Silver Laptop(l), Donald Trump(c), Misty Hampton(r)

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EXCLUSIVE: A missing laptop could be key to prosecuting Trump. This rural Georgia county only recently admitted that it exists

The device may contain evidence about the infamous breach of Coffee County’s election system.

 

Douglas Lucas

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Posted on Dec 19, 2023   Updated on Dec 20, 2023, 11:53 am CST

Litigants, journalists, and the public have all been asking: Where is the laptop?

The laptop was seen in surveillance footage from a Georgia elections office that was breached in the aftermath of the 2020 election. Some believe it could contain evidence for Georgia’s criminal case against former President Donald Trump.

Questions about the laptop and demands for the owner to produce it have been escalating for more than a year and a half.

Throughout most of that time, Coffee County, Georgia has claimed no such computer exists. Finally, in court last month, it offered a new theory: the device doesn’t belong to the rural, red-leaning county; instead, it’s state or maybe even personal property.

The laptop’s existence was uncovered in a federal civil suit that seeks to force Georgia to abandon mandatory electronic ballots and in most circumstances use hand-marked paper ones. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis relied on that suit, Curling v. Raffensperger, for portions of the racketeering case against Trump and his 18 co-defendants, four of whom have pleaded guilty.

Coalition for Good Governance, a plaintiff in the Curling suit, unearthed security footage in the summer of 2022 that shows one of Trump’s co-defendants, Misty Hampton, using a silver Hewlett Packard laptop at work around the time prosecutors allege the then-election supervisor facilitated the breach of the Coffee County elections office as part of the plot to overturn the presidential election. Both Trump and Hampton have pleaded not guilty.

Hampton resigned about four weeks after the month-long breach, which began the day after the Jan. 6, 2021 coup attempt. According to Coffee County, the silver laptop vanished when she quit. Yet Hampton’s successor told the Daily Dot that he saw it in the likeliest place: the elections office, where he says it remained until early December 2021.

In mid-2022, the eight Curling plaintiffs subpoenaed the Coffee County Board of Elections and Registration and its agents to produce every record potentially related to the intrusions on their office—including the missing laptop.

Then this October, two of plaintiffs sued the board in federal court for failure to comply with the subpoenas. Georgia activist Donna Curling and the nonprofit Coalition for Good Governance say the noncompliance has prejudiced their efforts to understand the breach and win Curling v. Raffensperger, set for trial in under a month.

While Trump is not named in the Curling case, nor charged specifically for the breach, the silver laptop’s contents possibly include work documents his co-defendant Hampton created, emails from her Yahoo accounts, and logs that may show election system files being transferred during the breach. It could clarify certain schemes, alleged in the criminal case against Trump, for “seizing voting equipment” with law enforcement or military, which his team allegedly discarded in favor of sending technicians to take “information, data, and software” from county voting systems. For Curling plaintiffs, evidence from the laptop could help demonstrate vulnerabilities in the swing state’s election system.

Evidence from the laptop may also answer lingering questions, such as why Stop the Steal bankroller and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell traveled in his private jet, hours after stops in Washington D.C. and by Mar-a-Lago, to Coffee County the very night Hampton resigned purportedly for falsifying timesheets.

For this story, the Daily Dot attended telephonic court hearings, examined public records and legal filings, reviewed film of board meetings, and spoke with staffers at the county’s IT contractor, Coffee’s new elections board chair, and others with knowledge of the cases or parties involved. This investigation raises questions about why Coffee County has spent the better part of two years making claims about the laptop, some of which sharply contradict new details shared by current and former county elections officials.

Meanwhile, the laptop and its contents remain officially at large.

A tiny county entangled in a presidential plot

The breach of Coffee County’s election system was part of machinations that unfolded in elections offices in at least 10 counties nationwide after the 2020 election. In Coffee, the breachers took off with exact copies of Dominion Voting Systems’ software used throughout Georgia and elsewhere. Yet Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, insists it is unnecessary to upgrade the battleground state’s vulnerable voting computers before the 2024 election.

The breach culminated in a RICO case against the first president to face domestic criminal charges. That case may turn on the contents of the missing laptop or other records sought by the Curling plaintiffs.

Transparency advocates have turned the little laptop into something of an emblem.

The dispute started 20 months ago, when Coffee County claimed no such laptop existed.

