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Arizona GOP's election auditors backtrack on destroyed data claim

Auditors working on behalf of state Senate Republicans admitted Tuesday that data it had accused Maricopa County of deleting had been found.
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A contractor working for CyberNinjas, which was hired by the Arizona State Senate, works to recount Maricopa County ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 1 in Phoenix.Courtney Pedroza / Getty Images file

The private companies hired by Arizona Republicans to audit the 2020 election results admitted Tuesday that the data they accused Maricopa County of deleting had been found.

The latest development in a messy and contentious effort by the GOP-controlled state Senate to re-litigate President Joe Biden's victory came during a meeting called by Senate President Karen Fann over the auditors' allegations.

Fann sparked a firestorm over the weekend after claiming in a letter that the auditors had found major issues in the county’s election records including a deleted database and missing ballots. Former President Donald Trump trumpeted the accusations in a statement, claiming, “This is illegal.”

But the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, a mostly Republican body in charge of overseeing elections, furiously disputed the allegations. In a technical document accompanied by a scathing letter Monday addressed to Fann, the board offered a detailed explanation for the auditors' apparent confusion and said the private companies charged with recounting ballots were looking in the wrong place because they have no idea what they're doing.

The board, which spurned Fann's demand to appear at Tuesday's meeting, also said she should call the whole thing off.

“We implore you to recognize the obvious truth: your 'auditors' are in way over their heads,” the board wrote.

Board Chairman Jack Sellers, a Republican, denounced the ongoing recount as a “grift disguised as an audit," at a news conference Monday.

In Tuesday's public meeting, attended by Fann, the audit's leaders and Republican state Sen. Warren Petersen,one of the auditors repeated the claim that the database had been deleted, but said he was able to "recover" the files.

“All of this, however, may be a moot point, because subsequently I was able to recover all those deleted files and I have access to them,” said Ben Cotton, the founder of CyFir, one of the companies subcontracted to conduct the audit.

While Maricopa County officials did not attend, the county’s Twitter account responded in real time.

"A day after our technical letter explained they were just looking in the wrong place — all of a sudden 'auditors' have recovered the files," the county account tweeted.

Fann said the audit would proceed over the Maricopa County officials' strenuous objections.

Republicans have defended the audit as necessary to restore trust in elections and key to helping them write additional election laws.Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is Arizona's largest county by far.

Previous reviews of the 2020 election conducted by the county and independent contractors produced zero evidence of fraud or irregularities. Instead, those reviews indicated that the system worked accurately and was secure. State Democrats have furiously rejected the need for a costly additional audit approved by the state Senate, while even some Republicans are growing frustrated as the process drags on.

The private firm overseeing the audit, Cyber Ninjas, said counting nearly 2.1 million ballots would take 20 days. After more than three weeks of counting, the auditors said they needed another six weeks, after counting less than half a million ballots. The audit is currently on a break, though, because the Veterans Memorial Coliseum arena where the audit has so far taken place was hosting high school graduations this week. Counting will pick up again next week and run through the end of June, according to the auditors.

That delay could cost taxpayers an additional $1,000 a day — as much as $42,000 — in air conditioning and operational expenses, Ken Bennett, the Senate’s audit liaison and a former Republican secretary of state, told NBC News last week.

Senate Republicans have already agreed to pay Cyber Ninjas $150,000 for the audit.

But that amount barely scratches the surface of the real price, according to Bennett. The entire Cyber Ninjas-run operation is likely to cost millions, he said, and other groups are fundraising to help pay for it. A nonprofit called The America Project says it has raised $1.7 million out of a goal of $2.8 million. The group has not disclosed its donors or offered details on what Cyber Ninjas or the other private firms involved as subcontractors have been promised in terms of compensation. The firms, as well, have not offered details on how much they expect to make on this operation.

Meanwhile, the audit's list of critics is growing.

Arizona’s Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and other state Democrats have raised concerns frequently, going to court to give observers from Hobbs' office access to the count.

Election experts across the country have taken issue with auditors' processes, while the Department of Justice raised concerns about a plan to knock on people's doors in an attempt to verify their voter registrations. Fann later said that plan was delayed indefinitely.

Meanwhile, audit documents ordered released as part of the Democrats' court challenge reveal an effort that experts say is out of touch with reality. According to those documents, auditors were concerned about antifa attacks and originally planned to use ultraviolet lights to hunt for "watermarks" — a possible reference to a thoroughly debunked QAnon conspiracy that Trump secretly watermarked ballots to prove voter fraud. Auditors also indicated they were looking for bamboo, telling "The Daily Show" this was because of a theory that fraudulent ballots had been shipped in from Asia.

“We’re busting myths and dispelling untruths and verifying facts, and that’s what we’re doing,” Bennett told NBC News when asked about the role conspiracies were playing in the audit. “One person’s concern is labeled by other people as a conspiracy theory.”

Baffled election experts pointed out that UV lights might actually damage the ballots in violation of federal law. Bennett said in an interview that other methods were now being used to look for the watermarks, noting that the county has said the ballots don't have watermarks so he doesn't expect to find any.

As it drags on, the recount effort appears to be losing support among some in the GOP even as Trump continues to promote his stolen election lie and praise the Arizona audit as critical work.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a Republican whose office is in charge of the voter file, characterized Trump’s statement about the audit over the weekend as “unhinged.”

“We can’t indulge in these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country. This is as readily falsifiable as 2+2=5,” he said on Twitter.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a close ally of Trump, said that he didn't know details of Arizona's audit but that he was "ready to move on."

“I accept the results of the election. I don’t know what the audit is all about in Arizona. I don’t know the details. But I am ready to move on,” he told reporters on Monday, according to The Washington Post. “2020 is over for me."

Previously, the Maricopa Countysheriff had furiously pushed back against the auditor’s request to get access to county routers, which he said would put public safety information at risk. A Republican state senator and an earlier supporter of the audit, Paul Boyer, has also revoked his support, telling The New York Times, “It makes us look like idiots.”

At a news conference Monday, Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Bill Gates, also a Republican, said, "It's time to say enough is enough."

"It is time to push back on the big lie," he told reporters, referring to Trump's insistence that the election was stolen from him.

"We must do this, we must do this as a member of the Republican Party, we must do this as a member of the Board of Supervisors," Gates said. "We need to do this as a country, otherwise we’re not going to be able to move forward and have an election in 2022 and believe the results.”