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All roads for Biden's infrastructure plan lead through West Virginia -- and not just to court Joe Manchin

Moderate Republicans announced yesterday, Earth Day, a counter-offer to the Biden administration's $2 trillion-plus infrastructure proposal.

Led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the moderates put out a two-page glossy marketing blurb that significantly scales down Biden's package. It cuts critical infrastructure investment and has a price tag of $568 billion.

Some of the ways Republicans suggest going from $2 trillion to $568 billion are by cutting the investments in safe drinking water and essential repairs on public schools.

The two senators may be from opposing sides of the aisle, but they have each put up similar obstacles that the Biden team must navigate to get its package through.

As it happens, Capito's own state of West Virginia is playing a pivotal role in hindering Biden from moving forward with his historic infrastructure package. The two senators from West Virginia—Capito and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—may be from opposing sides of the aisle, but they have each put up similar obstacles that the Biden team must navigate to get its much-needed infrastructure package through.

No Corporate Tax Increase

[caption id="attachment_23192" align="alignright" width="300"] Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) speaking at a digital media conference in 2017. (Capito Senate photo)[/caption]

The common theme among the two West Virginian senators? Both senators are doing their best to ensure that wealthy corporations don't have to pay for the much-needed upgrades of the nation's infrastructure.

Their views ignore two big problems for the majority of their constituents: West Virginia desperately needs infrastructure improvements, and both senators promised constituents they were going to advocate for, not obstruct, it.

In a unique power dynamic, West Virginia's Manchin is the Democrats' major roadblock in passing Biden's plan by threatening to vote against the bill, while Capito is the GOP's point person in trying to severely trim a package that could add 2.7 million jobs.

Manchin's reasoning? He says he won't vote for the bill if the corporate tax rate is raised from the 21% rate enacted under Trump to 28%. The rate before Trump was 35%, so the Biden plan is a halfway restoration.

The GOP plan announced by Capito doesn't have any mention of corporate America paying for the plan. Instead, the GOP suggests that users of electric vehicles get taxed.

A 51-Vote Majority

The Senate parliamentarian ruled, that a simple majority of 51 Democrats can pass Biden's infrastructure package and some other legislation, circumventing the Senate's arcane filibuster rule that requires 60 votes for most legislation.

But this only works so long as all 50 Democrats are unified, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie.

That Democrat Manchin won't vote for the bill if the corporate tax is increased, the other West Virginia senator in a unique position. Capito is standing somewhere between Biden and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) The notoriously obstructionist Senate minority leader, McConnell vowed that no Republican will vote for Biden's proposal.

But McConnell will have an especially tough time corralling all Republicans. Many promised major infrastructure spending all throughout the Trump presidency but never delivered—not even when the party held majorities in both houses of Congress.

As far back at the Continental Congress, infrastructure spending has been the preferred bring-home-the-bacon move for representatives and senators. There are few less controversial ways to spread federal dollars on home-state projects.

Moderate Republicans

Joe Manchin Speaking on the Senate FloorAnd in recent months a loose, if tight-fisted, coalition of Republican senators has emerged, showing some willingness to stray from McConnell's sternly shepherded senatorial flock. In February, seven senators voted to convict in Dinald Trump's second impeachment trial. And 10 Republican senators, including Capito, proffered a Covid relief package that, like Thursday's infrastructure counteroffer, would have cost hundreds of billions less than Biden's.

Both Manchin and Capito say that they want to improve their desperately poor state's infrastructure. Twenty percent of West Virginia's bridges are deemed structurally deficient, the worst in the nation. West Virginia broadband quality and access rank 45 out of 50. And the state has the worst drinking water in the country.

Joint Efforts

In November, Manchin and Capito jointly secured a federal investment of $485,000 to improve water from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a partnership between the federal government and 13 states. Biden just nominated Joe Manchin's wife Gayle Manchin to be the co-chair of ARC.

The two senators put out a joint statement taking credit for the ARC money, and Manchin promised to keep fighting for more "good-paying jobs and ensuring our fellow West Virginians have access to basic human needs such as clean drinking water."

Biden's infrastructure plan invests $111 billion to improve water infrastructure. So why isn't Manchin advocating for West Virginia's share of this historical and unprecedented level of investment?

"Everything that's being proposed is a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed," said Stephen Smith the co-chair of a group called WV Can't Wait.

Big Campaign Donors

Overall, Smith speaks of West Virginia with pride, but he also points to frustrations after 150 years of "outside interests getting rich off of West Virginia. First timber; then coal; now natural gas, agribusiness and Big Pharma."

So it's no surprise to Smith that Manchin may hold up national legislation to protect corporate interests, "His top donors are financiers, corporate leaders—he doesn't answer to the people of West Virginia. He's made a career of doing for those at the top."

Eric Engle, of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action Group, also supports Biden's infrastructure bill. He considers the climate change component of the bill a game-changer for the Mid-Ohio region.

"This infrastructure bill is an enormous start, and we support it." He points to all of the jobs it probably would create in West Virginia: "Good jobs, union jobs, family-supporting jobs, living wage jobs and all with a focus on a sustainable green economy."

'DINO Joe'

Like Smith, Engle isn't surprised Manchin—whom he calls "DINO Joe," as in Democrat in Name Only—may block any investment:

"If you're a Democrat, why are you blocking your own party's initiatives? Why is it that the vast majority of the time you seem to be more supportive of the Republican objective?"

Arguably, since Trump overwhelmingly won in West Virginia, a Democratic senator is considered especially vulnerable in the state. Both Engle and Smith dismiss this as a media narrative not reflective of reality.

Manchin, who was governor before running for the Senate, is not up for re-election until 2024. "If he keeps holding up progress on the Democratic platform in the Senate," says Engle, "no West Virginia Democrats are going to vote to re-elect him."

Powerful Position

All this again puts Capito in an unusually strong bargaining position. Despite her own low-ball proposal, Capito is on the record saying there's plenty in the Biden plan that she likes. She expressed confidence after a February White House meeting with Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and last month she positively promoted parts of Biden's plan.

Capito is leading the infrastructure negotiations. But it remains to be seen whether she—like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who led moderate Republicans to offer a severely downsized version of the Covid bill—will, in the end, choose to vote no if Biden turns down her skinflint counterproposal.

Unlike Collins, who had no particular dog in the Covid hunt, Capito has long tied her political fortunes to winning federal dollars for West Virginia improvements. To ultimately obstruct her very own pet projects would, no doubt, leave her with a lot to explain to folks back home.

If Biden and the Democrats find themselves scrambling for 50 votes, they might still have to make a pilgrimage to West Virginia—to woo Capito rather than Manchin.

They'll just have to hope that bridge doesn't collapse as they cross it.

Republicans across the country are helping Dominion make its case against the defendants’ lies

Baseless Republican attacks on Dominion Voting Systems may come back to bite major Donald Trump supporters in the wallet. That's because the company appears to be losing significant business in jurisdictions where Republicans control decisions about which vendors will supply voting equipment.

To collect damages the company must show that it suffered financial harm. In that regard, various elected Republicans around the country are helping Dominion make its case as the defendants' lies about Dominion machines are causing it to lose millions of dollars of business.

In separate lawsuits, Dominion is seeking actual damages of $1.6 billion from Fox News, and $1.3 billion each from Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, and the My Pillow Guy, Mike Lindell. It is also seeking punitive damages.

Republicans around the country are helping Dominion make its case as the defendants' lies about Dominion machines are causing it to lose millions of dollars of business.

The individuals Dominion is suing stood at the center of the "Stop the Steal" movement and fed the narrative. Fox News amplified this manufactured storyline.

And Republicans around the country listened. GOP state legislators and election officials country are taking actions that will cost Dominion dearly.

Louisiana: Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin planned to replace outdated voting machines by purchasing $100 million worth of new voting equipment. Dominion was one of three bidders. In March, Republican state lawmakers sought oversight and public hearings on the contract after being besieged with calls from constituents demanding the state not hire Dominion.

New Orleans conservative radio host Jeff Crouere ran an ad urging people to call Ardoin at his office. "Tell Kyle we don't want a Dominion voting machine lawsuit here like they had in Georgia," Crouere said in the spot, "Call Kyle and tell him to get honest voting machines."

The state then shelved plans to purchase new voting machines altogether. Instead, the Sec. Ardoin embarked on a campaign to dispel misinformation about the state's Dominion voting machines, which it has used for years. Before canceling the new equipment purchase, Ardoin confirmed the state's history with Dominion was positive, "While our current election-day voting machines has served Louisiana well," he then attributed the cancelation to disinformation. "I am withdrawing the RFP to spend the next few months seeking to undo the damage to voter confidence done by those who willfully spread misinformation and disinformation," Ardoin said. He followed up by saying "I think unfortunately those folks who are rooted deep in conspiracy theories may not accept what we provide to them."

Michigan: Austin Chenge, a Republican businessman running to oust Gretchen Whitmer from the Governor's mansion in 2022, promised that on "day one" if elected he'd cancel contracts with Dominion. Chenge told the Detroit newspaper Metro Times, "the most important reason for canceling this contract is to restore voter confidence in our elections."

Arizona: Republican State Sen. Karen Fann, the Senate leader, is still running a crusade to find fraud connected to Dominion. State election officials undertook the audits as required by law. Maricopa County (Phoenix), the state's largest, then undertook two further forensic examinations of machines that Fann's office sent representatives to observe. Again, nothing amiss was found, but that hasn't stopped Fann.

On March 31, Fann selected a Florida company called Cyber Ninjas to examine the 2020 general election in Maricopa County. Maricopa is home to more than half of Arizonans and with almost 4.5 million people. It used Dominion voting machines in 2020.

