• Thu. Jun 20th, 2024

CNN Exclusive: Special counsel election probe continues with focus on fundraising, voting equipment breaches

CNN Exclusive: Special counsel election probe continues with focus on fundraising, voting equipment breaches


Special counsel Jack Smith is still pursuing his investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election a month after indicting Donald Trump for orchestrating a broad conspiracy to remain in power, a widening of the probe that raises the possibility others could still face legal peril.

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Questions asked of two recent witnesses indicate Smith is focusing on how money raised off baseless claims of voter fraud was used to fund attempts to breach voting equipment in several states won by Joe Biden, according to multiple sources familiar with the ongoing investigation.

In both interviews, prosecutors have focused their questions on the role of former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.

According to invoices obtained by CNN, Powell’s non-profit, Defending the Republic, hired forensics firms that ultimately accessed voting equipment in four swing states won by Biden: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Arizona.

Powell faces criminal charges in Georgia after she was indicted last month by Atlanta-area district attorney Fani Willis, who alleges that Powell helped coordinate and fund a multi-state plot to illegally access voting systems after the 2020 election.

Powell pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Those charges center around a voting system breach in Coffee County, Georgia, a rural, Republican district that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020. Willis’ indictment describes the breach, and Powell’s alleged involvement, as central to the broader conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia.

Powell has also been identified by CNN as one of Trump’s un-indicted co-conspirators listed in Smith’s federal election indictment.

New details about Smith’s ongoing investigation indicate federal prosecutors are scrutinizing a series of voting breaches following the 2020 election that state investigators have been probing for more than a year.

Exactly how this recent line of inquiry fits into Smith’s ongoing criminal investigation remains unclear. Smith’s grand jury in Washington, DC, is set to expire on Sept. 15 but it can be extended beyond then.

The special counsel’s office declined to comment.

According to sources, witnesses interviewed by Smith’s prosecutors in recent weeks were asked about Powell’s role in the hunt for evidence of voter fraud after the 2020 election, including how her nonprofit group, Defending the Republic, provided money to fund those efforts.

Sidney Powell, lawyer to President Donald Trump, during a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC, November 2020.

Powell promoted Defending the Republic as a non-profit focused on funding post-election legal challenges by Trump’s team as it disputed results in key states Biden had won. Those challenges and fundraising efforts underpinning them were all based on the premise that evidence of widespread voter fraud was already in hand.

But according to documents reviewed by CNN and witness testimony obtained by the House select committee that investigated January, 6, 2021, the group was used to fund a desperate search to retroactively back-up baseless claims that Trump’s lawyers had already put forward in failed lawsuits challenging the results in several states.

A series of invoices and communications obtained by election integrity groups including The Coalition for Good Governance and American Oversight show Defending the Republic contributed millions of dollars toward the push to access voting equipment in key states.

In a court filing after her indictment in Georgia, Powell denied involvement in the Coffee County breach but acknowledged that “a non-profit she founded” paid the forensics firm hired to examine voting systems there.

Powell did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Smith’s team has specifically asked witnesses about certain conspiracy theories pushed by Powell including that Dominion Voting Systems had ties to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and featured software he used to rig his own election. The software company has previously said the turnout in those Venezuelan elections, not the voting system, was manipulated.

One witness who met with Smith’s team earlier last month, former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik, spoke at length about how Trump allies accessed voting systems in Antrim County, Michigan, shortly after Election Day. Kerik also discussed the origins of a theory that voting machines could switch votes from one candidate to another, according to his lawyer Tim Parlatore.

Kerik also acknowledged the breach of voting systems in Coffee County during his interview with federal prosecutors, Parlatore told CNN, adding that while his client raised the topic, the conversation did not delve into specifics.

Kerik and another witness who met with Smith’s team in recent weeks were both asked if Powell was ever able to back-up her various claims of fraud, including conspiracy theories that foreign countries had hacked voting equipment.

Both were also asked about Defending the Republic and how it was used as a source of funding efforts to find evidence of voter fraud, sources told CNN.

In addition, special counsel prosecutors have also heard from other witnesses about efforts to breach voting equipment in other states.

In April, an FBI agent and a prosecutor from Smith’s special counsel’s office interviewed a Pennsylvania resident named Mike Ryan, who used to work for a wealthy Pennsylvania Republican donor named Bill Bachenberg.

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During his interview, which Ryan described to CNN, Ryan says he told federal investigators that Bachenberg worked with Powell and other Trump lawyers to access voting systems in Pennsylvania and other states after the 2020 election.

Bachenberg, who helped organize Pennsylvania’s fake electors, was subpoenaed by the House select committee last year but there is no public indication he testified. Ryan says he told federal investigators that after the 2020 election Bachenberg was in direct contact with Trump and a host of the former president’s most prominent allies – including lawyers Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman – participating in strategy calls about efforts to overturn the election results in multiple states.

It is unclear if Bachenberg has been contacted by Smith’s team or the FBI. Bachenberg did not reply to requests for comments from CNN.

Breaches in Pennsylvania and Michigan

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson also told CNN that she’s spoken to investigators at both the state and federal level about the push to access voting systems.

Benson says when she met with Smith’s team earlier this spring, she, like Kerik, was asked specifically about efforts related to Antrim County, Michigan, where Powell and a lawyer named Stefanie Lambert helped fund a team of pro-Trump operatives who accessed voting systems shortly after Election Day in 2020.

Stefanie Lambert listens during a court hearing in Detroit, Michigan, in October 2022.

The operatives then produced a report claiming votes were flipped from Trump to Biden in Antrim County. That report was then used as supposed evidence to support the dozens of failed lawsuits that Powell filed on Trump’s behalf alleging voter fraud. The report was since debunked.

“I believe the investigation at the federal level is broad and is meticulous and is looking at all the ways in which democracy was attacked in 2020. And so I would expect everything is on the table, every law that was violated,” Benson told CNN last month referring to the special counsel’s interest in efforts to access voting systems.

Lambert was charged last month by state prosecutors in Michigan for her alleged involvement in a conspiracy to access voting machines there. Lambert is also linked to a breach in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, where she provided legal representation for the county itself after two Republican county officials secretly allowed a forensics firm to copy voting machine data in an effort to help Trump overturn his 2020 loss in the state.

The breach is currently the subject of an ongoing probe being conducted by a prosecutor selected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Lambert and Bachenberg both received copies of voting system data from Fulton County during the breach, according to the recent civil lawsuit that names both individuals.

Lambert has also been identified by CNN as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Georgia indictment, which alleges she worked with Powell to secure voting system data that was copied from Coffee County and was tasked with helping collect invoices from the forensics firm hired through Defending the Republic.

In a statement to CNN, Lambert did not elaborate on her ties to Bachenberg but defended her election-related work, saying, “I am a zealous advocate for my clients. I haven’t broken any laws.”

Emails obtained by American Oversight indicate Bachenberg was involved in discussions about funding for the Arizona audit and helped facilitate a similar review in Pennsylvania.

In a September 2021 email containing a summary of the final report on the controversial election audit conducted in Arizona, Bachenberg wrote that “PA will be one of the next domino’s [sic] to fall.”

That same month, Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate launched a “forensic investigation” of the state’s 2020 election results.

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