Mesa County clerk banned from managing upcoming election, judge rules

· Oct. 13, 2021, 4:40 pm
Mesa County Clark Tina Peters.Mesa County Clark Tina Peters.Tina Peters' Campaign Website
Mesa County Clark Tina Peters.

Updated October 21, 2021: The state Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal from Tina Peters' lawyer, meaning the ruling removing her from election oversight duties will stand.

The original story continues below:

Embattled clerk and recorder Tina Peters will not be allowed to oversee the election in Mesa County this fall, a judge ruled Wednesday afternoon.

Colorado’s Secretary of State sought to ban Peters from her election duties due to her alleged role in a security breach around an upgrade to the county's Dominion Voting Systems election equipment earlier this year.

Mesa County District Court Judge Valerie Robison said in her decision that Peters should not be allowed to have access to the county’s voting machines. The ruling also covers Peters’ deputy, Belinda Knisley who is on administrative leave for a personnel issue.

“Peters directed the creation of the images of the hard drive, which was not authorized by law and which directly led to the decommissioning of Mesa County’s voting systems, facilitating the leak of sensitive data and exposed the county’s voting system to compromise,” Robison wrote in her decision.

Peters said in a statement that she is disappointed in the judge’s decision and will appeal. She described herself as a whistleblower and called the lawsuit to remove her a “power grab” by the current Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat. Peters is a Republican.

"If this decision stands, it will fundamentally shift the power of running local elections from the county clerk to a Secretary of State in Denver, eroding the checks and balances that make our elections fair," said Peters.

Griswold said her office found evidence that Peters brought an unauthorized person into a secure room where Mesa County’s election equipment is stored and allowed him to make copies before and after the software update. Knisley requested that security cameras in the room be turned off ahead of those events.

Copies of the county’s election management software and passwords were shared with people who believe the 2020 election was rigged by Dominion Voting Systems, the Denver-based company that supplies Mesa County’s equipment, and images were later posted online by the right-wing website Gateway Pundit. 

Colorado’s audits show that the state’s election was accurate and fair and a recent test of the county’s new voting equipment from Dominion found the machines correctly tabulated all sample ballots.

“Clerk Peters seriously compromised the security of Mesa County’s voting system,” Griswold wrote in a statement following the ruling. “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.”

In her lawsuit to remove Peters from election oversight, Griswold asked the court to give the task to former Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams and Mesa County’s former clerk and current county treasurer, Sheila Reiner, an arrangement supported by the Mesa county commissioners. Their names have already appeared on press releases and notices about the county’s upcoming election

This judge’s decision does not affect Peters’ authority over other aspects of the clerk’s office, including motor vehicle registrations and business filings.

Investigation into security breach ongoing

Peters has acknowledged she did bring in someone from outside the office to observe the software update and take pictures — her attorney referred to him as a “consultant” in court filings — but denied doing anything wrong and said it was not her intent for the information to leak publicly.

In filings arguing she should be allowed to continue overseeing elections, Peters’ attorney said she was trying to preserve records and to better analyze how Colorado conducts system updates. 

“Some powerful people don't want us to look at the facts,” Peters told supporters at a rally in Grand Junction last month. “In fact, they're trying to remove me as the Mesa County recorder just for doing my job,” she said. 

But the judge rejected those claims and said Peters should have coordinated with the state if she wanted to back up files.

“If Peters was actually concerned that these computer-generated log files contained critical information that is not available elsewhere, she should have included a plan to store those log files in Mesa County’s security plan,” the ruling reads.

Peters was first elected in 2018, and her tenure as the top local election official in the county was already controversial prior to the alleged security breach. In February 2020, her office admitted to finding 574 uncounted ballots from a 2019 election, leading to a state probe and calls for her resignation. A recall effort against her failed to gather enough signatures to proceed.

The FBI and the Mesa County district attorney are investigating Peters and others associated with the security breach but no criminal charges have been filed. 

Peters has called Mesa County "the last bastion of freedom" in Colorado and said she's committed to helping voters get more information about the November 2020 election.

"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,” Peters told attendees of a conference hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell shortly after news broke that she was under investigation by the state. 

Lindell has become a leading champion of conspiracy theories that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. The proof of fraud Lindell said he would reveal at the symposium did not materialize.

Matt Crane, a Republican and the head of the Colorado County Clerks Association, has had harsh words for what occurred in Mesa County, while trying to reassure voters the breach only affected local election machines.

"It was a solo, intentional and selfish act,” Crane said of the breach during an earlier press conference. “We've heard people say that this is heroic. To be clear: There is nothing heroic or honorable about what happened in Mesa County.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with Peters' statement.

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