CyberNinjas founder Doug Logan is a prominent advocate of "Stop the Steal," making him hardly an unbiased auditor of vote results. Logan retweeted posts such as, "if you can't see the blatant cheating, malfeasance and outright voter fraud, then you are ignorant or lying," and "I'm tired of hearing people say there was no fraud. It happened, it's real, and people better get wise fast."

Sen. Fann has said the inquiry by Logan's firm will be bipartisan but has not cited any Democrats or Biden supporters who will be involved.

After Dominion filed its lawsuits CyberNinjas deleted tweets in which its founder pushed the same conspiracies that Fox News and Trump's legal team were peddling.

This is not the first audit Logan was involved in. He sought to overturn election results in a Michigan county that used Dominion machines.

Logan is listed in court documents as an expert witness in an election fraud case in Antrim County, Mich. Logan and others submitted a 23-page report alleging that Dominion "is intentionally and purposefully designed with inherent errors to create systemic fraud and influence election results."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel issued a joint statement calling the report "another in a long stream of misguided, vague and dubious assertions designed to erode public confidence in the November presidential election."

Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy, a Republican, said she was saddened by the efforts to discredit the Dominion equipment. "I did read the report and find that there are many misleading statements that are simply not accurate," Guy said.

Colorado: Sixty-two of the state's 64 counties used Dominion machines. A state-mandated audit of election results didn't find any irregularities.

Despite that, seven Republican lawmakers requested that the Democratic Speaker of the House form a special committee on election integrity. Shortly thereafter, the legislature held a hearing on Dominion technology and found no evidence of miscounting.

Another Colorado Republican, the elected supervisor of voting in El Paso County Chuck Broerman, defended using Dominion equipment. "We are considered the gold standard. Everybody wants to be like Colorado. And that goes from the execution of our elections to the products and the vendors that we use in that process," Broerman said.

Republican Wayne Williams, Colorado's former secretary of state, also defended Dominion. He noted their machines previously passed at least 868 verification tests in 62 Colorado counties without issue.

However, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) continues to push to remove Dominion. Boebert, known for her gun-toting theatrics, continues to demand that county officials replace Dominion machines.

Ohio: The bipartisan Stark County Board of Elections voted unanimously in December to approve purchasing $6.45 million in Dominion voting equipment. County commissioners reversed that decision in March.

Samuel Ferruccio, chairman of the board, said it has never encountered Dominion's software issues.

Trump 'Cult'

"The Trump supporters are cult-like and that's why [the commissioners] would have the most calls they've ever had," he said. Dominion machines "have been tested at the federal level, the state level. They are tried and proven. It's just unfortunate that the lunatic fringe Trump cult people are propagating this misinformation."

In March, when county commissioners voted to reject buying new machines from Dominion a local newspaper attributed it to elected officials "being hounded by Trump supporters."

That evidence of loss of business could be costly to the defendants, especially Fox. Dominion's suit against Fox asserts that the television operation "recklessly disregarded the truth," and was "intentionally and falsely blaming Dominion for President Trump's loss by rigging the election."

Dominion's 443-page filing against Fox cites example after example of what it says are utterly false statements by primetime hosts Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro and others that the firm's equipment was used to manipulate vote counts and that the company is owned by a Venezuelan company founded to rig elections for Hugo Chavez. They fed a fantasy that the firm supplied vote-flipping machines made for a deceased Venezuelan dictator.

Dominion as 'Criminal Enterprise'

On Nov. 21, 2020, a day after Fox News received a retraction demand letter from Dominion, Jeanine Pirro amplified Giuliani's never-made-in-litigation claims that Dominion was an "organized criminal enterprise," "started in Venezuela with Cuban money," that could and did "flip" votes "with the assistance of Smartmatic software," thus creating the "stunning" ballot "dump[s]" in the early morning of Nov. 4 that fabricated votes for Biden.

Dominion asserts that this pandering to Trump was rewarded: "After Fox's Jeanine Pirro promoted the lie that Trump had actually won the election, her ex-husband received an eleventh-hour pardon from soon-to-be-former-President Trump." (Pirro was married to Albert Pirro in 1999 when a federal jury convicted him on 23 counts of income tax cheating, for which he served 17 months in prison. Trump pardoned him on Dec, 21.)

Fox Promotes Lies

The lawsuit also notes that "after nearly a month of Fox relentlessly promoting lies about Dominion, Fox Corporation's stock had rebounded to its pre-election value."

Dominion says not only was all of the information Fox pushed false but that each of the defendants kept repeating the same material. "Indeed, Fox knew these statements about Dominion were lies," the lawsuit states.

On Nov. 12, Lou Dobbs of Fox Business News allowed Rudy Giuliani to spread false information and then fanned the flames, saying: "It's stunning. And they're private firms and very little is known about their ownership, beyond what you're saying about Dominion."

As DCReport previously reported, the largest voting company in the U.S. does have private ownership and says relatively little about its ownership. But that's not Dominion. It's Election Systems & Software (ES&S), the largest vendor with 60% of the market share, which was never mentioned by the defendants.

Ownership of Companies

As Republican election officials refuse to purchase Dominion equipment, rival ES&S is set to benefit and build increased market share.

Democratic lawmakers Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sought ownership information about three voting equipment vendors, which together comprise 90% of the market share.

ES&S is owned by its top executives and the McCarthy Group, a private equity investment firm founded by Michael R. McCarthy in Omaha, Neb. Former Secretary of Defense and two-term Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel was chairman of the company that later became ES&S, but it is unknown if he still has any investment in it. McCarthy was active in Hagel's Senate campaigns and a large donor.

Dominion is owned by Staple Street Capital, a New York City private equity firm whose principles had been associated with the Carlyle Group and Cerberus Capital Management.

Dominion declares in its lawsuit that it has no Venezuelan ties. It was founded in the early 2000s by John Poulos, a Canadian who started it in his basement. Poulos voluntarily worked with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States ("CFIUS") to ensure it knew who he was and who was invested in Dominion.

False Accusations

In more than 60 court cases pro-Trump forces claimed votes were counted illegally to make Joe Biden president. Many of these accused Dominion of dishonesty, intentionally miscounting ballots, and other wrongs. In every one of those cases, the pro-Trump forces failed to produce evidence of the election being rigged.

In some of the cases, judges asked for evidence to back up claims, whereupon the lawsuits were withdrawn. That was a smart move by the Trump lawyers because making baseless claims can result in disciplinary action including disbarment.

Surveys show that 67% of Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The rallying cry of the attempted coup on January 6 was "Stop the Steal."

Ben Decker, CEO and founder of Memetica, a digital investigations consultancy, described Stop the Steal as an overall election fraud strategy saying, "Stop the Steal is a highly coordinated partisan political operation intent on bringing together conspiracy theorists, militias, hate groups, and Trump supporters to attack the integrity of our election."

In a sign that it is serious about defending its reputation, Dominion recently expanded its legal team. The cases are more likely to be settled than go to trial, but by hiring more lawyers the company is signaling that it is serious about seeking damages.

Only Fox has that kind of money, but business and law partners and insurers for the others may pressure them to settle to reduce their own exposure.

More Suits to Come

Dominion CEO John Poulos promises that the four lawsuits are "definitely not the last lawsuits" he expects the company to file. "We are taking a very measured, evidence-based approach as to what we file next. And we are not ruling anyone out."

Dominion is not alone in bringing lawsuits over the Trump disinformation campaign. Smartmatic is a provider of election software with no ties to Dominion. But some Trump supporters stated as fact that Smartmatic had its software on Dominion machines. Smartmatic is suing Fox for $2.7 billion.

The New York Times recently broke the latest fundraising scandal illustrating how Trump has been raking in his supporters' money. However, the Dominion suits illustrate that, while Trump remains focused on profiting from his presidency, his loyalists may wind up paying the biggest price.

How Elaine Chao used her Trump cabinet post to help her family make millions

In January 2017, upon her confirmation as secretary of the Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao committed to separating herself from her family's shipping interests. Looking back on the last four years, it's clear she didn't.

In an administration awash with emoluments and ethics concerns, it has mostly flown under the radar just how much Chao, who is married to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, stood to gain financially from her position as secretary of transportation and how government watchdogs failed to challenge her repeated wrongdoings.

The Chao family business is deeply entangled with Beijing. The Chao family dry bulk ship company has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from Chinese banks, all of which are partly or fully owned by the communist regime.

In 2019, Elaine Chao faced some criticism for public appearances with her family members that seemed to be elevating the profile of the family business long after she was sworn in as transportation secretary.

The report shows clearly that numerous documented Chao actions could be felonies under federal laws designed to avoid official favoritism.

Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, said Elaine Chao's actions appeared to be a clear abuse of power. "This is the kind of thing you would use in a training class to teach government officials what a misuse of a position looks like," Shaub said. "This conduct falls into the category of extreme rather than gray."

Case Referred to Justice Department

What the public knew was minor, though, compared to the damning facts in a 38-page inspector general report that was hidden until after the Trump administration ended. That report revealed that in December 2020 the inspector general referred its findings about Chao's conduct to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution.

Attorney General William Barr, whose policy was to personally review all cases involving high-level Trump appointees, declined to prosecute Chao. A spokesman for Chao said that the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute "closes the book" on the issues and exonerates Elaine Chao.

Does it?

The inspector general made extensive findings that have astonished ethics officials in Washington, some of whom say they've never seen anything like it. The report shows clearly that numerous documented Chao actions could be felonies under federal laws designed to avoid official favoritism.

Fleet Value Doubled

Significantly, during the four years Chao served as transportation secretary, her family's shipping business did exceptionally well.

Her father, James Si-Cheng Chao, fled mainland China after communists lead by Mao Zedong won the Chinese civil war in 1948. Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomintang Party withdrew to Taiwan. Chao and his wife Ruth Mulan Chu Chao went first to Taiwan, where Elaine, the oldest of their six daughters, was born in 1953 in Taipei.

