A Mesa County grand jury has indicted county Clerk Tina Peters on 10 charges related to a security breach of the county’s election system in 2021. The case still must be proved in court, but it comes alongside separate criminal probes by state and federal authorities.
The Republican clerk was a political newcomer when she was elected in 2018. But as Peters’ legal troubles have grown, so has her national profile among a circle of activists and national right-wing pundits who continue to deny the results of the 2020 presidential election.
After authorities announced in January that a grand jury was impaneled to investigate her, Peters held a rally announcing her plans to run for reelection as county clerk. In February, days after she was publicly detained in a bagel shop by police serving a search warrant, Peters appeared on an online show hosted by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to announce her plans to run for secretary of state.
Peters is also facing investigations for separate ethics and campaign finance complaints, which focus on plane flights and lodging she accepted to attend a cyber symposium paid for by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, another key figure in the spread of election disinformation.
Here’s a rundown of Peters’ time in public office and what we know about the investigations into her conduct.
Table of Contents: Elected | Failed recall | Election fraud claims | Password leak | Gerald Wood | State investigation | Disappearance | FBI | Grand Jury | Arrest | Indictment | Race for Secretary of State | Primary | Mar-a-Lago | Barred
Peters is elected in 2018
Tina Marie Peters, 67, was a political newcomer when elected as Mesa County clerk in 2018. A longtime Grand Junction resident, Peters is a former airline attendant and ran a construction company for several years with her ex-husband, Thomas. Her son, Remington J. Peters, was a Navy SEAL and died when his parachute failed to open at a public demonstration in 2017.
As a candidate for Mesa County clerk, Peters campaigned on reopening the county’s Department of Motor Vehicles satellite offices, which were closed due to budget cuts. She defeated another Republican in the 2018 primary with 53% of the vote. Her opponent, Bobbie Gross, worked at the clerk and recorder’s office for 10 years.
In June 2019, Mesa County reopened a DMV satellite office in Fruita. The following year, the county reopened an office in Clifton.
Resignations and a failed recall effort
Tina Peters’ department was mired in political strife soon after she took office. Nearly two dozen employees left the department, with some alleging vote-counting errors, missed election deadlines, questionable spending and a toxic work environment.
In March 2020, workers discovered that a ballot drop-box right outside the main entrance of the elections office contained 574 uncounted ballots from the November 2019 election. That kicked off an attempted recall in the summer of 2020 that ultimately failed. The group backing the recall, which included several former employees of the clerk’s office, also filed a complaint with the Colorado Secretary of State alleging Peters violated election laws.
In June, as recall campaigners waved signs outside the clerk’s office, ballots from a drop box in the clerk’s office parking lot were also found blowing in the wind.
The uncounted ballots also prompted the office of Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, to appoint an election observer to monitor the county’s administration of the 2020 primary election.
Peters argued the recall effort, and controversy over uncounted ballots, were part of a campaign by political opponents to undermine her. In a May 2020 Facebook post, she said the exodus of employees was because workers were told “that when I took office I was going to fire them and they left before or shortly after I arrived.”
She also pointed to improvements made by her office, like the addition of a drive-up ballot drop box for the primary and hiring of staff to replace those who had left.
False claims of election fraud
Tina Peters again garnered headlines in January 2021, as Congress prepared to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election won by President Joe Biden. Former President Donald Trump won Mesa County by 28 percentage points.
As some members of Congress prepared to challenge the election results, Peters tweeted unfounded claims that ballots could be counted more than once and that software used in voting machines could be manipulated.
Months later, at the beginning of August 2021, a far-right website published images that contained confidential passwords and other information from a Dominion Voting Systems machine. That information was later determined to have come from Mesa County.
The election system password leak
Court documents filed by both the secretary of state and attorneys for Tina Peters document some of the facts surrounding the password leak. Here’s what we know:
- On May 17, 2021, the county’s deputy clerk, Belinda Knisley, asked the IT department to turn off security cameras in the elections office until Aug. 1
- On May 23, Peters used her access badge to enter a secure area in the elections office. Security credentials for a man named Gerald Wood were also used to enter the area. In a September 2021 court filing, Peters said she authorized a consultant to make a copy of the vote-counting equipment hard drive
- On May 25, employees of Dominion Voting Systems, the company that makes election equipment for nearly every Colorado county, and an employee of the secretary of state’s office conducted a “trusted build” software update on Mesa County’s voting machines
- Despite rules that only allow people working for the secretary of state, Dominion and the county elections office to be present, emails show that Wood was listed on the attendee list as an “administrative assistant.” An employee of the secretary of state’s office also testified that, before the trusted build update, Peters introduced a man she said was an employee of her office who would be in attendance and called him Gerald Wood.
