Subpoenas went out Wednesday to local election officials and a former Republican Party chair in a rural Georgia county, with attorneys seeking to find out how a covert team of 2020 election conspiracy theorists were able to improperly access and copy a voting system server last year.
The eight subpoenas, issued by attorneys representing voting rights activists in an ongoing lawsuit, were greenlit by U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg. She expressed “great concern” last week about the unauthorized access of a voting system server following an investigation by The Daily Beast that revealed details about who was involved in this surreptitious mission.
Text messages acquired by The Daily Beast showed how then-Coffee County GOP chair Cathy Latham and elections board member Eric Chaney arranged for a team of computer technicians to access the local election management system at a government office—on none other than the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, just as insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capitol building.
Wednesday’s subpoenas require sworn testimony and documents from Latham, Chaney, the county elections board, and several others. Also among the subpoenaed were two men from Atlanta: Paul Maggio, an executive at a computer forensics and data storage company, and bail bondsman Scott Hall. Text messages identify Maggio as the visiting team’s leader and Hall as a point person who organized the effort and chartered a plane to the tiny town of Douglas, Georgia.
Latham, Maggio, and Hall did not respond to phone calls and text messages on Wednesday afternoon. Chaney, reached at his used car dealership, Chaney Motors, laughed it off.
“Wonderful. Great. Because when I get a subpoena from the courts, we’ll be able to talk and give both sides of the story,” he said by phone.
Additionally, the subpoenas target Misty Hampton—who was Coffee County’s elections supervisor at the time of the visit but has since been forced to resign—as well as her replacement, James Barnes, who has since left the office as well. Benjamin Cotton, the founder of Virginia digital forensics firm CyFIR, was also subpoenaed. Cotton implicated himself in the growing scandal by admitting that he “forensically examined” Coffee County’s voting system in an unrelated court document spotted by The Washington Post on Sunday.
The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees election operations there, claims it seized the computer server in question in June 2021, after its password was changed, rendering the server unusable. The agency later acknowledged in court documents that it also opened an investigation into the alleged unauthorized access, and its attorneys told Judge Totenberg last week the official probe was still ongoing.
The agency, however, had no answers about the status of the inquiry—or if it has even determined what happened to the allegedly copied election management software.
Several Georgia voters and an activist group—the Coalition for Good Governance—are suing the state over its concerns about the security of Georgia’s electronic election system and now demand answers about its handling of this breach in Coffee County.
At a court hearing last week, Judge Totenberg said the activists’ lawyers are “welcome to take the deposition of anyone” who could explain what happened in Coffee County. She expressed “great concern” over “the possibility that the software was shared in some other way” with people who shouldn’t have access to it.
Still, lawyers for the election agency seemed dismissive about the entire ordeal. Although the court record now includes a secretly recorded audiotape of a member of the unauthorized team—Hall—incriminating himself in the misadventure, an attorney for the state insinuated that this is merely a firsthand account from a noted conspiracy theorist.
“This isn’t the only allegation Mr. Hall has made regarding the 2020 election,” attorney Bryan P. Tyson noted dryly to the judge at the hearing on June 7.
The subpoenas, which were just filed in federal court, seek information about who put together and financed the 2020 election truthers’ trip to Coffee County, what the technicians did while there, and what they’ve done since with any copies of the software—which could be dangerous in the wrong hands. They also seek information about the extent of the state’s investigation, which has provided no public answers thus far.
The consensus among cybersecurity experts is that the nation’s election system is generally safe from foreign government hackers seeking to harm the U.S. democratic process, largely because the country uses a diverse, dispersed network of smaller, local systems. But they have long warned that unauthorized access to election management software poses a real danger, because unvetted actors who copy this software can pass it along to skilled hackers who can examine it long enough to find flaws—and companies are slow to fix them.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is the top federal agency responsible for the country’s election security. Earlier this month, CISA released an advisory that touched on that threat when it revealed critical vulnerabilities in the type of voting machines used in Georgia and elsewhere—and stressed the importance of keeping unauthorized people away from it.
“Exploitation of these vulnerabilities would require physical access” CISA said, stressing that local governments can prevent attacks by making sure they “limit unauthorized access or manipulation of voting systems.”
Harri Hursti, a Finnish computer programmer with extensive experience analyzing election systems, said the team that visited Coffee County was a perfect example of a group that shouldn’t have gotten access. Hursti said he interacted with some election conspiracy theorists who planned to travel there and was immediately worried about what they might do.
“We're talking about a fundamental misunderstanding of everything. Total disinformation,” he told The Daily Beast.
Marilyn Marks, whose Coalition for Good Governance voting rights group is suing Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, said her group intends to use its subpoenas to investigate what happened in Coffee County—particularly since his office has not publicly addressed what occurred there.
“These depositions are being taken to provide evidence of what the secretary chooses not to expose—the timing and extent of the alleged compromise of the state’s software and what these unauthorized individuals then did with the sensitive files and programs,” she said.
Raffensperger’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Anthony Michael Kreis, a constitutional law professor at Georgia State University, said he is “concerned that the state is not being more vocal about this.”
“This is just another example of the institutional decay in the democratic process. Nobody who believes in conspiracy theories should be allowed anywhere near these election machines,” he said. “That is an exceedingly dangerous thing.”