Chao, a ship captain in his 20s, made his way to New York. In 1964 he started acquiring dry bulk ships, when he landed his first big contract with the United States government, shipping rice to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Often referred to as "Dr. Chao," he received an honorary degree from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 2018.

The family's shipping firm, Foremost Group, operates mainly between the United States, Brazil and Canada and China with more than 70% of their freight going to China. The company has done so well that it donated $40 million for a building at the Harvard Business School named for Elaine Chao's mother, a graduate of that school.

The family business grew substantially over the four years that Elaine Chao was in the Trump cabinet—by almost half a million dollars a day. Its fleet value when Chao assumed office in January 2017 was valued at half a billion dollars, but its value more than doubled to $1.18 billion by the time she left office, according to VesselsValue, a private vessel valuation service which shared its analysis with DCReport.

According to VesselsValue, the Chao family fleet in January 2017 consisted of 22 vessels. After selling off some of their older ships and ordering new vessels, the family fleet will reach 32 vessels this summer.

Chao-McConnell Net Worth Grows

Most of the wealth of Chao and McConnell have disclosed in their annual government ethics filings comes from her inheritance when her mother died in 2007. She received as much as $25 million from her mother, these forms indicate.

Elaine Chao has no stake in the family business, a point emphasized by her staff in their interviews with the inspector general. That is true but misleading.

She still had a lucrative reason to use her government position to tout her father's shipping company. It encouraged shippers to choose it rather than competitors because of her ties to Trump, and it helped the company expand because it was more attractive to mainland China and Taiwan bankers. So long as she remains in the good graces of her father, it is likely she stands to inherit a second time along with her five sisters, a contingent interest that could be worth many tens of millions of dollars.

List of Abuses

With that background, here are some telling examples of Elaine Chao using the Transportation Department as a promotional arm to build the profile and reputation of her family's Sino-American shipping empire. The report focused on 14 events the secretary attended or planned to attend with her father between 2017-2018, including the 50th anniversary of the Dept. of Transportation, among other instances of mixing family matters with her official duties:

    • Chao planned a China trip in which she would be accompanied by her father and sister, Angela Chao, CEO of Foremost Group. Draft itineraries included book signings and appearances for her father and her family joining her in official events and high-level meetings. State Department personnel at the American embassy in Beijing were alarmed at this plan, which was a breach of well-developed protocols about mixing official duties and family business. The trip was ultimately canceled because of diplomatic staff concerns. While planning that trip, a transportation department official emailed the secretary about whether her father wanted to meet with a former classmate, thought to be former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Arranging such a meeting would not be appropriate conduct for a government agency.
    • Various department staffers were charged with providing media and public affairs support to the secretary's father, even maintaining lists of his awards and creating a media strategy and public relations plan for him and Foremost Group. Chao had her staff, on taxpayer time, edit a chapter from a book on her father, and she directed department public affairs staffers to edit her father's Wikipedia page. The department's public affairs director devised and recommended a strategy "amplifying the coverage in regional [Chinese] press, a means to build Chao's profile and to share the story of his journey."
    • Repeatedly transportation public affairs staffers arranged media coverage and coordinated photo opportunities for Elaine Chao and her father. They arranged targeted in-depth interviews with the secretary and her father intended solely for the Chinese market. In one event where Elaine Chao was asked to speak, the former secretary first asked if they would be distributing 500 copies of her father's biography, Fearless Against the Wind. When Elaine Chao was invited to be the keynote speaker at a maritime event, she asked the sponsors to give her father an award, evidently as a condition of coming. Once the secretary got confirmation of an award for her father Elaine Chao agreed to attend. Arrangements for that event included placing a copy of her father's book on the chair of each attendee at the gala.
    • Elaine Chao asked transportation staff to act as personal assistants for her and her family, especially her father. They were instructed to organize repairs of his personal belongings, schedule personal appointments for him, FedEx him Christmas ornaments – and sending the secretary and Sen. McConnell a list of those ornaments – and to get Chao to autograph photos for Transportation Department files.

The inspector general's investigators interviewed transportation ethics lawyers, who revealed that "they had no record of a request to provide ethics advice" for a number of the specific events listed above. More often than not, Chao's top staff failed to bring potential conflicts to the attention of the ethics lawyers, as required by longstanding policy.

Ethics Policy Ignored

When ethics lawyers were consulted they emphasized how the secretary should minimize her connections to the Foremost Group and their transportation interests. The ethics lawyers outlined specific steps to ensure her official government position was not conflated with Foremost in a way that advantaged the reputation and prestige of the family business.

Nevertheless, Chao cultivated her and her family's image in China. The New York Times reported that the Secretary's official calendar showed at least 21 interviews or meetings with Chinese-language news organizations in her first year as transportation secretary.

Before Chao's confirmation, conflict of interest issues were raised. Her spokeswoman said no conflict existed because Elaine Chao had no "ownership stake" in Foremost. That statement ignored her contingent interest provided she remains in the good graces of her father in a business with ships valued at more than a billion dollars, a business that would prosper if shippers believed choosing Foremost Group ships would curry favor with the Trump administration.

The investigation into former Secretary Chao started in June 2019 under the direction of Acting Inspector General Mitchell Behm. In May 2020, after many on Chao's staff had been interrogated and the direction of the IG investigation had become clear inside Transportation, Trump tried to remove Behm using the limited power presidents have to fire IGs.

Watchdog Conflict

The Inspector-General Act requires that an inspector general be appointed "without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability." The act was intended to, but in this case failed to, insulate inspectors general "from political retribution," a common Trump administration theme.

Behm was one of five inspectors general whom Trump attempted to remove as their staffs were digging into corruption in his administration. Trump was unable to remove Behm but had to wait for the Senate to confirm Trump's nominee to take over.

Trump's nominee as the new inspector general at transportation was the head of its pipelines safety office. The nominee was to retain his pipeline job while also becoming inspector general, an unusual arrangement putting a subordinate in a post that is supposed to be independent.

McConnell to the Rescue

Still in his acting position, seven months after Trump had tried to remove him, Behm sent Chao's file to Justice with a referral for a criminal investigation. It was sent to the Justice Department on Dec. 16, 2020. After one justice office declined to open an investigation, the inspector general's report was sent to a different part of justice the next day.

The reaction was swift. That same day, Dec. 17, McConnell, Chao's husband, abruptly brought to the Senate floor a vote to confirm Trump's nominee to be the new Transportation inspector general.

The first vote failed but ultimately on Dec. 21, the nominee was confirmed on a party-line vote of 48 to 47. That ended Behm's acting role. Of the five inspectors general that Trump tried to fire, the only one removed was the one investigating McConnell's wife. Behm has since returned to his previous position as deputy inspector general at transportation.

On the last week Trump held office, Attorney General Barr declined to prosecute Chao. Whether the Biden administration will review that under Attorney General Merrick Garland is unknown.

How Marco Rubio turned the Senate Intel Committee into a Trump defensive team

When Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took over as acting chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the spring of 2020, he refocused the committee's long-running investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Rubio turned the committee away from dispassionately investigating the myriad connections between the Kremlin and Donald Trump's campaign into a Republican defense line between the compromised former president and the American public. Instead, Rubio aligned the committee with the Trump Administration itself, politicizing intelligence, downplaying Russian interference, white-washing Trump-Kremlin contacts and purposely deflecting attention from Russia to China.

Soon, Rubio publicly sparred with the committee vice chairman, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), over how much to reveal to the people before the 2020 election. They issued a heavily redacted fifth and final 950-page volume of the committee's work on Aug. 18, just 77 days before Election Day.

The report was presented as a confusing they-said-they-said hodge-podge of observations and conclusions pitting Republicans and Democrats against each other.

But unlike the four previous reports issued with bipartisan agreement, the last volume was presented as a confusing they-said-they-said hodge-podge of observations and conclusions pitting Republicans and Democrats against each other.

Upon the release of the report, Rubio and Warner even issued conflicting statements, as if characterizing two different investigations. Rubio and the Republicans on the committee asserted that they "found absolutely no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government to meddle in the 2016 election."

This is the second of a two-part series. In Part 1, we examined how officials high in the Trump intelligence community hid evidence of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

Warner, in marked contrast, said the investigators found "a breathtaking level of contacts between Trump officials and Russian government operatives that is a very real counterintelligence threat to our elections."

Democrats, who claimed the Republicans redacted portions even more damaging to Trump, said: "Trump and his associates' participation in and enabling of this Russian activity, represents one of the single most grave counterintelligence threats to American national security in the modern era."

So who was right?

Actually, the facts are quite clear. Donald Trump and his campaign worked hand-in-glove with Kremlin interests. Just as former Attorney General William Barr lied about the findings of the Mueller Report and Trump's first impeachment defense team mischaracterized his infamous phone call to Ukraine's prime minister, Rubio and his fellow committee Republicans lied and denied the extent of the Trump-Kremlin connections—to the detriment of our democracy, but a great boon to the dictatorial regime of Vladimir Putin. Indeed, just last week, the U.S. intelligence community outlined Putin's efforts to influence the 2020 election—again in favor of Donald Trump.

Lost in the News

Released amid the Covid pandemic and the presidential election, the damning revelations of the Senate committee's report didn't register with many people. News accounts at the time didn't always give the full flavor of the report, relying on characterizations rather than the telling details establishing how thoroughly the Kremlin's agents and the Trump campaign coordinated.

But a simple reading of the massive report shows documented connection after connection, coordination and, yes, collusion between the Trump inner circle and Putin's associates.

