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Special called meeting: Elections board votes down independent counsel, chairman releases statement

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Featured New board of elections attorney Ben Perkins Robert Preston Jr./DouglasNow.com New board of elections attorney Ben Perkins

At Tuesday’s special called meeting of the Coffee County Elections and Registration Board, the board did not adopt a resolution calling for independent counsel to investigate the alleged security breaches of the elections office that occurred in January of 2021. 



Board chairman Wendell Stone read a statement on behalf of the board that he asked the board to adopt as its official statement regarding the alleged breaches. The board did not adopt that statement, either. Stone’s statement is included in its entirety at the end of this story.



The board also introduced new attorney Ben Perkins of the Savannah firm of Oliver Maner LLP. Perkins, who is experienced in election law, takes over the task of representing board of elections from county attorney Tony Rowell.



Perkins addressed the board and attendees when the meeting began. After his remarks, the board set guidelines for the public comments portion of the meeting. About 40 citizens were at the meeting and several wanted to make public comments when that time came.



After the guidelines for the meeting were set, retired attorney Jim Hudson addressed the board. Hudson had spoken at the regular June meeting held earlier in the month and had presented a resolution asking the board to appoint independent counsel to investigate the alleged breaches. 



Following his remarks, board member Ernestine Thomas-Clark made a motion to accept Hudson’s resolution. However, the board tabled the motion for two weeks, which is what led to the June 20 special called meeting.



In the two weeks between meetings, the county retained Perkins to represent and advise the board of elections moving forward. That did not set well with Hudson. “This is no reflection on Mr. Perkins. He comes from a law firm that I’m well acquainted with . . . but this, like this whole thing, was mishandled. The board should be included, not a hand-picked lawyer by somebody who might have an interest in what’s going on,” said Hudson.



When he had concluded his remarks, the board opened up the floor to public comments. Fifteen citizens, some from out of county, made comments. Once that portion of the meeting closed, board members re-visited Thomas-Clark’s motion. The motion did not pass; it failed due to a lack of a second.



After the vote, four board members — Matthew McCullough, Paula Scott, Clark-Thomas, and Stone — made further comments. The meeting ended over two hours after it began.



Here is Chairman Stone’s statement:



“For months now, media sources have reported on a series of alleged breaches election security which took place in the Coffee County Elections Office. Beginning January 7, 2021, individuals were apparently improperly provided access to the election office. Video seems to show that our former election supervisor granted this access to our office. It has been reported that there were at least two more incidents in the month of January. There is video evidence which also suggests that while inside the election office, these individuals were given access to election equipment, software and election data. The video also contains evidence that along with the former election supervisor, a former election board member was present when these events took place. According to media reports, Gabe Sterling of the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office referred to some of the individuals who entered the elections office as ‘data collectors,’ and said the data collectors illegally accessed the server and voting machines. He also said, ‘It’s criminal behavior, and that’s why the GBI is involved, and why we can’t get into too much detail at this time.’ Sterling is also reported to have said, ‘What we’re seeing basically is the elections director in Coffee County was the threat vector here that allowed unauthorized access to these individuals.’”



“The Coffee County Board of Elections did not authorize the former election supervisor or anyone else to give these individuals access to the election office nor does it approve, endorse or sanction such conduct.



“The Board acknowledges that unauthorized access to elections equipment could have wide ranging and detrimental impacts on our voting system. While the Board understands that no one has been charged with a crime in relation to these events, the Board of Elections is outraged and strongly condemns any improper access to elections data and equipment.



“Several steps have been taken to ensure the accuracy and integrity of Coffee County elections systems. The reported breaches are currently under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. The Secretary of State replaced Coffee County elections equipment, an action with the Secretary of State is reported to have said ‘puts an end to any argument that the results in Coffee County, and anywhere else in Georgia for that matter, will not accurately reflect the will of Georgia voters.’ Further, a new election supervisor has been employed, and the board member who was present when some of these events occurred has since resigned due to the fact that he moved out of the district he was representing. Two elections have been conducted since the breach and risk limiting audits have confirmed accurate results in both.



“Democracy is sacred to the members of the Board. The success of the form of self-governance that we enjoy in this country depends on free, fair, transparent, and accurate elections. Your right to vote is sacred to us. Voters expect to be able to trust their elections officials, and we will work hard to regain your trust. The members of the Board pledge to follow the rules and laws that protect the integrity of Georgia elections.”

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