In April 2022, assistant county attorney Jennifer Herzog wrote, “I was not aware of county laptops used by Ms. Hampton.” Three months later, Herzog, who is also a partner at the law firm Hall Booth Smith, doubled down in response to the subpoenas, writing, “There was no county issued laptop to the Board of Elections and Registration or its staff and have confirmed that fact again this morning.”

In June, Coalition for Good Governance sent Herzog a letter that included security camera images of Hampton using the laptop in the elections office. Within hours, Herzog replied, “There is no laptop in the possession of Coffee County that is believed to be a laptop that was used by Misty Hampton.”

Herzog told the Daily Dot that there were “no records responsive” to a request for the purchase order or receipts for the laptop. She also said that the county has no missing/lost/stolen forms for it.

Coffee County recently admitted that the surveillance footage shows the silver laptop. It’s offered shifting accounts of who owns it, however, suggesting it’s Hampton’s or possibly even the state’s. It has not provided evidence for either claim.

Elections board attorney Ben Perkins, a partner at Oliver Maner—the county of fewer than 45,000 residents has enlisted two sizable law firms in its defense—passed responsibility for the laptop to Hampton at the opening hearing in the subpoenas case on Nov. 1.

“Misty Hampton was apparently shown in surveillance videos from the breach holding a laptop,” Perkins said, the first time the county has conceded that footage shows her with it. “It was our understanding that that was her personal laptop in her possession and we think Coalition [for Good Governance] has already subpoenaed that from Ms. Hampton.” In other words, he implied, it wasn’t his client’s responsibility.

In court on Nov. 17, Perkins said Hampton’s attorney told him she didn’t own the silver laptop, didn’t take it with her when she resigned, and doesn’t know where it is. That matches emails filed in the case last week showing that on Nov. 13, her lawyer told Coalition for Good Governance that “Misty has confirmed that it was a County computer used for identity purposes during elections.”

At the same hearing, Perkins said that the board had not given up on figuring out whether the laptop was actually Hampton’s, adding that he’d heard unnamed officials claim her daughter used it for school. The watchdog nonprofit’s counsel Cary Ichter countered that surveillance footage shows that the laptop Hampton’s daughter sometimes toted around is a different device.

“The State Defendants contend that they were not aware of the Coffee County breach that began in January 2021 until February 2022,” Judge Amy Totenberg wrote. “This is despite the fact that the State was aware of, and was even investigating, other election-related issues in Coffee County during the same timeframe.”

Coalition for Good Governance executive director Marilyn Marks told the Daily Dot that the theory the laptop is Hampton’s personal property depends on the far-fetched notion that the former election supervisor volunteered her personal computer for work, then left it there after she resigned, like a donation.

On Nov. 15, the county came up with yet another theory: the silver laptop could have been issued by the Georgia Secretary of State.

“Seems unlikely it’d be destroyed,” Perkins mused in court, “maybe it’s in a box or something.” Yet if the laptop were Georgia’s property, the county could obtain it or documentation confirming its ownership, such as an inventory form or purchase receipt.

The Secretary of State’s Office told the Daily Dot on Nov. 28 that they do “not have records responsive to this request” for inventory or purchase documents concerning the silver laptop.

Even if the laptop doesn’t belong to the county, this would be irrelevant because both Georgia and federal law require counties to preserve public records from privately owned devices. However, it could complicate the matter of who is responsible for producing it and potentially get the county off the hook.

In the hopes of solving the mystery of the missing laptop, on Nov. 15, the two Curling plaintiffs asked the judge to order sworn declarations from three key potential witnesses: Charles Dial, head of Coffee’s third-party IT consultancy; Hall Booth Smith partner and senior county lawyer Tony Rowell; and county manager Wesley Vickers.

In a hearing days later, Perkins suggested that the board had already met its obligation to look for the computer.

“What basis is there to say the information I’ve provided on an informal basis isn’t good enough?” Perkins said, to which Ichter fired back, “Mr. Perkins asks, ‘Are you not satisfied with my unsworn answers?’ Our answer is, ‘No we are not satisfied!’”

The judge declined to order the declarations, though he did strongly encourage the county to have them produced. He also did not rule out ordering depositions.

A week later, a lawyer for the elections board said that he hadn’t received declarations from the three. He added that the board’s communications with Hampton’s lawyer, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, various Coffee employees, and current and former officials have all come to naught. “We feel the Board has exhausted its options,” attorney Wes Rahn said.