  • Trump's convicted and now-pardoned campaign manager Paul Manafort coordinated directly with Konstantin Kilimnik. The report states without equivocation that "Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer." At Manafort's direction, the campaign sent sensitive campaign strategy and polling data to Kilimnik every day. Manafort and Kilimnik hid their interactions through encryption apps, dedicated "bat phones" and clandestine meetings. Campaign and polling data was sent daily to Kilimnik and then deleted, using the Facebook-owned encrypted platform WhatsApp. (The FBI is seeking Kilimnik and is offering a large $250,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest.)
  • Trump advisers Kellyanne Conway, pre-emptively pardoned Steve Bannon and convicted and pardoned Gen. Michael Flynn knowingly negotiated with Russian hackers to obtain Hillary Clinton's stolen emails. They conducted a multi-pronged approach to get the hacked information. Flynn was in close contact with Barbara Ledeen, a Senate staffer working for the Senate Judiciary Committee who was tasked with obtaining Hillary Clinton's emails.
  • WikiLeaks and Trump's campaign together weaponized the Democratic National Committee documents that Russia hacked as part of the Kremlin's strategy to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign. At the direction of "Trump and senior campaign," Roger Stone "took action to gain inside knowledge" from Wikileaks and "shared" this information with Trump. Trump and senior campaign officials coordinated the timing of the release of the documents with WikiLeaks through Stone, who was convicted of obstructing a Congressional investigation. Trump commuted his sentence.
  • Wikileaks was in contact with Donald Trump Jr. directly, even providing him with a username and password to a then-private website, putintrump.org, used by journalists investigating Trump-Kremlin links. Don Jr. also coordinated the June 9,
  • Trump Tower meeting between himself, Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with heavy ties to the Kremlin, and her entourage. Participants claimed they discussed adoption, but the report reveals that the subject line of Trump Jr's email invite was "FW: Russia—Clinton—private and confidential." Meeting notes from Manafort's phone included cryptic financial references to offshore accounts such as "Offshore - Cyprus/ 133m shares."
  • Trump regularly received 'gifts' from his Russian friends including a watch, artwork, and a gift from Putin to Trump—a decorative box and personal letter from Putin. The Putin gift, which the report even includes pictures of, was hand-delivered to Trump's Manhattan apartment after his infamous 2013 Moscow visit for Trump's Miss Universe pageant. The report indicates that in addition to gifts, messages were being transmitted. Days after the 2016 election, admitted Russian spy Maria Butina received a message that "Trump has already received a good letter from VVP [Putin]."
  • Kushner spoke to the Russian Ambassador, during the transition, about setting up a secret backchannel to communicate without detection directly with Putin's staff, a fact that had been known. There were various groups working to establish this backchannel for Putin. Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian oligarch who is head of the $10 billion Russian sovereign wealth fund RDIF, texted George Nader who was close to the Trump campaign that Putin had "emphasized that this is a great priority for us and that we need to build this communication channel to avoid bureaucracy." Nader was working with the campaign at that time and helping Dmitriev establish that channel.
  • Carter Page admitted to the FBI that he was "on the books" as a Russian intelligence source. Maria Butina, a Russian spy, sent a Twitter direct message to her Russian contacts asking about Page and saying that Page and Putin were together at a meeting in Moscow in 2015. Despite these obvious and significant security concerns, Trump put Page on his campaign's foreign policy team, and Page even obtained permission from the campaign to travel to Russia in June 2016. The campaign only distanced itself from Page after a news report that U.S. intelligence was investigating whether Page had private communications with senior Russian officials

'No Collusion'

The list of contacts and links goes on, but the overwhelming evidence of collusion was simply ignored by Rubio and his fellow Republican committee members. They wouldn't let the facts get in the way of their party leader's story: No collusion.

While that was the Trump and the GOP line, until then it had not been the committee's narrative. That changed, however, when Rubio took over the committee chairmanship under most unusual and extraordinary circumstances.

Before Rubio, the committee ran a bi-partisan three-year investigation under its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Warner. In the nine months from July 2019 to April 2020, Burr and Warner jointly released four 100-page reports documenting the "irrefutable evidence of Russian meddling" in our elections. The reports were considered highly informative with no hint of partisanship. USA Today said the committee was "a rare symbol of unity on the divisive issue of Russia's role in the presidential race—quite a feat for a panel with members ranging from conservative Trump ally Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to liberal Trump critic Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)"

Indeed, the Intelligence Committee, by design, is supposed to minimize partisanship. Established in 1976 in the post-Watergate era, the committee has a long history of serious, responsible oversight of the intelligence community and intelligence issues.

Burr Booted

But that all fell apart when FBI agents raided Chairman Burr's North Carolina home in May 2020, seeking evidence of insider stock trading based on information Burr had learned at closed-door briefings about the Covid pandemic. Burr stepped down from his chairmanship. Then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tapped Rubio for the job, and the fix was in.

Sidelined, Burr was told on Jan. 19, Trump's last day in office, that the trading case would be dropped. Probably not insignificantly, Burr was one of seven Republican senators voting to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Two other Intelligence Committee Republicans—Susan Collins of Maine and Ben Sasse of Nebraska—also voted to convict.

Today, Burr remains a member of the committee, but Rubio sits in the vice chairman's seat. Warner is chairman.

The Virginia Democrat has said he isn't interested in looking backward but wants to look forward at rebuilding the U.S. intelligence community, especially the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—which he said, emerged "decimated" and "in shambles" from the last four years. And Warner may well have summed up the challenge he will face in leading his committee going forward saying, "We don't want to go back to that non-fact-based world."

Trump intelligence chiefs hid evidence of Russian election interference

Lost in the news on the day of Trump's Insurrection was a devastating new watchdog report to Congress on the politicizing and distorting of intelligence during Donald Trump's time in office.

The analytic ombudsman, career intelligence community veteran Barry A. Zulauf, determined that under Trump, national intelligence reports had become highly politicized. Important findings were suppressed to appease Trump's refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in American elections,

Zulauf's unclassified report paints a frightening picture of just how much the Trump Administration skewed intelligence to suppress knowledge of interference by Russia in our 2020 elections.

From March 2020, in the critical months leading up to the elections, Zulauf "identified a long story arc of—at the very least—perceived politicization of intelligence."

Zulauf works in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), a Cabinet-level position created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to oversee all U.S. intelligence operations. Zulauf's job within the ODNI was created by Congress to assist analysts throughout the intelligence community with complaints and concerns about politicization, biased reporting or lack of objectivity in intelligence analysis.

Zulauf determined that Trump's ODNI took "willful actions that… had the effect of politicizing intelligence, hindering objective analysis or injecting bias into the intelligence process."

While Zulauf tried to avoid specifically naming individuals responsible for much of the political heavy-handed rewriting, he repeatedly calls out actions taken by two recent Trump appointees, neither of whom had any chops as intelligence experts.

One is former Acting Director Richard Grenell, who had been a Fox News commentator and Trump-appointed ambassador to Germany, who took over the ODNI in February 2020 and relinquished the post the following May. The second was the Texas Congressman Trump appointed to replace Grenell, John Ratcliffe, best known as a fervent defender of the ex-president in his first impeachment.

In one particularly egregious example, Zulauf wrote that Ratcliffe insisted on highlighting Chinese election interference while downplaying Russian efforts.

"Ratcliffe just disagreed with the established analytic line on China, insisting 'we are missing' China's influence in the US and that Chinese actions ARE intended to affect the election," Zulauf wrote. "Ultimately the DNI insisted on putting material on China in…. As a result, the final published [assessment], analysts felt, was an outrageous misrepresentation of their analysis."

The intelligence community has procedures to make sure assessments are based on sound judgment by seasoned analysts, not rogue points of view, especially when they are not supported by facts.

The Senate Intelligence Committee requested the ombudsman review possible politicization of intelligence. Interestingly, Zulauf notes that he had his own review underway when the Senate Intelligence Committee request arrived. The ombudsman started his own investigation after he was approached by ombudsmen at three other agencies within the intelligence community. They acted because intelligence agency professionals and managers perceived problems and were getting internal complaints about the politicization of intelligence.

Helsinki Betrayal

The findings come 29 months after Trump declared in Helsinki, standing next to Vladimir Putin, that he trusted the Russian leader, but not the American intelligence services.

By putting his trust in Putin, a former KGB colonel, saying that he took him at his word when he denied interfering in the 2016 presidential election, Trump reiterated his denunciations of American intelligence services.

Trump refused on most days to sit for his intelligence briefing, a closely guarded summary of what is going on around the world that threatens the interests of the U.S. and its allies. The report is prepared by experienced analysts based on reports from 17 American intelligence agencies, which feed material to Central Intelligence Agency for consideration.

The Presidential Daily Brief is tailored to each sitting president's style. Trump's brief was reduced to simplistic points, often with graphics. Russian actions against the United States were often left out or described obliquely to avoid provoking Trump's anger.

Trump would have found even simplified daily briefings difficult to grasp given his ignorance about geopolitical affairs and history. For example, he once asked aides if Finland was part of Russia. Or the time he met with the Baltic Presidents and confused their countries with the Balkans.

Mueller's Warning

While Special Counsel Robert Mueller was barred from investigating Trump's conduct as a counterintelligence matter, his office did look into Russian interference in the 2016 election. On July 24, 2019, Mueller told the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, that Russia would continue interfering in our elections. "It was not a single attempt, [Russia's] doing it as we sit here," he testified. "And they expect to do it during the next campaign."

Yet eight months later, on March 10, 2020, in presenting the views of the intelligence community, Bill Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), briefing members of Congress on election interference, said the opposite. He told lawmakers in a closed-door session for which summaries were released that there was no evidence that Russia had taken steps to help any candidate in the 2020 elections.

Analysts refer to talking points in these March statements, as well as subsequent statements in July, August and October of last year, as examples of "gross misrepresentation" of established intelligence community views.

The ombudsman's report attributes the rationale for these distortions and lies to the opposition they faced "getting their views on election interference across…in a confrontational environment, "but does not assert that Trump directly ordered them. But as several House managers noted during the impeachment, and Trump's better biographers have long noted, he gives direction the way mob bosses do, not by direct order but by relying on people who get from a wink and a nod or even just tone of voice what the boss wants.

