The visit was captured by security surveillance, and the data was later distributed to conspiracy theorists across the country. It could play a significant role in indictments that the district attorney in Fulton County is expected to hand up in the coming days involving efforts by Trump and his allies to reverse the outcome of Georgia’s 2020 presidential election.
How Coffee County ended up entangled in a nationally watched Trump criminal probe based some 200 miles away in Atlanta is puzzling to some here. Trump won the Republican stronghold with nearly 70% of the vote in 2020, so there is no doubt about the outcome. Many residents interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution were only vaguely aware of what happened some 2 1/2 years ago at the county elections office.
“It may be a big whoop-dee-doo in other places, but it is not a big whoop-de-doo here,” Jill Cravey said as she sat among racks of colorful clothing in her boutique, The Crave, in downtown Douglas.
“There were a lot of problems in a lot of places (in the 2020 election),” she said, “so why us?”
As he waited for his son to have his hair trimmed in Woody’s barber shop, John Nugent scoffed that the whole thing had been blown out of proportion.
“It’s a load of political BS,” he said. “What’s wrong with making sure the election was accurate? What are they hiding?”
The intrusion into Georgia’s election computers through Coffee County is expected to be a part of Fulton prosecutors’ case.
Under the state’s racketeering laws, local prosecutors can use evidence outside of their jurisdiction to help show a pattern of illegal activity to advance a criminal enterprise. Separately, the GBI has been investigating the Coffee County case for nearly a year but hasn’t yet pursued charges.
Credit: Shannon McCaffrey
Credit: Shannon McCaffrey
‘A wake-up call’
The breach has also galvanized a small but vocal group of residents who have been showing up at County Commission and Board of Elections meetings demanding answers.
One of them is Olivia Coley-Pearson, the mayor pro tem of Douglas, the county seat.
For about two decades, Coley-Pearson has been a one-woman get-out-the-vote operation in her hometown for the poor, disabled and illiterate. So, on Oct. 27, 2020, it wasn’t surprising to find her shuttling residents to the polls to cast their ballots early.
Coley-Pearson was helping a woman slide her paper ballot into the scanner when she was told to stop by county Elections Supervisor Misty Hampton. An argument ensued and Hampton called 911. Coley-Pearson left and Hampton, with approval from three members of the election board and the county attorney, banned Coley-Pearson from the property, court records said.
Later in the day, when she drove another voter to the same polling place, Coley-Pearson was confronted by police in the parking lot. When she refused to leave she was handcuffed and taken to jail, charged with criminal trespass, according to a police report.
It wasn’t her first election-related brush with the law. In 2018, a jury took just 20 minutes to find Coley-Pearson not guilty of charges related to assisting a voter.
This time, she has filed a federal lawsuit contending the arrest violated her constitutional rights. She called it “a slap in the face” that she was charged for trying to help people in her community vote while two months later outsiders were invited inside the county elections building and have faced no criminal consequences for illegally copying election data.
Coley-Pearson, 61, is hoping that Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis will remedy that by charging them as part of her wide-ranging investigation.
“I am praying that whatever is going on up there will help us find the truth down here,” Coley-Pearson said.
“People here are staying very quiet about what happened. They have not taken accountability or responsibility,” she said. “This is a wake-up call.”
‘Huge things are starting to come together’
In the tidy downtown of Douglas, there are signs everywhere of the new encroaching on more traditional venues. A store selling Bibles is just a few doors down from a spa offering Botox and liposuction. The county is named for John Coffee, a congressman and general in the Georgia militia. But that hasn’t stopped civic leaders from adopting cheery slogans, such as “business is brewing,” riffing on the name.
It became a proving ground for the Trump team’s election fraud theory, thanks, in large part, to onetime Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. The Dallas-based attorney arranged for forensic data analysts from the Atlanta tech firm SullivanStrickler to examine the election software and paid it $26,000 for the job.
Coffee County came to Powell’s attention after Hampton created a YouTube video showing how someone could change votes if they abused a system designed to flag ambiguous marks on ballots. That system is supposed to be handled by a nonpartisan panel that includes a Democrat, Republican and nonpartisan member appointed by a county election supervisor.
In addition, the Coffee County election board refused to certify a recount of the presidential election, citing a 50-vote discrepancy. The secretary of state’s office investigated and said at the time it was likely that Hampton had scanned those ballots twice.
Soon afterward, Powell’s tech team was welcomed into the Coffee County elections office and given access to equipment that was supposed to be kept secure.
They copied vast amounts of data, including the state’s election software, memory cards that store votes and files from ballot scanners.
“Huge things are starting to come together!” stated a Jan. 1, 2021, text from Trump lawyer Katherine Freiss that was obtained as part of a lawsuit. “Most immediately, we were granted access — by written invitation! — to the Coffee County systens (sic). Yay!”
It’s unclear who invited the Trump team, but when they arrived, Cathy Latham, then the chairwoman of the county Republican Party, was seen on video security footage greeting them. Latham was also one of the slate of 16 phony Republican Party electors who met at the state Capitol in the aftermath of the 2020 election to falsely declare Trump the winner.
Latham has been informed by the DA’s office she is a target in the probe. At least eight of the other fake electors have reached immunity deals with Fulton prosecutors, but Latham is not among them, court records show.
Latham’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
While there have been no criminal charges resulting from the breach, there have been repercussions. Two of those seen on the Jan. 7 video footage — Hampton and county elections board member Eric Chaney — are gone. A month after the breach, county officials asked Hampton to resign for allegedly falsifying time sheets. Chaney stepped down.
Hampton and Chaney didn’t immediately respond to phone messages Wednesday.
The data copied in Coffee County was later distributed to election deniers and conspiracy theorists through a file-sharing website. It’s unclear what they did with the files or how they used them.
Coley-Pearson said that makes her feel vulnerable.
“My information is just out there somewhere, and no one can tell me who has it,” she said.
Some say indictments could be a black eye for the county, which has been working to boost tourism and attract businesses.
“It could be very embarrassing,” Avery Daniels said outside his Douglas restaurant, A Lighter Side.
But he said he isn’t surprised that a small county such as Coffee has the issues it does.
“I don’t think it’s strange,” Daniels said. “I think in smaller areas like this a lot of things happen that don’t get attention, like they would in a bigger city.
Credit: Shannon McCaffrey
Credit: Shannon McCaffrey
“People think they can get away with things because no one is watching.”