Brown and Wood accessed the area where election equipment was stored outside of normal work hours.

Mesa County has until Aug. 31 to buy, certify and install election equipment after the Secretary of State’s Office decertified the compromised equipment.

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