Misleading Congress

The March assessment delivered to a House and Senate all-members meeting was delivered by Evanina. Zulauf called this "the most egregious example" he uncovered of distorted intelligence.

When interviewed by the ombudsman, Evanina said he received his talking points from ODNI and National Intelligence Council (NIC) officials. He said that since they were directly from the ODNI and NIC he assumed the talking points represented the coordinated views of the intelligence community.

Zulauf could not find anyone at ODNI who wrote or contributed to the talking points Evanina used. The various individuals laid the distortions off on various excuses and reasons. Zulauf did not accuse them directly of lying and denying.

However, Zulauf said "red flags" were ignored. He took note of "widespread reluctance among intelligence professionals to deliver" assessments and wrote that "this reluctance on the part of seasoned IC [intelligence community] officers should have been a red flag but did not stop the statement from being issued."

Despite leadership's efforts to downplay any threat of Russian interference, the report was unequivocal on what U.S. intelligence analysts who specialized in Russia were seeing: "Russia analysts assessed that there was clear and credible evidence of Russian election influence activities."

Analysts expressed frustration that political appointees were suppressing the actual intelligence because it was not well received at the Trump White House. The analysts told the ombudsman that their intelligence was being suppressed and politicized as the ODNI leaders cherry-picked intelligence supporting a narrative that Trump wanted rather than presenting facts.

Mulvaney's Warning

The information contained in the report further supports reporting in April 2019 by The New York Times about what Mick Mulvaney, then-White House Chief of Staff, told Kirstjen Nielsen during her stint as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Mulvaney warned Nielsen not to speak with Trump about Russian attempts to interfere in future U.S. elections.

That revelation by journalists, now buttressed by Zulauf's report, illustrates how Trump's disregard for and suppression of intelligence assessments about Russian interference consistently made its way from the White House to his cabinet and the highest levels of the intelligence community where it had a clear impact of how intelligence was written up and disseminated.

Zulauf wrote that in May 2020, Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell delayed the release of a memo for "politically motivated editing."

The changes "buried the lead," (sic) Zulauf wrote, regarding known election security threats. Analysts found intelligence community leadership consistently "watered down conclusions" and were "boosting the threat from China."

Overstating the threat from China also minimized, and distracted from, actual threats from Russia. Instead of speaking on Russia, leaders regularly pivoted instead to China.

In an interview on Oct. 6, 2020, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, addressed similar statements by Attorney General William Barr. Schiff is one of the "Gang of Eight" the bipartisan group of leaders in Congress who are regularly copied into the highest levels of intelligence. The attorney general had just asserted that China posed the greatest threat to U.S. elections based on intelligence he had seen.

Barr Called a Liar

"That's just a plain false statement by the attorney general, a flat-out false statement," Schiff said "you can tell that Bill Barr is just flat-out lying to the American people, and it's tragic but it's as simple as that."

The U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars each day to monitor activities around the world, including efforts by China, Iran, Russia and other countries to probe government and business computer networks. The Russians are known to have the ability to open and close floodgates on American hydroelectric dams. That prompted the U.S. to quietly take actions against the Russian electric grids to make clear that any disruption of the dams would come with consequences.

Decades-Long Seduction

The Russians courted Trump for decades, one of many prominent people around the globe that intelligence services seek out as potential assets. A former KGB spy who had a cover working in Washington for the Russian government-controlled news agency TASS, recently told The Guardian that Donald Trump was cultivated as a Russian asset over 40 years.

When Trump became president, the Kremlin hit the biggest intelligence jackpot imaginable. The first known payoff came in May 2017, just weeks after Trump took his oath to defend America against foreign enemies.

Trump held an unannounced meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador. In that meeting Trump revealed the most sensitive intelligence material, known as sources and methods. Disclosing sources and methods would naturally discourage friendly governments from sharing many of their own intelligence findings since their spies and ways of uncovering information could be compromised, even ruined, with the potential that the spies would be assassinated by the Russian government.

We know this because the Russians announced what Trump had done. The same government-controlled TASS news agency released photos of a smiling Trump with the two grinning Russian officials taken by a Russian photographer who was let into the Oval.

The Russian officials, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, are, like Putin, trained spies.

President Biden's announcement on Feb. 5 that he will not grant Trump the courtesy of intelligence briefings was summarized by Rep. Schiff as an important move to protect America's national security.

Schiff tweeted: "Donald Trump politicized and abused intelligence while he was in office. Donald Trump cannot be trusted with America's secrets. Not then, and certainly not now. Americans can sleep better at night knowing he will not receive classified briefings as an ex-president."

Big equipment maker threatens critics as doubts mount about electronic voting

Lawyers for the nation's largest manufacturer of electronic voting equipment are trying to squash legitimate criticism of their products—including one machine that was responsible for a 26,000-vote miscount and threw a one local election in Pennsylvania into doubt.

A Wall Street law firm representing Election Systems & Software LLC of Omaha, Neb., has sent a cease and desist letter to election reform advocacy group SMART Elections demanding that it "retract and correct" its criticism of the ES&S ExpressVote XL touch-screen voting machines—especially the group's effort to persuade the New York State Board of Election from certifying the machines for using in elections there. The state board is scheduled to take up the matter today (Jan. 28).

ES&S has a pattern of using legal tactics to intimidate its opposition.

"ES&S will not hesitate to hold each of you and others who are responsible for the dissemination of these false and defamatory accusations, personally and individually liable," ES&S attorney Alan S. Lewis wrote the officers of SMART Elections on Jan. 4.

"We demand that you immediately cease such conduct," Lewis concluded, "and retract and correct your previous statements by prominently posting corrections to your website and emailing all of those to whom you have previously sent emails regarding ES&S and the ExpressVote XL. ES&S is prepared to pursue all remedies in law and equity."

Like many corporate giants, ES&S has a pattern of using legal tactics to intimidate its opposition. But unlike Republican critics who have leveled unfounded accusations against other voting-equipment makers, critics of ES&S machines have considerable facts on their side.

'Bad Machine'

Princeton University Professor of Computer Science Andrew Appel says security concerns surrounding the ES&S machine are well-founded: "The ExpressVote XL, if adopted, will deteriorate our security and our ability to have confidence in our elections, and indeed it is a bad voting machine." Appel was co-author of an authoritative study of electronic voting that was published last year.

ES&S previously defended their litigious approach, claiming they sue in order to keep competitors honest. But the company has a history of legally threatening election-reform groups and governments choosing not to buy their equipment.

As DCReport reported, experts warn that so-called ballot marking devices (BMDs) force voters to use technology to mark their ballots, potentially compromising election results. The ExpressVote XL uses a 32-inch touch screen to register votes and produces a paper record for the voter. The company says the machine "maintains the highest levels of physical and digital security controls. It provides voter confidence with on-screen, printed and audio playback options for vote selection verification."

Pennsylvania Fiasco

None of which worked so well on Election Day 2019, when brand new ExpressVote XL machines registered just 164 votes—out of 55,000 cast in 100 precincts—for Democrat Abe Kassis in his run for a Northampton County, Pa., judgeship. The electronic vote tabulations didn't match the paper backup ballots, not even close. Hand counting of the backup ballots revealed Kassis actually received 26,142 votes and was the winner.

"The touch screens on these new machines are garbage," Paul Saunders, a judge of elections in Hanover Township, emailed the county less than an hour after voting began that day, citing difficulties voters were having.

Following the problematic Pennsylvania election, a joint news conference was held where ES&S acknowledged responsibility for the issues. ES&S Senior Vice President of Product Development Adam Carbullido blamed "human error" and said the company took "full responsibility" for the electoral fiasco: "ES&S staff did not provide the proper guidance and scrutiny during the pre-election … testing."

The county officials said they were "deeply, deeply disappointed, and at some points angry with the performance of the XL on Election Day."

Yet, ES&S lawyers didn't seem to consider statements from Northampton officials or their own management when they threatened SMART Elections and its officers with litigation: "The allegations you … have made and continue to make about ES&S and the ExpressVote XL are utterly false and unsupported. These allegations are very serious and have harmed ES&S and threaten to interfere with the ExpressVote XL's certification for use in elections in New York State."

Hacking Machines

However, experts are clear that SMART Elections is "basing their journalism and advocacy on good science." Princeton's Appel, one of the authors of the study "Ballot Marking Devices (BMD's) Cannot Assure the Will of the Voters" disputes the ES&S lawyers: "The ExpressVote XL, if hacked, can add, delete or change votes on individual ballots—and no voting machine is immune from hacking."

ES&S lawyers also imply that other states certifying the machines is confirmation they are safe and secure claiming "ES&S's voting systems, has undergone stringent testing and been certified by multiple states."

However, as DCReport recently highlighted in Texas, the certification process is not foolproof. And Texas wasn't the only state with lax certification procedures.

South Carolina Signs On

When South Carolina upgraded its machines, SMART Elections advisory board member and University of South Carolina Computer Science Prof. Duncan Buell tried sharing his knowledge of the state's problematic history with ES&S.

Dr. Buell's concerns came after finding flaws with the code that led to votes being counted more than once, ignored or tallied incorrectly. After being scheduled to speak to the selection committee Dr. Buell was bumped from the agenda. South Carolina proceeded to purchase $51 million worth of new ES&S machines ahead of the 2020 election without hearing his expert testimony.

Despite this ES&S's lawyers' demands, SMART Elections' own lawyers did not mince words in their response to ES&S's attorneys: "You should know quite well that anyone, even an aggressive company like Election Systems & Software cannot sue someone for expressing an opinion."

They conclude their letter with a reference to the Trump-led Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington: "Set in the context of the shameful actions last week in our nation's capital, your effort to intimidate opponents, in order to win a vote at the Board of Elections, is disgraceful."