On Dec. 6, the board filed a brief in which it again claimed that searches for the laptop had been fruitless and that the trio of declarations had been requested but not returned.

Dial, however, told the Daily Dot in a Nov. 28 telephone conversation that he wasn’t aware of the request for a sworn declaration. Before deferring further questions to Coffee County’s open records office, he said, “I have no recollection, I have nothing on that, I don’t even know what you’re talking about, honestly.”

Georgia Bureau of Investigation fails to seize laptop

Most articles about the breach lately have revolved around Lawfare publishing, then critiquing the leaked Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) redacted report into “possible election- and cyber-related crimes” in Coffee County.

At the Secretary of State’s behest, GBI started investigating in August 2022. The investigation has become entangled in the Curling civil case. In a recent ruling, the judge cast doubt on the State Election Board and Secretary of State Raffensperger’s efforts to investigate the breach.

“The State Defendants contend that they were not aware of the Coffee County breach that began in January 2021 until February 2022,” Judge Amy Totenberg wrote. “This is despite the fact that the State was aware of, and was even investigating, other election-related issues in Coffee County during the same timeframe. Some of these issues were connected to the Coffee County breach.”

The laptop came up in a GBI agent’s May 2023 email to a county attorney.

The email the nonprofit Free Speech for People obtained shows GBI agent Chris Baldwin following up with county attorney Herzog about his ask from September 2022, for “a laptop that Rowell advised was the one [Misty] Hayes [née Hampton] used; however, at that time [Rowell] was not prepared to produce it.”

Essentially, the GBI asked the county to provide the laptop used by the former election supervisor, and when the senior county lawyer declined, the detective simply let it go.

The GBI report quotes the email but omits the portion describing its agent’s unusual leniency. It says Rowell wanted to keep the laptop to further “research the ownership”—the same topic that now, per Perkins, Rowell will not give a sworn declaration about.

“We were told they couldn’t recover the documents,” plaintiff’s attorney Ichter told the judge on Nov. 1, “but when the GBI knocks, they suddenly have the documents, 10,000 of them.”

Some in the insular, rural county distrust state officials, particularly the GBI.

At the November elections board meeting, Matthew McCullough, a board member since before the breach, blasted state detectives.

Referring to a local lawyer’s proposal for independent counsel to assist the board with an internal inquiry into the breach, McCullough said, “What I was told by a GBI agent is, if you go out and go talk to people about this, and you go out and you try to do your own investigation, and you go out and try to rattle the bushes, we will arrest you for interference with this investigation.”

People in the audience cried out, “No one has ever told us that!” and, “That’s important!”

McCullough continued, “They told me, you don’t need to talk about this. You know nothing about it? That’s the best place you can be.”

“It scared me to death,” he added. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to go to jail.”

“Then free yourself,” community activist Larry Nesmith replied. McCullough responded, “By what?!”

“By telling the truth,” Nesmith said. Nesmith, a former president of the Coffee County NAACP, and other attendees told the Daily Dot they found McCullough’s story hard to believe. Nesmith said officials need to let everything come out.

Many county residents are ready to seek outside help sorting through the elections office quagmire, but haven’t reached a consensus about how best to proceed. At the same meeting, retired schoolteacher Judi Worrell advocated for the elections board to vote on seeking an investigation by the Department of Justice. Nesmith later suggested privately to new board chair Andy Thomas that officials ask the FBI to step in; Thomas replied that he thought that a good idea.

McCullough did not respond to multiple messages. GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles neither confirmed nor denied his accusations, and neither affirmed nor repudiated local jurisdictions’ right to pursue their own inquiries.

“The GBI worked in partnership with the Georgia Attorney General’s Office and subsequently turned the investigative case file over to the Georgia Attorney General’s Office for prosecutorial review,” Miles wrote. She ignored questions about a CCTV image that showed the silver laptop.

Misty Hampton’s ‘lost’ emails

The laptop isn’t the only potential evidence the county insists it cannot provide. Curling plaintiffs have asked for Hampton’s emails. Coffee County claims they were accidentally deleted.

It recently turned out that the emails were available all along, or the vast majority of them.

Nevertheless, for nearly two years, the county’s lawyers insisted that Hampton’s emails were not preserved. Its attorney Herzog wrote in March 2022 that “IT support has confirmed that the former Election Supervisor Misty Hampton’s email account is no longer accessible.” A month later, Herzog wrote that, in conserving their limited number of Microsoft 365 licenses—the relevance of which is ambiguous—IT “did attempt to preserve Hampton’s emails, but IT unfortunately was unsuccessful in same.”

