Third arrest made in Mesa County 2020 election fraud case

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A ballot drop box outside the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s offices in Grand Junction on Thursday, August 26, 2021.

A former Mesa County election office staffer has been arrested on charges related to last year’s security breach of the county’s voting machines, making it the third arrest in the case.

The arrest affidavit for Sandra Brown said there is probable cause to charge her with conspiracy to commit criminal impersonation and attempt to influence a public servant. 

Brown was Mesa County’s elections manager in May of 2021, when County Clerk Tina Peters allegedly helped an unauthorized person access the election equipment and attend a secure software update. Brown was fired in November, 2021, by the county’s current elections director, Brandi Bantz.

According to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, Brown turned herself in on July 11 and was released from custody the next day on a $15,000 personal recognizance bond.

Her arrest warrant lays out more details about what led up to and occurred during the annual upgrade of the county’s Dominion voting machines last year. And it names Conan Hayes, a former pro surfer who has become a leading figure in the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, as a key participant in the security breach. 

The affidavit alleges that Brown falsely claimed to state election officials that a man attending the upgrade was named Gerald Wood, and that he worked for the office as an administrative assistant and had gone through a background check as required for anyone attending the software update. 

The affidavit states that Brown also did not correct Clerk Peters when she told an employee with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office that the man who claimed to be Wood was working in the motor vehicle department and would be transferring to the elections team to work under Brown. 

“Brown was close by when this introduction happened, but did not interject if that was true or not regarding Wood’s employment position(s)” wrote the investigator.

Investigators believe the man at the upgrade was actually Hayes. They claim Hayes falsely assumed the identity of Gerald Wood, a Fruita resident who has been cleared of any wrongdoing. Peters is accused of creating an office key card using Wood’s identity that Hayes then used to access secure parts of the office.

The affidavit states, “The person who completed that computer service using Wood’s identity is still under investigation.”

James Cannon, the investigator from the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office who wrote the affidavit, said Brown “assisted and conspired with their overall scheme and crime(s).” He states Brown would have known the man calling himself Wood was not an employee and that “she did not have an administrative assistant, and that Wood did not work at the Clerk and Recorder’s Office.”

His investigation also indicated that Hayes was the recipient of copies of the election machine hard drives made before and after the software update. That data was later leaked online.

Brown and Clerk Peters are alleged to have used their key cards to access the secure room containing elections equipment twice — once before and once after the upgrade. At each of those times someone made a copy of the machines’ hard drives.

More coverage of the 2020 Mesa County voting machine security breach

Mesa County finance records show that the day after the second copy was made, the Clerk’s Office shipped a package to Hayes’ address in California. 

Another employee of the office, Kelly Bryant, handled the shipping. She said Brown handed her an item in plastic wrap and Peters shared a text message with her that had Hayes’ address.

Peters and her deputy Belinda Knisley were arrested earlier this year on charges stemming from the security breach. Peters faces ten counts, including multiple felony charges, and Knisley faces six counts.

A judge has barred Peters from overseeing this year’s midterm elections for the county. She recently lost the Republican primary race for Secretary of State.