A troubling trend in America’s ballot voting system

On election day in Canada, no matter where one votes in federal elections, the way ballots are cast is the same. Canadians step behind a privacy curtain to hand-mark a paper ballot by circling a choice. Once the voter emerges, election officials validate the ballot and return it to the voter who then puts it directly in a ballot box.

When polls close, the doors are locked. No one can enter or leave until all votes are hand-counted by paid poll workers who have been trained, vetted and apply the same standard nationwide. The result? Canadian elections are drama-free with people expressing strong confidence in the results.

Canadian officials have studied switching to electronic vote-counting systems, focusing on reliability, cost and confidence in the results.

Ballot-marking devices produce ballots that do not necessarily record the vote expressed by the voter when they enter their selections on the touchscreen.

In 2016, a House of Commons Special Committee on Election Reform reviewed online voting for Canada's federal elections. In 2017, the committee recommended against electronic voting machines. In subsequent reviews of technology, Elections Canada definitively stated their intent to continue using paper ballots, marked and counted by hand:

"Elections Canada has no plans to introduce electronic casting or counting of votes. Polling places will continue using paper ballots, marked and counted by hand."

Canada is not alone in establishing a coordinated national approach free of electronic technology. According to ACE Electoral Knowledge Network 209 of the 227 countries they studied cast their votes by manually marking ballots.

Australia, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom, among others, all use paper ballots and hand counting.

Nor was Canada alone in conducting extensive research into vote casting and counting technologies. Most of the other countries also conducted reviews before deciding to continue with paper. Compared to its allies, the United States is an outlier.

https://aceproject.org/epic-en/

Source: ACE Electoral Knowledge Network

A Trusted System

Canada's system is straightforward, safe and passes a critical test – there are no reports of vote flipping, disappearing votes, confusing ballots, illogical outcomes or outcries of fraud.

Some local elections have adopted technology into their voting process. For example, Ontario recently introduced technology, but for local elections such as picking a school board or a local representative. For federal elections Canadian officials recently studied switching to electronic vote-counting systems, focusing on reliability, cost and confidence in the results, but chose to keep paper ballots.

Like America, Canada has voter suppression, but there are no issues with the paper ballot process. Canada's hand-marked and hand-counted paper system instills confidence that elections are free and fair.

"Having an agency that is independent from the elected government, with a chief electoral officer who is appointed by Parliament as a whole, we are nonpartisan in everything that we do," said Natasha Gauthier, a spokesperson for Elections Canada. "We are removed from that politicization of the voting system that we see in the U.S."

Canada's different system of national government lends itself to a much simpler ballot and much simpler vote counting. Their parliamentary system requires them to cast a vote for only one candidate, instead of our country with pages of different candidates at multiple levels of government, bond issues and referendums. Canadians only have one bubble to mark on their ballot in their federal election.

In a growing number of American jurisdictions, so-called paper ballots are being adopted. But in no way does the American approach resemble Canada's hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballot voting. Indeed, it doesn't truly rely on paper. The American trend is to rely on ballot marking devices (BMDs), a hybrid technology-paper approach.

Machine and Paper

The hybrid approach uses a paper ballot that is generated, scanned and counted by machines.

Verified Voting, a bipartisan and nonprofit group organized by ballot experts found that almost 70% of the U.S. jurisdictions rely primarily on hand-marked paper ballots.

However, there's an asterisk. That 70% figure included paper ballots created through a BMD. Many BMDs generate paper ballots which are then hand-marked using technology. Vote machinery vendors push what they describe as voter-verified paper ballot products in which voters use a touch screen to create their paper ballots. The majority of states now rely on BMDs.

After making their selection on a touch screen, voters receive for verification a paper ballot showing their selection. The concept is that voters self-verify their vote by examining the paper ballot the machine generates before it is counted by another machine. This complicated process creates opportunities for error, mistakenly or intentionally, especially if voters do not scrutinize the paper ballot for accuracy. And it assumes the vote-counting software will accurately capture the choice on the paper ballot, a process that will not be observed by the voter.

In Pennsylvania's Northampton County, near Allentown and 75 minutes north of Philadelphia, officials selected equipment from ES&S, the nation's largest manufacturer of voting machines. It's a secretive company founded by Republicans, which we examined here and here.

Problems with ES&S Machines

After the 2016 election, Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and four others sued in Pennsylvania alleging that the ES&S machinery was vulnerable to hacking and difficult to audit. The case was settled in late 2018 with an agreement that all 67 Pennsylvania counties would buy new voting machines on which votes are recorded on paper and a voter-verifiable record of each vote was produced.

Northampton County chose to purchase $2.8 million worth of new voting equipment from ES&S, the largest vendor, including its ExpressVote XL BMD. However, on rollout in 2019 elections, the county ran into major problems with their new ES&S ExpressVote machines.

Abe Kassis, a Democratic Party judicial candidate, complained that he knew people who voted for him in one precinct where ES&S showed he got no votes. That prompted an inquiry into the integrity of the vote-counting process. The discrepancy between votes cast and counted was not trivial, but huge.

In December 2019, ES&S held a Facebook live press conference taking full responsibility for the issues in Northampton. The company acknowledged problems and blamed human error by ES&S employees, but insisted the machines worked just fine when properly operated.

Adam Carbullido, ES&S senior vice president of product development, said. "First and foremost, on behalf of my company, I apologize to Northampton County. If not for mistakes made by ES&S staff these issues all could have been avoided."

Wrong Machine Votes

ES&S said it found that the candidates shown on the voter-verified paper ballot did not match with the records of the vote-counting equipment.

Voters saw their vote on the touch screen and confirmed it. Then the machine generates a paper ballot to confirm and assure voters of the official record of their ballot. However, despite double-checking and verifying, the system did not then count their vote for the candidate chosen on the voter-verifiable paper record.

So, the ES&S system instilled confidence that people cast their ballots as intended, and then the vote-counting software disregarded their votes, which voters would have no way of detecting except for anomalies like the one reported by Kassis, the judicial candidate.

ES&S's Carbullido confirmed this, saying: "The ballot showed correctly on the screen and printed correctly on the paper ballots, but the votes were not attributed to the proper candidates."

'Human Error'

Carbullido acknowledged that the issues hadn't been caught during pre-election testing. "I want to make clear that this was human error, and ES&S takes full accountability.

"The issue should have been identified by ES&S staff prior to the election and during pre-election testing.

"Had we scrutinized the results during that process better, had ES&S staff advised the county better on how to do that, it would have been caught."

In the end, ballots were hand-counted. Kassis, the Democratic candidate for judge, appeared to lose with only 164 votes when ES&S machines did the counting. The hand count revealed he had actually received 26,142 votes, winning the election.

Righting this wrong was possible only because paper ballots existed and could be checked with a hand count. The Northampton debacle establishes the fears of many election integrity advocates are legitimate and illustrates the value of audits.

Experts Issue Warnings

In December 2019, computer scientists Andrew Appel of Princeton University and Richard DeMillo of Georgia Tech along with statistics theorist Philip B. Stark of the University of California, Berkley, produced a paper titled "Ballot-Marking Devices (BMD's) Cannot Assure the Will of the Voters." It reviewed BMDs including ES&S's ExpressVote and ExpressVote XL. The professors concluded: "Ballot-Marking Devices produce ballots that do not necessarily record the vote expressed by the voter when they enter their selections on the touchscreen."

This followed a similar observation after an examination of ES&S ExpressVote equipment done as part of Texas's certification procedures. Of BMD generated paper ballots, James Sneeringer, Ph.D., as a designee of the attorney general, wrote in a 2018 report: "I want to express my opinion that the paper ballot does not actually increase the accuracy or security of a voting system, although I acknowledge that many voters feel more secure when there is a paper record, and voter confidence is very important."

He was more specific about his concerns in a 2019 report produced for the Texas secretary of state writing: "I cannot think of a circumstance where I would advise a Texas jurisdiction to buy ExpressVote XLs, yet I am loath to deny certification or to try to write a complex condition to attach to certification."

This contrasts with Sneeringer's 2017 Texas report which found a "bridge" between ES&S systems was "acceptable."

Despite these statements by experts, in March 2019 the secretary of state of Texas certified both ExpressVote and ExpressVoteXL.

Texas and Pennsylvania both used either the ES&S ExpressVote or ExpressVote XL in the 2020 elections in some of their counties.

Kentucky Uses ExpressVote

DCReport analyzed the election results in Mitch McConnell's Kentucky. Our analysis was based on information from the Kentucky State Board of Elections website. They listed the ES&S voting machines used in Kentucky as a model called the iVotronic.

At some point after our Dec. 19 article, the list of ES&S equipment that had been used in the 2020 election was changed on the Kentucky government website. Kentucky now listed the equipment they used as made by ES&S but switched the specific product listed to ExpressVote.

DCReport verified with Jared Dearing, executive director of Kentucky Board of Elections, that the website had been updated, and that ES&S ExpressVote models were used in the 2020 General Election. Dearing stressed, "We recently updated our equipment to provide a voter-verified paper ballot system."

Given expert concerns about the ability to hack the ES&S ExpressVote, Kentucky's recent purchase of this equipment seems curious.

Dearing told a Kentucky House budget subcommittee that a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official meets with the Kentucky elections board every week to go over every attempt to break into Kentucky's system, which gives him "sleepless nights."

"We are routinely scanned by Venezuela, by North Korea, by Russia on a regular basis," Dearing said. "This is not something that is in the past, that happened in 2016. It happens on a weekly basis."

Dearing told this to the subcommittee in February 2020, months after the false results produced by ES&S equipment in Pennsylvania's Northampton County.

Foreign Snooping

Given that bad actors worldwide are scanning Kentucky's electronic elections systems, the choice of upgrading approximately 20% of Kentucky's voting machines to the ES&S ExpressVote seems ill-suited at best. DCReport's recent article about Texas and the bug they reported in their ES&S equipment adds to the concerns about their choice.

