The small number of mishandled military ballots at a Pennsylvania elections board that sparked a federal inquiry and allegations from the Trump campaign that Democrats were "trying to steal the election" were actually "incorrectly" tossed by a temp, a county official said Friday.
In a press release, Luzerne County County Manager David Pedri said a "temporary seasonal independent contractor" who started work sorting mail at the Elections Bureau on Sept. 14th had "incorrectly" thrown out a small number of military and overseas ballots.
The county elections director found out what had happened two days later, and had all the trash from the three-day period "placed in a dumpster and secured," the release said.
“Each bag of garbage from the entire building in the dumpster was searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania State Police as well as Luzerne County staff. All items of concern were taken into custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigations,” according to the release, which noted the temp was asked not to return.
In a highly unusual move Thursday, David Freed, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, issued a statement saying his office had begun "an inquiry into reports of potential issues with a small number of mail-in ballots at the Luzerne County Board of Elections." The release also noted that at least seven of the nine ballots were "cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump."
Freed's release was tweeted out by the White House and the Trump campaign, with the campaign's deputy communications director Matt Wolking summarizing the release as "FBI finds military mail-in ballots discarded in Pennsylvania. 100% of them were cast for President Trump. Democrats are trying to steal the election."
In a letter to Luzerne County officials later in the day, Freed said their initial findings showed the ballots may have been opened by a staffer who confused the envelopes with absentee ballot applications.
Wolking later deleted his tweet accusing Democrats of having been involved, but Trump again suggested on Friday it was part of a Democratic plot against him.
"Democrats are playing games, you see that. You see that they found ballots in a wastepaper basket," he said at an event in Florida.
The county's release said election officials found out the discarded ballots were Trump votes from Freed's press release.
Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department during the Obama administration, told MSNBC's "MTP Daily" that DOJ's actions in the case are "highly unusual, highly political and highly inappropriate."
"There's just an overall rule that DOJ doesn't comment on ongoing investigations" and "even stronger rules for investigations involving elections," Miller said, adding "there is no reason they should have mentioned the candidate for whom these ballots were cast. ... It's irrelevant to the investigation. The only reason you'd make that claim publicly is because you're trying to help the president."
While general mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania don't get sent out until October, ballots for overseas and military voters in the county were sent out beginning on Aug. 25th, the county said.