It's still not clear: Who financed Fulton County election audit?

Who financed an audit of Fulton County’s election equipment earlier this year? That’s still not clear. Nor is it clear how much it cost. That’s despite persistent questions from the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee during its first hearing on the matter Thursday afternoon. 

Fulton County Commission Chairman Stewart Ulsh testified before lawmakers that he never considered how expensive the probe might be. He confirmed only that it did not cost anything for taxpayers. The audit was first suggested to him by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg in the weeks following the 2020 election.

“I’ve had people tell me they’ll never vote again,” Ulsh said Thursday. “That’s one of the things that led me to do what I’ve done.”

Indeed, the voluntary audit didn’t cost anything, at first. Then, the Department of State decertified the county’s Dominion voting equipment after learning Wake Technology Services (TSI) had accessed it. That violated the state’s chain of custody provisions and other “strict limitations” designed to prevent tampering, the department has said..

Replacement costs for the voting machines could exceed $1 million. It’s why commissioners in Tioga and York counties denied a similar request in July from Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Gettysburg.

But for Ulsh, a flurry of contradictory guidance from the department in the days leading up to the election and the novelty of the state’s mail-in ballot counting process left him wondering if poll workers got everything right.

“With all the changes and everything that was going on; it was already on my mind wondering what to do to double check ourselves,” he said. “I wanted to know myself if everything was done properly.”

The Wake TSI report

Wake TSI’s official 93-page report on the audit, completed in January, uncovered no malfeasance or fraud. Instead it claimed the “election was well run, was conducted in a diligent and effective manner and followed the directions of the Commonwealth.”

What the report didn’t explain, despite Ulsh’s insistence to the contrary during his testimony Thursday, was how much the effort cost and who paid for it. A document obtained by the Arizona Mirror links the audit to Mastriano, Wake TSI and its contractor, Defending the Republic.

The latter is a nonprofit headed by Sidney Powell, a former Trump campaign attorney who challenged President Joe Biden’s victory in a handful of swing states last year. Defending the Republic also contracted the firms that handled the forensic audit in Arizona earlier this year. 

The Mastriano link

Of note, Mastriano visited Phoenix in early June with Sen. Cris Dush, R-Wellsboro, and Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Chambersburg, to watch the audit in progress and meet with the Arizona GOP lawmakers who helped finance it.

Ulsh said Thursday he knew nothing of Mastriano’s involvement in Fulton County’s voting equipment review until after it had been completed.

Democratic Chairman Sen. Tony Williams, D-Philadelphia, called the fact that Ulsh can’t provide information about the audit’s cost “troubling.”

“If you don’t know who paid for it, I’ll accept that,” he said; then suggested that knowing the overall cost “may shed some light on questions that have been raised.”

Committee Chair Dush said Thursday that the committee hearings aren’t about reversing the results of the presidential election.

Instead, he said, it is about identifying flaws in existing law that may have been introduced in the 2019 modernization bill; flaws that allowed, among other things, no-excuse mail-in voting.

He also criticized the department for opting against participating in the hearing; citing its pending litigation with Fulton County over the decertified election equipment.

Using subpoena powers

The information gleaned from the hearings will help Dush decide when, and if, the Senate will use subpoena powers to execute its own Arizona-style forensic audit. Democrats have panned the effort as desperate, self-serving and a waste of time; while Republicans continue fighting internally about the direction and speed of the probe.

“The power to issue a subpoena isn’t unlimited; and we have to ensure sound legal footing before we go out on that limb,” Dush said Thursday. “In addition, we have to be ready, willing and able, to actually review; and utilize meaningfully any information that we receive in response to our subpoenas. Having a hearing like the one we’re having today allows us the room to satisfy all of those considerations.”

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Christen Smith

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.

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