As part of their report, professors Appel, DeMillo and Stark warned that "hacking, bugs, and configuration errors can cause the BMDs to print votes that differ from what the voter entered and verified electronically."

They explained further, "When computers are used to record votes, the original transaction (the voter's expression of the votes) is not documented in a verifiable way. When pen-and-paper is used to record the vote, the original expression of the vote is documented in a verifiable way (if a demonstrably secure chain of custody of the paper ballots is maintained)."

Assurances by the Kentucky State Board of Elections that they use voter-verified paper ballots are intended to instill confidence. Instead, they may provide a false sense of security. On top of that, consider Kentucky has provided very little in the way of verifying the voting machines accurately counted ballots in the 2020 election.

The results that DCReport broke down in Breathitt, Elliott and Wolfe counties in Kentucky are still supported only by anecdotal evidence. But the experience in Northampton and the findings by the professors, among others, argue strongly for universal hand counts and an independent inquiry into the integrity of the voting machines used in Kentucky and other states.

'Gold Standard'

Ion Sancho, an internationally recognized elections expert who was featured prominently in HBO documentaries on cyber-attacks on American elections in both 2006 and 2020, said, "Hand-marked paper ballots are the gold standard' of election security — provided there's an audit system to verify, afterward, that the machine totals match what the voters actually marked on ballots."

Kentucky did not use hand-marked ballots and only did limited audits in 2020. Out of Kentucky's 120 counties, only six were randomly audited. None of the three counties DCReport focused on was audited.

As Sancho points out, mandated audits are a critical step. While Kentucky updated their machines to have an auditable paper trail, that does nothing to ensure election integrity without actual audits of every voting precinct.

Vendors over Voters?

The concept that more costly sophisticated technological solutions will provide safer and more secure elections than human counted hand-marked ballots is a myth if we don't apply the technology effectively.

Sancho further notes, "We need to look at the outcomes we need to achieve. You want to safeguard the process, not the product, to ensure safe and secure elections." In our eagerness to embrace technology are we paying enough attention to securing the voters' fundamental Constitutional right to have their ballots counted as cast?"

Looking at other countries, if we shift our approach from technology to paper, we won't be alone. Secure Our Vote found that 15 countries had either tried electronic voting and switched back to paper by 2018, or like Canada explored electronic voting but decided to stick with paper.

Hand-marked paper ballots are distinct from BMD paper ballots. But also, the overall approach and the process differ.

The crucial distinction is this: Canada puts trust in people who are trained, paid, vetted and locked in a room together to count the votes with ballots that can be recounted if necessary.

America puts trust in technology vendors whose self-interests are served by assuring election officials that the election went well, all the while maximizing their profits, and providing very little transparency for Americans to be able to audit fully audit elections.

Texas has its own voting machine issues

Texas has 254 counties. Each accepts delivery of computerized vote-counting equipment, trusting that it properly counts votes. It's the Texas Secretary of State who bears responsibility for reliability and for checking that built-in security features safeguard the integrity of the software.

In February 2020, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Ruggero Hughes received a disturbing report about the ES&S election equipment Texas used in some counties. She had assigned Brian Mechler, an expert in electronic data communications systems, to certify the equipment.

"There were a few issues with the hash verification procedure," Mechler wrote of equipment from the nation's largest vote-counting software firm, a secretive Nebraska outfit reincorporated as ES&S in 1997.

Texas trusted ES&S to act with scrupulous integrity, catch any simple mistakes as well as big ones, and ferret out any intrusions by third parties.

Mechler's report on verification issues was an understatement. Hash verification ensures that a program has not been tampered with. It is a critical element in ensuring that the proprietary software counts all votes correctly. With the hash verification procedure having issues, the software could be set, for example, to count every 27th vote for one candidate as a vote for their opponent, without the software detecting or recording it was modified in this way.

Hash verification tracks digital fingerprints to monitor any modifications to the software from the time it leaves the vendor to when ballots are cast and counted. If the hash verification procedure is not operating properly, the ability to detect changes, and ensure the integrity of your software is compromised.

Trump Hasn't Attacked ES&S

Significantly, Donald Trump has not attacked ES&S, whose machines counted ballots in counties where Trump and Republicans did unexpectedly well.

ES&S was originally started more than three decades ago by conservative Republicans under the name American Information Systems (AIS), but its current ownership is something the company has refused to discuss with Democratic lawmakers in Washington or DCReport.

Seven months after his initial report, Mechler issued a new detailed and disturbing report. Mechler found that the hash verification issues he had identified were still a major problem.

His report came in late September—just 44 days before the presidential election, a tight window to fix problems that had lingered unresolved for months, especially in a state as diverse, and with as many counties, as the Lone Star state. (In contrast, California, the largest state, has just 58 counties, about one-fifth of the Texas count.)

Multiple Security Issues

Mechler reported the ES&S software suffers from "multiple issues with its prescribed hash verification procedures."

More troubling was this: "ES&S personnel have performed the hash verification process instead of their customers."

The lack of independent verification meant Texas trusted ES&S to act with scrupulous integrity, catch any simple mistakes as well as big ones, and ferret out any intrusions by third parties. Putting so much faith in the vendor, given its own self-interest, was bad policy, Mechler warned in another understatement.

"Jurisdictions should always perform this process themselves. To have the vendor perform a required component of acceptance testing creates, at best, a conflict of interest," Mechler wrote.

And, lest anyone doubt the depth of the vote-counting integrity problems, Mechler wrote this about a specific bug in the ES&S software: "It is my opinion that this bug (in addition to the overall process) indicates that ES&S has not developed their hash verification process with sufficient care, quality assurance, and concern for usability."

Worse as the Election Loomed

Most disturbing of all in Mechler's report was the trend in how issues had been handled since his February report. Instead of fixing problems and creating a testable verification system, he wrote that things were getting worse.

"The ES&S hash verification process has been a growing issue of concern over the past few certification exams" he warned. "In this exam, their customer relations with regard to this process have also become a concern. At this point, these issues have been communicated in detail to ES&S. I will not recommend certification of future ES&S releases unless they make substantial improvements to the ease-of-use, reliability, and traceability of their hash verification process." (Emphasis in the original.)

Incredibly, the examiner certified the machines despite his concerns. Mechler did declare that if not fixed by the next exam, then he would refuse certification. Considering the next exam would not occur until after the 2020 elections, that's like taking a new aircraft carrier out for trial runs despite indications it may tip over and sink in heavy seas.

Report Released—After the Election

To show that her office was being transparent about vote-counting software and hardware integrity, Sec. of State Hughes posted the September report on the state's website for the public to view. But as election security activist Jennifer Cohn noted on Dec. 9, it was posted five weeks after the election.

"Texas has some fine nerve complaining about election security. What about the 'bug' discovered in the state's ES&S machines in September 2020?!"

Disinformation Campaign

Mechler's scathing report came nine months after Texas declined to certify a competing vendor's vote-counting products. That action involved the company Team Trump has repeatedly attacked—Dominion Voting Systems. The January 2020 decertification was the third time Texas had rejected Dominion because state officials consider serious flaws in its products.

Why would Texas apply such different standards to these two companies, one that Trump and his surrogates relentlessly attack as unfair to him, and another on which Trump has been silent?

On Fox Business News's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Trump's legal team congratulated Texas for its foresight in rejecting Dominion.

[caption id="attachment_22041" align="aligncenter" width="684"] The map at right shows Texas counties with various ES&S voting systems. The map at left shows the county-by-county results for the 2020 presidential election. (Verified Voting and NYTimes)[/caption]

Rudy Giuliani applauded Texas for decertifying Dominion. He also harshly criticized Georgia for shifting from ES&S to Dominion. Giuliani wrongly claimed that "the lobbyist for Dominion was the former chief of staff for the governor." Not exactly. Giuliani may have been referring to Gov. Brian Kemp's chief of staff when Kemp was secretary of state, without revealing that the member of staff hadn't been in that position since 2015, years before Georgia switched to Dominion in 2019.

More significantly, Giuliani failed to note that Charles Harper, Gov. Kemp's current deputy chief of staff, had been registered to lobby for ES&S during the gubernatorial race in which Kemp beat Stacey Abrams. Those 2018 votes were counted using ES&S equipment. Harper was still Kemp's deputy in March 2019 when, because of his conflict of interest, Democrats successfully fought Kemp's plans to buy new ES&S equipment.

Dominion Files $1 Billion Suit

Giuliani's disinformation campaign prompted Dominion to file suit on Friday against Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for more than $1.3 billion in damages. Dominion has also threatened to sue Giuliani and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone for what it says is calculated lying about the company to advance Trump's baseless claims that he won in a landslide.

Another voting machine software company, Smartmatic, threatened to sue Fox News, including hosts Lou Dobbs and Judge Jeanine Pirro, as well as far-right propaganda outlets OANN and NewsMax. Smartmatic says all of them made maliciously false statements that damaged the company.

The litigation threats by Dominion and Smartmatic have raised concerns that they could deter serious journalism about how votes are counted.

More than 90% of votes are counted by the machines of three vendors: industry leader ES&S, Dominion, and Hart InterCivic. While Hughes was refusing to certify Dominion in Texas, she ignored warnings and historical issues related to the other two vote-counting vendors, which Texas also relied on.

Vendors over Voters?

The issue: Did Hughes deliberately put the interests of vendors over voters? And why did she ignore alarm bells?

As DCReport told readers on Dec. 31, ES&S lobbyists work closely with state and local elections officials. Considering Hughes herself was previously found to be working closely with other lobbyists on legislation that raises another issue: how Hughes' affinity for lobbyists put the integrity of Texas elections in question.

Her lapses in ensuring cybersecurity come in a state where Republicans have pursued aggressive voter suppression techniques for decades.