Perkins at the Dec. 5 elections board meeting said emails prove that “there’s been a black-and-white effort to entrust a third party to preserve those records.”

Correspondence from mid-2021 shows county manager Vickers and Dial, the IT firm’s head, discussing the possibility of preserving Hampton’s emails.

In the messages, Dial told Vickers he could retrieve Hampton’s emails if she did not delete them and if an exportable storage table was in place. Efforts to find out what happened next have been in vain because the county’s lawyers assert attorney-client privilege over their communications with Dial. The plaintiffs contest this on the grounds that the county attorneys do not represent him.

Marks, Coalition for Good Governance executive director, told the Daily Dot the county hasn’t produced evidence to substantiate their claims that any preservation was actually attempted and that Hampton’s emails were really lost. Accordingly, the two plaintiffs told the judge that the elections board “counsel has avoided and continues to avoid disclosure without lawful basis[.]”

The GBI report lends credence to the county’s claim that it failed to preserve Hampton’s emails. “It should be noted,” the report states, that its detective “was advised by the firm representing Coffee County that it was practice to delete the email accounts of terminated employees.”

The law enforcement report does not note that, if true, such practice would violate records retention laws.

On Dec. 5, elections board attorney Perkins said, “I think we all have suspicions about where that laptop is, whether it’s in the bottom of a river or whether it’s in the possession of somebody, I don’t know.”

Another piece of evidence from the GBI has come up in the subpoenas case: contents of a desktop computer it seized from the elections office last June, some 10 months after it began investigating.

Hampton used the desktop for several years.

In the first hearing, Perkins said the Board of Elections could not produce files from the desktop because the GBI has it. He said that the county didn’t back the computer up before surrendering it for fear of being accused of tampering.

The plaintiffs warned the other side may have “parked” the desktop “with the GBI as a means of denying our clients access to records for the [Curling] case.” They noted, too, that the law requires counties to maintain election records.

More than a year after GBI’s investigation began and the Curling plaintiffs first sought the records, they obtained a copy of the bureau’s forensic image of the desktop computer. Coalition for Good Governance in a Nov. 22 filing said its experts had found on it, “the email Outlook (.ost) files with minimal effort[,]” which “belies [the board’s] persistent claims that locating the email files exhausted their technical efforts and would have likely required expert GBI forensics.”

Plaintiffs alerted the court on Dec. 4 that, based on the GBI image of the desktop computer, Hampton was allowed to delete personal and official files from that device in the hours before and after she resigned. They say this emphasizes the need for “thorough searches of ancillary records under the custody and control of [elections board] individual members, [and county law firm] Hall Booth Smith,” plus “a more diligent search for the silver laptop used by Hampton in her work.”

The plaintiffs argue that the elections board’s failure to produce evidence has prejudiced the Curling case.

“We were told they couldn’t recover the documents,” attorney Ichter told the judge on Nov. 1, “but when the GBI knocks, they suddenly have the documents, 10,000 of them.”

Violating Georgia’s open records law can be a misdemeanor. Lying to the GBI is a felony.

County officials contradict county lawyers

Coffee County has long blamed Hampton for the laptop disappearing. But the Daily Dot has uncovered information about the silver laptop that contradicts the county’s claims and arguably keeps it on the hook.

At the first subpoenas case hearing, elections board counsel Perkins said the silver laptop in the video was in Hampton’s “possession when she resigned.” (Days later he told the judge that her lawyer denies that.) Responding to a records request in July, Herzog said the same. “No laptop was located in the Coffee County Board of Election and Registrations [sic] office at the time of Hampton’s departure[.]”

Coffee County’s chief timeline for the silver laptop—that in February 2021, Hampton quit and left with it—reinforces recently resigned elections chair Wendell Stone’s June 2023 statement, which almost exclusively blamed Hampton.

This timeline clashes with the deposition of Hampton’s successor, former election supervisor James Barnes, who says he came across the Hewlett Packard in the elections office after replacing her.

Barnes, who now works in code enforcement for nearby Lanier County, told the Daily Dot that the silver laptop did not disappear during Hampton’s ouster in February 2021. He said it was in the elections office until at least December 2021.

