Senate won’t say who is funding the election audit or allow media access

By: - April 23, 2021 12:01 am

A member of the Senate’s election “audit” team demonstrates how auditors will manually tally each of the 2.1 million ballots cast in the presidential election in Maricopa County in 2020. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

A heated press conference on the eve of the Arizona Senate’s audit of the Maricopa County presidential election revealed key information about how the audit will unfold in the coming weeks and laid bare issues with media access and transparency about who is paying for the audit. 

“You want to paint me as some bad guy,” Doug Logan, the CEO of lead auditing firm Cyber Ninjas, retorted in the face of questions about who was paying for the audit. “Anybody who walks into any election integrity thing gets butchered by everybody.” 

Press access — or the lack thereof — was front and center at a media briefing that began 90 minutes late and after the Senate’s audit team tried to bar several journalists from attending the press conference because they had not properly requested prior permission to be present.

One group of reporters found an unlocked side door into the building, which is the temporary home to 2.1 million ballots and all of the county’s election equipment, and made their way in, causing a commotion and leading to security rushing the reporters.

Hank Stephenson election audit
Yellow Sheet Report Editor Hank Stephenson is confronted by security after he and other reporters who were denied access to a press conference on the election audit entered Veterans Memorial Coliseum through an unlocked side door. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

The reporters were blocked from entering because the audit team invited local media to the press conference in two different ways. Some news organizations — including the Arizona Mirror — were sent a notice by a Florida-based public relations firm and were told to RSVP ahead of time. Others were given notice of the media event by Ken Bennett, a former secretary of state and the Senate’s “liaison” to the auditors. Journalists who responded to the PR firm’s invitation were allowed in, while those who were invited by Bennett were blocked at the entrance.

Eventually, all of the reporters were allowed access to the press briefing, but the incident set the stage for a combative evening. 

Press access was a big concern going into the press conference, as the audit team announced Wednesday that reporters would have to work 30 hours as an observer in order to cover the audit, though Bennett said that has now been reduced to a single six-hour shift. Journalists who do so cannot bring notepads, take photos, record or do any of the duties that would qualify as reporting while observing

“We want everyone down here observing and not reporting,” Bennett said Thursday, reiterating that the policy was remaining in place. “Arguing and asking me about it is not going to change anything about it.” 

He said the policy was created “in consultation” with the Florida based firm conducting the audit, Cyber Ninjas. 

Bennett said that the basketball stadium does not have enough room for reporters. The audit is taking place on the central floor of the 14,870-seat multi-purpose indoor arena.

Instead of allowing media into the building to watch and report on the audit, he said he will be conducting press briefings each afternoon.

Arizona Mirror, the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Broadcasters Association on Thursday sent a letter to Bennett and Senate President Karen Fann demanding that the restrictions on journalists be lifted. 

“Requiring journalists to become active participants in the events on which they seek to report is as unprecedented as it is untenable in a representative democracy,” attorney David Bodney wrote on behalf of the Mirror and others. “It also violates the First Amendment, which compels that members of the press be allowed access to report on these public proceedings.”

Bodney noted that Fann and other Republican senators supporting the audit have said it is necessary to restore shaken confidence in Arizona’s elections.

“(A)llowing press access here would certainly play a significant positive role in the functioning of the audit: if the purpose of the audit is to foster public trust in Arizona’s elections, it is critical that there also be public trust in the audit itself. Such can only be achieved by fair, open access to the press,” he wrote.

Auditors refuse to answer about their biases

The firm leading the audit, Cyber Ninjas, has come under fire because its CEO has spread election fraud conspiracies and worked to help Republican U.S. senators overturn Joe Biden’s election as president.

Cyber Ninja CEO Doug Logan’s now-deleted Twitter account retweeted accounts that claimed there was fraud in the 2020 election against former President Donald Trump and also used the hashtag “#StopTheSteal.” 

Bennett refused to take questions about Logan’s political ideologies and said that bringing up “old tweets” was not part of the press conference. 

“We’re not here to audit Mr. Logan’s opinions about anything,” Bennett said. 

However, the companies hired to do the audit are auditing the opinions of the people being hired to hand-count all 2.1 million ballots cast in Maricopa County in November. 

So far, they have hired 150 counters through a subcontractor named Wake Technologies, and part of the vetting process included looking at the social media of those involved. Individuals also are coming from “credible professions” such as “police” and “retired military” and other “retired” professions, Logan said. 

The plan for the audit is to have one person scan each ballot, which will then display that ballot onto a computer screen for three people at a table to see. Those people can also compare the image on the screen to the physical ballot. 

If two of the three people agree on what the votes are for the presidential and U.S. Senate races — the only two contests being audited — then those votes will be recorded for that ballot. 

“The short answer is time,” Logan said on why they are only focusing on those races. 

Logan said he didn’t know whether there were enough Republican, Democratic and independent counters to ensure that each trio of counters would be bipartisan. A last-minute lawsuit filed by Democrats attempting to stop the audit claims that they do not. 

There also was no commitment to disclosing who is paying for the audit. The Senate agreed to pay Cyber Ninjas $150,000, but the costs of the audit will far exceed that. Bennet and Logan refused to say who is funding the audit and how much it is actually costing. 

“It doesn’t matter who paid for it,” Bennett said. 

Logan said that he will “seriously consider” revealing the sources of outside funds being funnelled in to pay for the audit but did not commit to reveal the sources, adding that he has purposefully made sure to not know. 

At least $150,000 is also coming from a “dark money” nonprofit created by journalists at One America News Network, a pro-Trump cable news network that has heavily promoted false claims of election fraud — including in Arizona.

Neither Bennett or Logan could answer questions about how much the audit will cost, only saying that it will last 16 days. 

Auditors also plan to go out and canvass some neighborhoods and have already identified certain areas they want to target. The audit team has been working with unidentified “statisticians,” who Logan are not affiliated with Cyber Ninjas or its subcontractors. He said they have identified some areas they “are concerned about.” 

Logan said the statisticians would be identified in the final report and their work would be able to be peer-reviewed then. 

Auditors are also planning to do signature verification of ballots, but do not have the envelopes that early ballots were mailed in to county elections officials. When early ballots arrive at the county elections department, workers verify the signature, then separate the ballot from the envelope, making it impossible to link any particular ballot to the envelope it came in.

“The Senate is reserving the right to request the envelopes,” Bennett said.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.