ES&S was not the only vote-counting firm with a troubling history in Texas. In 2018, counties deployed hundreds of aging Hart machines that confused voters, which led to accusations of illegal vote flipping in the hotly contested Senate race between the vociferously anti-democratic Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and his popular Democratic opponent Beto O'Rourke.

The Texas Democratic Party called the issue "a malfunction" and asserted that it caused Democrats to inadvertently vote for Cruz—who won the election by just 1.6 percentage points among nearly 8.4 million votes.

Both ES&S and Hart machines are still being used to count votes throughout Texas.

Voting machine company behind so many surprise wins this year raises some questions

After initially focusing on the surprisingly lopsided results of the senatorial election in Kentucky, DCReport broadened our scope to look at the electronic vote-counting software and electronic voting systems that we rely on to tally our votes. This prompted us to raise questions about Electronic Systems & Software (ES&S), America's largest voting machine company. What we found was a revolving door between government officials and ES&S.

Voting results in three states that saw surprising majorities by vulnerable incumbent Republican senators—Maine, North Carolina and South Carolina—were almost all tabulated on ES&S machines.

Trump and his inept legal team have barely mentioned ES&S, focusing almost exclusively on Dominion Voting Systems.

Rudy Giuliani, Sydney Powell and Fox hosts have been making such bold and naked claims against the ES&S competitors, without any substance or evidence, that Fox News, NewsMax and OAN have all been threatened with litigation unless they fully retract their claims and correct a number of egregious factual errors.

Team Trump has been so vigorous in going after Dominion that it prompted us to look into how ES&S operates. What we have found so far is far from comforting.

  • Owned by a private equity firm, ES&S has been elusive about identifying the people in its ownership.
  • A number of ES&S executives and lobbyists have ties to top GOP election officials and politicians.
  • The ES&S executive in charge of the security previously worked in the Trump administration as a government executive at Health and Human Services before leaving under a cloud.
  • Forty of the 50 states use ES&S to cast & count some of their votes.
  • Of the 25 states Trump won, all but 3 either partially or fully relied on ES&S machines. The states where Trump won that didn't use ES&S machines were Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Alaska.
Counties that used ES&S equipment in the 2020 elections. (Verified Voting)


Concerns about the reliability of vote-counting software are not new, dating back to the 1980s. Having the ability to audit votes, and making sure ballots are counted properly, has long been a major concern of computer scientists, politicians and election officials.

In December 2019, Democratic lawmakers sought answers from those top three voting machine vendors which "facilitate voting for over 90% of all eligible voters in the United States."

Three separate letters were sent to the private equity firms who "reportedly own or control each of these vendors, with very limited 'information available in the public domain about their operations and financial performance.' "

Elections at Risk

In the second letter, addressed directly to the McCarthy Group, the private equity firm that owns ES&S, lawmakers wrote that "voting machines are reportedly falling apart across the country, as vendors neglect to innovate and improve important voting systems, putting our elections at avoidable and increased risk."

In requesting details about the ownership of ES&S, the lawmakers specifically noted "we are particularly concerned that secretive and 'trouble-plagued companies,' owned by private equity firms and responsible for manufacturing and maintaining voting machines and other election administration equipment, 'have long skimped on security in favor of convenience,' leaving voting systems across the country 'prone to security problems."

DCReport placed numerous calls and emails to ES&S at its headquarters on John Galt Boulevard in Omaha. Only once was the phone answered by someone who would not put us through saying "they are not going to be able to talk to you." DCReport was directed to ES&S's website. DCReport submitted the form repeatedly but got no reply.

Understanding the Software

Our democracy now relies on private companies, which build proprietary electronic systems, to reliably count our votes. It seems reasonable, if not crucial, to understand who is behind these companies as a standard to ensure election integrity. Without such knowledge, we run the risk that zealots, or investors with a financial stake in who wins elections, or those susceptible to bribery, have an incentive to use subtle software programming techniques to deliberately miscount votes to guarantee an outcome. In close elections, software code that invalidates or miscounts a mere sliver of ballots can change the outcome.

One of our concerns is ES&S providing junkets and gratuities to election officials, as uncovered in June 2018 by McClatchy newspapers. For at least 11 years, the voting equipment and software company curried favor with election officials by paying for trips to Las Vegas, tickets to shows and gifts.

"As many as a dozen election officials" attended a meeting in Las Vegas, with a number of them accepting airfare, lodging, and meals, McClatchy reported. A company spokeswoman told McClatchy that the junkets were "immensely valuable in providing customer feedback. One of our key results is customer satisfaction, and this is how we achieve that."

Marci Andino, the current executive director of the South Carolina State Election Commission, received more than $19,000 worth of flights, hotels and meals from ES&S since 2009, according to South Carolina Ethics Commission disclosure forms.

Andino's influence extends beyond the Palmetto State. She is also a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission's Standards Board and has testified on election issues. She is a former President of the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED). To have an election official tied to a voting company creates concerns about conflicts.

Executives with Political Ties

DCReport also looked into the careers of some key ES&S executives. What we found is concerning.

Kathy Rogers, ES&S's senior vice president for government affairs, landed at ES&S after controversy over her work as a Georgia state elections official. She opposed legislation trying to ensure vote counts could be verified.

In 2019, The New Yorker wrote about her actions in "How Voting-Machine Lobbyists Undermine the Democratic Process."

"In 2006, a bill requiring a verifiable paper record of each ballot, introduced in the Georgia legislature at the urging of election-integrity advocates, failed after the state's elections director, Kathy Rogers, opposed it," the magazine reported.

Georgia used ES&S machines in 2018 but now relies on Dominion equipment.

Georgia's 2018 gubernatorial race is noteworthy because it was overseen by Brian Kemp, who was then in charge of Georgia elections as secretary of state. That year, Kemp also ran for governor while overseeing his own election, a conflict of interest that he dismissed.

Kemp won a narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams, but only after his office blocked 53,000 voter registration applications using a "strict" name matching protocol comparing state records to voter registration forms.

Kemp's Conflicts

Registrations were tossed if, for example, a person used a first name, middle initial and last name, on one form, but then used all three names in full on another. This invalidated a huge number of voter registration applications under Kemp's policy.

After Kemp won, a federal judge declared that Georgia had to implement a completely new voting system in time for the 2020 elections, replacing what the judge called "unsecure, unreliable and grossly outdated technology." Kemp tried to keep using the ES&S equipment for future elections, prompting Peach State Democrats to assert cronyism in the Kemp administration.

In January 2019, the Georgia Democratic Party challenged the integrity of voting machines that did not create an auditable paper trial, a policy he pursued through the creation of the Secure, Accessible & Fair Election or SAFE Commission.

The Democrats demanded a delay on recommendations for a new voting system "following the discovery that a leading vendor under consideration, whose machines are currently being investigated in a lawsuit due to errors in the 2018 election, has deep connections to Brian Kemp's office." That vendor was ES&S. The deep ties were due to Kemp having hired a longtime associate who was a registered lobbyist for ES&S.

As Politico characterized it at the time: "Georgia likely to plow ahead with buying insecure voting machines." It also reported that "Critics argued that the bill appeared to be written with one vendor in mind: the voting technology giant Election Systems & Software, whose former top lobbyist, is now Kemp's deputy chief of staff."

How many other states are conducting elections on "grossly outdated" or otherwise unreliable ES&S technology in 2018 and in 2020? This is an issue we are still investigating.

In Georgia, it was Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who succeeded Kemp as the elections overseer, who announced Dominion Voting Systems as the new elections vendor.

A Clean Election

The most recent Georgia election seems to be the first election in recent Georgian history not marred by voting-machine controversy other than Trump's nakedly false claims of vote stealing and corruption aimed at Republican Raffensperger.

The 2020 voting took place on a new system with an auditable paper ballot system. Three recounts, including an audit requiring "roughly 5 million votes in that contest to be recounted by hand" and as Secretary of State Raffensperger stated, showed results as close as imaginable.

"We have now counted legally cast ballots three times, and the results remain unchanged," Raffensperger said. Furthermore, a Judge declared Trump's legal team produced "precious little proof" in their pleadings.

ES&S's revolving door policy means its lobbyists taking top government official positions as well as government political appointees becoming ES&S executives.

One of these is Chris Wlaschin, who left the Trump Administration in March 2018. He was the chief information security official in the Health & Human Services Department. A few weeks later he landed at ES&S as "its new vice president of systems security responsible for the company's security efforts."

HHS to ES&S

Wlaschin abruptly left the Trump administration after HHS Secretary Alex Azar received a letter from a lawyer representing two HHS executives. The letter asserted that Wlaschin had improperly removed the pair and cited an eye-popping false claim Wlaschin used to justify disciplinary action.

"Mr. Wlaschin has stated that my clients were removed from their positions in order to protect an ongoing OIG investigation," wrote lawyer I. Charles McCullough, a former Inspector General for the National Security Community.

"You can, therefore, imagine the shock and surprise of my clients when they were both recently advised, unequivocally and categorically, by senior investigators from the HHS OIG, that neither of them are currently or were at any time in the past under investigation" by the inspector general's office, McCullough wrote.

The letter was dated March 12, 2018. Wlaschin's resume says he joined ES&S the next month.

The integrity of voting systems, and especially the ability to audit vote counts, has been the subject of public debate for more than four decades. But most of the recent attention has been focused on one company, Dominion Voting Systems, most recently because of frivolous lawsuits filed by Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell and others. But is that simply a distraction.

We think the issue of who counts our votes, how they are counted, and what ties the companies selling these systems have to politicians deserves more attention. Politicians who must win elections, in order to wield power, must not be able to exert influence on the companies we rely on to tally our votes. We need serious scrutiny over our elections so we can be assured that they represent the will of the people, not of the politicians themselves, and the companies they hire to process our ballots.

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