MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell (L) and QAnon figure Ron Watkins (R) received a leak of Colorado elections data. (Photos: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, screenshot OAN)
A Colorado election official who's a fervent supporter of Trump's Big Lie is now being accused of compromising her county’s voting machines and allowing information to be leaked to one of QAnon’s biggest promoters, who shared it to the world this week.In May, Tina Peters, county clerk in Mesa, Colorado, allegedly ordered county officials to turn off surveillance cameras that were monitoring election equipment.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
Peters then allowed someone to steal sensitive election data, as well as film a Dominion Voting Systems Corp. employee updating the election system software, according to Colorado’s Secretary of State Jena Griswold. When Griswold found out about the leak earlier this week, she sent officials to Peters’ office on Tuesday to find out what, exactly, was going on. Peters was nowhere to be found, but hours later she turned up on stage at MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s bogus Cyber Symposium conference, where QAnon promoter and 8chan administrator Ron Watkins shared the very data stolen from Mesa County with the entire world.“I think it is extremely concerning that an elections’ official from the state of Colorado is actively working to undermine confidence and spread disinformation about our award-winning voting system,” Secretary of State Jena Griswold told reporters at a press conference on Thursday.“To be clear, the Mesa County Clerk allowed a security breach, and by all evidence at this point, assisted it,” she said.Now Griswold has ordered that the 40 pieces of election equipment in Mesa County can no longer be used for upcoming elections as the chain of custody had been broken. It means that taxpayers will now be forced to pay to replace those machines, though Griswold couldn’t say Thursday how much that would cost.
There are many unanswered questions about this bizarre turn of events; we still do not know exactly who is involved or what their motivations are, but it is abundantly clear that Peters has a lot of questions to answer. Somehow improbably, in addition to Peters, Lindell, and Watkins, this story also includes a millionaire pro surfer-turned-election fraud conspiracist, the lawyer who represents Seth Rich-conspiracist Ed Butosky, Rep. Lauren Boebert’s campaign manager, and duck sounds.We tried to clear a few of these things up with Peters, but she didn’t respond to multiple emails, text messages, and calls to her office and cell phones.
At some point before May 25, Peters’s office ordered Mesa County staff to turn off the surveillance cameras monitoring the voting equipment, according to evidence collected by Griswold’s office.The cameras were not turned back on until some time in August, which is against standard practice and means the chain of custody of that equipment has been broken. As a result, Griswold on Thursday ordered the equipment should not be used for next November’s city, town and school district elections.On May 23, someone gained access to one of the Election Management Systems machines from Dominion Voting Systems used by Mesa County, and was able to download an image of the machine’s hard drives. The same person repeated that process on May 26, according to a cybersecurity expert who has reviewed the images, which were subsequently shared publicly.
Here’s what we know about how Mesa County election data was leaked:
In between those two dates, on May 25, Dominion employees visited Mesa County to conduct what is known as a “trusted build”—effectively an update to the machine’s software that sees the entire system wiped before a version of the operating system known to be safe is reinstalled.That process is highly regulated, and state election rules mandate that only staff from Mesa County, the Secretary of State’s office and Dominion may be present in the room when it is happening.On the day, Peters’ staff introduced a man called Gerard Wood, and told Griswold’s representatives that he was a member of their staff. But, as Peters’ office later admitted, he wasn’t.In fact, no one knows who Gerard Wood is.But whoever the person was, while he was inside the room when the installation was happening, and he captured video footage of the machines being updated.Over a month later, on August 2, the video was posted to Watkins’ hugely popular Telegram channel, with the former 8chan administrator claiming that the video was provided by a “whistleblower,” and showed evidence that the machines can be remotely administered.Of course there’s no evidence of that happening, and Watkins’ video was quickly debunked by cyber security experts. Watkins also asked his followers to download and share the video, but those who did found it contained a virus that infected their phones and computers. Watkins said that he was ultra-careful to alter the voices and redact certain portions of the video, pointing out to followers that “a minor slip-up could potentially dox the whistleblower."
