The Georgia attorney general's office will no longer represent the state's top elections official in an elections integrity lawsuit filed three days before a crucial computer server was quietly wiped clean.
The lawsuit aims to force Georgia to retire its antiquated and heavily questioned touchscreen election technology, which does not provide an auditable paper trail.
The server in question was a statewide staging location for key election-related data. It made headlines in June after a security expert disclosed a gaping security hole that wasn't fixed for six months after he first reported it to election authorities. Personal data was exposed for Georgia's 6.7 million voters, as were passwords used by county officials to access files.
The assistant state attorney general handling the case, Cristina Correia, notified the court and participating attorneys Wednesday that her office was withdrawing from the case, according to an email obtained by The Associated Press. Spokeswoman Katelyn McCreary offered no explanation and said she couldn't comment "on pending matters."
Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the main defendant, is running for governor in 2018 and his campaign said in a statement emailed to the AP that the attorney general's office has a conflict of interest and cannot represent either Kemp's office or the state elections board. Campaign spokesman Ryan Mahoney said in a text message that the conflict stems from "too many co defendants with potential differences in strategy, approach, etc."
The secretary of state's office had said in an earlier statement that the law firm of former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes would represent Kemp and other state election officials. It made no mention of a conflict of interest.
The campaign statement quoted Mahoney as saying: "There is no scandal or vast conspiracy. This is a tasteless nothingburger cooked up by liberal activists who know their lawsuit is nothing short of stupid."
Both Kemp and state Attorney General Chris Carr are Republicans. Barnes is a Democrat.
The server's data was destroyed July 7 by technicians at the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University, which runs the state's election system, Correia informed attorneys in the case in an Oct. 18 email. Twelve days earlier, she had informed the same group of attorneys that the data on the server was wiped on March 17, the same day it was returned to the Center for Elections Systems at Kennesaw State University by the FBI after a probe into the security incident. No one at the state attorney general's office has explained Correia's source for the apparently erroneous information on timing. The AP obtained both emails.
KSU email records obtained by the AP last week in an open records request say the server data was destroyed July 7.
The erased hard drives are central to the lawsuit because they could have revealed whether Georgia's most recent elections were compromised by hackers. Russian interference in U.S. politics, including attempts to penetrate voting systems, has been an acute national preoccupation since last year.
It's not clear who ordered the server's data irretrievably erased.
Kemp has denied ordering the data destruction or knowing about it in advance. His office's general counsel issued a two-page report Monday claiming Kennesaw State officials followed "standard IT practices" in wiping the server that "were not undertaken to delete evidence." It said it first learned of the wiping of the main election server on Oct. 24, when the AP first asked about it.
In a public statement on the server wiping two days later, Kemp's office decried the KSU's wiping of the server as reckless, inexcusable and inept.
The report released Tuesday says "current indications are" that the FBI retains an image of the server that it made in March when it investigated the security hole. The FBI has not responded to AP inquiries on whether it still has that image or has performed a forensic examination to determine whether data on the server might have been altered by hackers.
Executive Director Marilyn Marks of the Coalition for Good Governance, a plaintiff in the case, called the attorney general's office's withdrawal from the legal defense shocking but not unexpected.
She accused Kemp of hiding the facts of the case — perhaps even from the state attorney general's office.
"There have been multiple conflicting stories of how and when the evidence on the servers was destroyed."