What we know about the 2020 Fulton County election review through open records

Local officials have denied knowing who paid for the review and how much it cost

By: - Sunday January 23, 2022 6:30 am

What we know about the 2020 Fulton County election review through open records

Local officials have denied knowing who paid for the review and how much it cost

By: - 6:30 am

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks during an event in Gettysburg to formally announce a run for governor on Jan. 8, 2022. (Screenshot)

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks during an event in Gettysburg to formally announce a run for governor on Jan. 8, 2022. (Screenshot)

Swimming in hundreds of open records requests since complying with an off-the-books election review, Fulton County is now faced with a series of lawsuits over missing information related to the probe.

Local officials in the rural and historically Republican county, where former President Donald Trump won more than 85 percent of the vote in 2020, have denied knowing who paid for the review and how much it cost.

American Oversight, a Washington D.C.-based government watchdog group, and the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union each have sued Fulton County and asked a court to order the release of all records related to the review, including financial information and email conversations about the public business from the commissioners’ private accounts, a Pennsylvania Sunshine Act violation. The ACLU claims that the requested information “logically must exist.”

Records obtained by the Capital-Star, other media outlets, and government watchdogs confirm that Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, who helped spread unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election, helped facilitate the review. Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, approached Republican Commissioner Stuart Ulsh, the board’s chairman, about conducting the inspection. Ward has maintained it was at Mastriano’s request.

Here’s a breakdown of what we know about the review based on Right-to-Know Law requests granted by Fulton County:

‘All counties are to do this’

Wake Technology Services, a West Chester-based company with no accredited election auditing experience, spent the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2020, in Fulton County, recounting 954 mail-in ballots and reviewing data from voting machines. The firm came back on Feb. 9, 2021, for another review.

“They just got done. They will send us a report. Everything seemed to go well,” Fulton County Elections Director Patti Hess wrote in a group text to the county commissioners and chief clerk.

“Who did that?” Paula Shives, the lone Democrat on the board of commissioners, asked.

“Sent by [state] Senator [Doug] Mastriano [R-Franklin] all counties are to do this or be subpoena[ed] to prove votes,” Hess replied, including contact information for Wake TSI co-founder Gene Kern.

Fulton County government meeting agendas and minutes leading up to the Dec. 31 review show no record of discussion or approval for the third-party assessment.

“Approved? It’s not in the minutes! There was no vote on this,” Shives wrote to her colleagues, referring to a formal decision on complying with the review.

Ulsh and Republican Commissioner Randy Bunch, the board’s vice-chair, wrote in the group message that they approved the review at an earlier meeting. Ulsh said he asked Bunch to supervise the analysis in his place.

“And on a good note, they didn’t find one thing wrong and praised our team, meaning [Patti] and our staff, on how organized everything was done,” Bunch wrote in the group message.

Ulsh added: “It was happening this way or in a [subpoena].”

Hess, who took notes during the Wake TSI review, apologized for the miscommunication and assured Shives that she documented the review, sharing a signed document that states Kern, Bunch, Hess, and Eldon Martin, the county technology director, attended the inspection.

At the bottom of the document, a handwritten note says: “Senator Mastriano set this review of Fulton [County’s] voter system and mail-in ballots. Wake TSI is contracted to Defending the Republic, a 501(c)4.”

Sidney Powell, a pro-Trump lawyer who helped file lawsuits to challenge the 2020 election, founded Defending the Republic, a conservative nonprofit.

Mastriano, who rarely speaks with media outlets outside conservative, right-wing networks, has stayed quiet about his involvement with the review.

In a recently granted Right-to-Know request from Fulton County, Hess included a statement denying any form of contact with Mastriano and Ward. 

Ulsh testified before the Senate Intergovernmental Operation Committee, the panel leading a taxpayer-funded election investigation, last fall and said he did not know Mastriano helped facilitate the Wake TSI review “until after the investigation was done and the report [came] out.”

The text messages obtained through open records requests contradict their statements.

Because the Department of State and Dominion Voting Systems could not verify Fulton County’s election equipment was safe and secure following the Wake TSI review, former acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid decertified the voting machines.

Mastriano and Ward sit on the 11-member, Republican-controlled panel leading the investigation into the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections. The review, which GOP leaders claim aims to evaluate the state’s Election Code, includes a now-delayed inspection of Fulton County’s voting machines.

Personal emails

On Feb. 10, 2021, Kern emailed Ulsh and Bunch, asking for their private email addresses. Ulsh complied, sending the email address for his excavating business.

This isn’t the first time Fulton County officials used their personal accounts to contact someone about the 2020 election or efforts to review the results.

Emails released by PA Spotlight, a progressive, partisan investigative organization, show that Ulsh, using a personal email, and Bunch, on his county account, contacted Ward and state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, about the 2020 election and baseless claims that it was “rigged.”

“It couldn’t hurt the Trump campaign if our state representatives got involved,” Ulsh wrote to the lawmakers on Nov. 9, 2021, asking them to join Mastriano “in this fight” to review the election. “The people need this. Respect their vote.”

Kern, using a personal email, also contacted Bunch about MyPillow CEO Michael Lindell donating a portion of sales to “organizations for campaign reform and transparency efforts.” Lindell, a Trump ally, promoted unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.

“I already ordered a topper and two pillows, and [they’re] on backorder,” Bunch wrote Kern on Feb. 10, 2021. “From so many orders!! I love it when good men stand up for what’s right!!!”

The election was ‘well run’

When Ulsh testified before the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee in September, he told lawmakers that there is no evidence of fraud or misconduct surrounding Fulton County’s conduct in the 2020 election.

Now-President Joe Biden won in Pennsylvania by 80,555 votes. Efforts to review the results came after Trump and his allies launched a campaign of baseless claims that widespread voter fraud and misconduct resulted in his loss. Legal challenges to the results failed in court, and two post-election audits carried out in Pennsylvania after the presidential election found no evidence of fraud.

A 74-page draft report from Wake TSI, sent to Ulsh in February 2021, also solidified the election’s legitimacy, saying the election was “well run” and “conducted in a diligent and effective manner.”

However, the final version, which notes five “issues” found during the review process, posted to the county website in May, includes a stipulation to Wake TSI’s findings.

“This does not indicate that there were no issues with the election, just that they were not the fault of the County Election Commission or County Election Director,” the final report states.

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