Unfortunately for Watkins, he made a major slip up rather than a minor one, which allowed members of Griswold’s team to identify exactly where and when the video had been taken.Watkins’ leaks included an image showing a spreadsheet of passwords for accessing election equipment. Unfortunately for Watkins’, the passwords are managed by the state, so Griswold’s office was quickly able to identify the leak as coming from Mesa County.And so, last Monday, Griswold issued an order demanding the production of documentation related to the voting systems, and authorized her own department’s officials to travel to Mesa County and inspect the election system.But when the officials arrived on Tuesday, Peters was already on her way to South Dakota, where she was the headline guest on day one of Lindell’s conference.Lindell had promised that at the conference he would finally reveal the evidence he claimed he had showing that China had hacked the election. He never did release that information, so instead relied on the “evidence” coming from Mesa County to keep his audience entertained.Peters told the audience at Lindell’s conference that Griswold’s representatives didn’t allow Peters’ own staff access to the room while they were auditing the voting equipment—an allegation that Griswold subsequently said was a complete lie.She repeatedly—and erroneously— referred to Tuesday’s inspection as a “raid.” She also said the investigation was politically motivated—even the GOP-dominated Colorado County Clerks Association supports the investigation into one of the group’s own members.
Matt Crane, a Republican who heads the association, slammed Peters for the role she has played in undermining trust in the electoral process.“As an election official, she has to be even that much more careful so as to not erode public trust,” Crane said during Thursday’s press conference. “Standing here today, I wish that was the extent of it. Obviously the damage done to public trust by her far exceeds anything that she put on Twitter.”Despite appearing several times on stage during Lindell’s three-day event, Peters never provided evidence to back up her claims of election fraud.Instead, the supposed evidence was provided by Watkins, who appeared at the conference via video link from his home in Sapporo, Japan.And what evidence did Watkins have? As it turns out, he had the disk images taken from the Mesa County machines on May 23 and May 26.During his presentation on Wednesday, however, Watkins got a call from his lawyer Ty Clevenger to tell him there was an issue with showing the files. Watkins told the organizers to stop showing the files on a large screen on stage.
During his presentation, Watkins claimed that he obtained the files from Sheronna Bishop, a right-wing activist from Colorado who was previously Rep. Lauren Boebert’s campaign manager, and who has praised and boosted the Proud Boys.
But he also mentioned another person, called Conan Hayes, saying that he wasn’t sure if Hayes had permission to share the files publicly.Hayes is a former pro-surfer. In 2010 he sold RCVA, the surf clothing company he co-founded in 2001, for several million dollars. He mostly disappeared from public view following the sale, but in recent years has become somewhat of a minor celebrity in election fraud conspiracy theory circles, under his anonymous Twitter handle We Have Risen. He has worked on an election audit in Antrim County and has suggested on social media he was in Phoenix where the Arizona audit is currently taking place. He also has links to Doug Logan, the Cyber Ninja CEO who is currently running the sham audit in Maricopa County.Further evidence that Hayes was the person who captured the images was provided by cyber security experts tracking this situation, who found Hayes’ initials in the downloaded files:
Clevenger confirmed to VICE News on Thursday that it was in fact Hayes who had provided the data from Mesa County to Watkins. What Clevenger, who represented the Seth-Rich conspiracy theorist Ed Buttosky, was not able to say for certain was if it was Hayes who also provided the video clip to Watkins, who Gerard Wood was, or if, as some open sources investigators tracking this situation believe, that Hayes and Wood are in fact the same person.The only person who seems to be able to clarify this is Peters, but unfortunately she is not answering her phone at the moment.Peters did attempt to explain the legal situation on stage during the conference, but made little sense when responding to questions from the audience. Her responses were also drowned out at times by a loud duck quack sound effect, which was used throughout the conference as an apparent warning to speakers that what they were saying could potentially get them in legal trouble.