Mesa Clerk Tina Peters charged in election security breach

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Stina Sieg/CPR News
Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters has faced controversy since she questioned the legitimacy of Dominion voting machines and allegedly allowed a nonemployee access to the voting machines. She was later barred from overseeing the 2021 election.

Updated: March 11, 2022. 12:11 a.m.

Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters was released on bond Thursday evening at 7:21 p.m. after spending just over 24 hours in the Mesa County Detention Facility. Peters was charged with 10 criminal counts of conspiracy by a grand jury Wednesday. Her deputy clerk, Belinda Knisley, was released on bond just hours earlier at 5:07 p.m.

This is a developing story. Below is our original report.

Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters turned herself into the Mesa County Detention Facility late Wednesday afternoon and was booked after being indicted on criminal counts of conspiracy related to election tampering and misconduct.

Earlier Wednesday, a grand jury indicted Peters and Deputy Clerk Belinda Knisley on a laundry list of charges related to an election security breach in her office last summer.

Peters faces 10 total 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.  

Knisley has been indicted on six counts: 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 to 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.  

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.”

Peters, Knisley lied to Mesa County staff and secretary of state's office, indictment alleges

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 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 CPR. “They were coming to me.”

Peters recently announced she is running for secretary of state against incumbent Democrat Jena Griswold, who has been a driving force in the investigation against her.

Mesa County Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters turned herself into the Mesa County Detention Facility Wednesday, March 9, 2022. She was released Thursday night.

A statement posted on Peters' campaign website repeated her claim that she acted within her legal authority argued the indictments are a politically motivated effort to hurt her campaign, orchestrated by Griswold and DA Rubenstein, a Republican.

"Knowledgeable Republican voters in this June’s primary will eyeroll at these trumped-up charges. They are little more than political theatre designed to pick the primary winner," the statement reads.

On Thursday, the highest officers in the Colorado GOP called on Peters to pause her campaign until the case is resolved.

"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 by chair Kristi Burton Brown and other party leaders.

However, the statement also noted that, under its policy of remaining neutral in primaries, the party will continue to treat Peters as a candidate unless she officially drops out. Peters, in her statement, called the GOP's comment a "knee-jerk overreaction."

Indictments come after months of investigation

The investigation into Peters started last August, when Griswold announced that pictures showing the passwords for the voting equipment had been posted online.

On Wednesday, Griswold described Peters’ alleged actions as an insider threat against the state’s election system.

“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. 

“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.”

Colorado’s bipartisan County Clerks Association called Peters’ alleged actions a devastating  “breach of trust”, and said that from the beginning they have been unified in their desire to see the situation investigated fully and any wrongdoing 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,” said the group’s executive director, Matt Crane.

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 playing any role in managing the 2022 vote.

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