He said the silver Hewlett Packard was sitting on a wire frame shelf in the small supervisor’s room within the elections building in April 2021—when his tenure as Coffee election director began—and remained there through early December, when he resigned to move closer to home. To his knowledge, Barnes said, in the intervening months, the laptop stayed on the shelf, closed, except for his single failed attempt to log in while familiarizing himself with the office’s equipment during his first few weeks on the job. He also said the laptop had been used for election administration activities.

Longtime elections board member Ernestine Thomas-Clark told the Daily Dot she searched for the silver laptop extensively in early December 2021, unsuccessfully.

“After James Barnes left the Coffee County Election Office,” she said, “I learned that the silver laptop Misty Hampton had used for certain elections work was missing from the office. Because the silver laptop was used for election administration activities such as creating voter picture IDs, I spent quite a bit of time in December 2021 searching for it but never found it. Ms. Hampton took the laptop to polling places at times to check on polling place issues. She also took the laptop to out of office meetings, where I believe that she could check her email remotely.”

Barnes and Thomas-Clark’s statements together contradict two of the county’s claims: that the silver laptop was Hampton’s personal property and that it disappeared when she resigned.

Georgia Secretary of State spokesperson Mike Hassinger did not respond to the Daily Dot’s repeated messages across multiple channels, which included surveillance footage of Hampton with the laptop.

On Dec. 6, plaintiffs told the court that an email they found on the GBI-created desktop image might have helped them find the laptop if they’d received it earlier in discovery in the Curling case. In the July 2022 message, copied to county manager Vickers and senior attorney Rowell, then-election supervisor Rachel Roberts wrote, “There was a laptop I came across not certain of the color, I believe it was the old voter id laptop. It wouldn’t turn on and Brad(IT) said it wasn’t any good so he has it.” (Bradley Herrin is the support manager at Dial’s firm.)

Neither Vickers nor Rowell responded to the Daily Dot’s repeated calls and emails. Marks, the nonprofit’s executive director, said that the organization is still trying to locate the silver laptop.

At the Dec. 5 elections board meeting, Perkins said, “I think we all have suspicions about where that laptop is, whether it’s in the bottom of a river or whether it’s in the possession of somebody, I don’t know.”

Significance far beyond a little laptop

Coalition for Good Governance executive director Marks called Coffee “a Bermuda Triangle for emails and election records related to the infamous breach.”

“’Losing’ 10,000 emails and 5,000 documents on the office desktop, which were there all along, was a fantastic enough tale,” Marks told the Daily Dot. “Following March 2021’s email disappearance, access to all 2020 and 2021 election records on the central server was ‘lost’ in June 2021 when the Secretary of State seized it without preserving a county copy as required by law.”

“Sometime that spring, the security videos that recorded aspects of the January 2021 intrusions were purportedly ‘overwritten,’ the County represented in their subpoena response, while months later they admitted to the GBI they actually had them all along. Their production in fall 2022 created national news.”

“The missing laptop is just another example of the lack of candor and transparency from the elections board and their lawyers,” she added.

Marks said the costs stemming from the lawsuit are “enormous,” but the harm is not simply financial.

“The damage to the credibility of elections is inestimable,” she said. “The Coffee Board needs to reverse course immediately. I am hopeful this latest legal action will be effective in persuading them to do so.”

Plaintiffs intend to seek reimbursement for the costs they’ve incurred.

Coffee elections board chair Andy Thomas told the Daily Dot that its goal is “to provide safe and secure elections, which means transparency,” adding that the board will address minimizing litigation costs and ensuring its lawyers are serving its mission at its next meetings.

“Since the breach, some of them have never even attended a single elections board meeting,” Thomas said. “I’ve been trying to get everyone involved into the same room for a public meeting to address the continuing questions, including locating the silver laptop. I’m hopeful we can make such a meeting happen.”

The breach, and now the case of the missing laptop, have thrust the county a local voter called “Crooked Coffee” into the spotlight, exposing what some would describe as a study in cover-up koans. Surveillance footage didn’t exist until it did; emails supposedly disappeared, then appeared; and, some two years before becoming a Trump co-defendant, an election supervisor resigned but was still allowed to delete official files. Then there’s the vanished silver laptop that might exist “in a box or something”—or might not.

Meanwhile, the next presidential election is less than a year away.

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*First Published: Dec 19, 2023, 6:30 am CST