- During the software update, videos and photos were taken, including images of passwords. In a court filing, Peters acknowledged taking photos and video of the software update.
- Peters said she authorized the same consultant to make another copy of the hard drive after the “trusted build” update.
In court documents, Peters referred to Wood as an “expert consultant” and said she authorized making copies of the hard drives in order to determine “whether the trusted-build process erased or destroyed election records.”
According to court filings, the confidential passwords for the county’s election equipment were openly displayed on a laptop belonging to an employee of the secretary of state’s office. Photos and video of the laptop screen were taken and later posted to the right-wing blog.
Who is Gerald Wood?
According to the grand jury indictment of Tina Peters, Gerald Wood testified that he was never at the county clerk’s office on May 23, when records show his access badges were used, or on May 25, the day of the “trusted build” when Peters introduced a man by that name to a state employee.
“The grand jury was presented with evidence which corroborated Mr. Wood’s sworn testimony regarding his whereabouts on both May 23 and May 25,” according to the indictment.
Wood told the grand jury that Peters called him to do contract work with Dominion Voting Machines that the county’s IT department could not perform. He obtained a county access badge on May 19, but returned the badge on the same day and “was never hired by Mesa County in any capacity” and never did “any work for Mesa County,” the indictment says.
Peters and Belinda Knisley, her deputy clerk, have been charged with criminal impersonation for using Wood’s identity.
The state’s investigation begins
Within days of the password leak, the Colorado Secretary of State and Mesa County District Attorney launched separate criminal investigations.
As investigators from the secretary of state’s office arrived to serve a warrant at the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s office, Tina Peters was taking a private plane to a “cyber symposium” in South Dakota sponsored by Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow who has used his website and social media channels to promote election conspiracies.
Peters, along with Sherronna Bishop, a Grand Junction resident and former campaign manager for Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, were featured speakers at the event. At the conference, Peters said she was being “persecuted” and accused both Griswold and Gov. Jared Polis, both Democrats, of trying to “take over my office and control the way we vote.”
Ethics, campaign finance investigations. That trip to South Dakota has drawn scrutiny over whether Peters violated state gift limits for public officials by accepting flights and lodging to attend the conference. An administrative court is investigating whether Peters violated campaign finance rules, while the state’s Independent Ethics Commission decided to delay its investigation due to the pending criminal probe of Peters. Another campaign finance complaint focused on a campaign committee and legal defense fund for Peters, both which appeared to be raising money but were not registered with the Colorado Secretary of State.
Peters disappears from the public, and troubles for her deputy
Shortly after the investigations began, Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office ordered Mesa County to buy new voting equipment because of the password breach. In mid-August, the secretary of state also barred Tina Peters from overseeing the upcoming election in November 2021.
Peters, meanwhile, had not been seen publicly since the secretary of state’s investigation began. Although she was barred from overseeing elections, she continued to serve as clerk and recorder and collect a salary.
Peters remained out of public view for nearly a month, claiming she feared for her life. Mike Lindell, founder of the MyPillow company and a staunch supporter of Peters, claimed he provided the Republican clerk with security and housing during that time because of threats. In national right-wing circles, she earned the nickname “Hero Tina.”
Amid the investigations, nearly 250 of Peters’ supporters held a rally where they continued to espouse false claims of election fraud in 2020. Her supporters also flooded meetings of the Mesa County Commission, prompting commissioners to urge Peters to “come home.”
At some point during the investigation, employees at the clerk’s office raised complaints about unprofessional and inappropriate conduct by Belinda Knisley, the deputy clerk. Knisley was suspended and barred from returning to the office. She also became part of the criminal investigation into the password breach.
Despite the suspension, Knisley was found at the county office after she tried unsuccessfully to print documents from Peters’ workstation, using the clerk’s credentials. Knisley was later charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor cybercrimes.
The FBI gets involved
The Federal Bureau of Investigation joined local and state authorities in scrutinizing Tina Peters at the beginning of September.
In October, a judge agreed that Peters should be barred from overseeing the November 2021 election because of the investigations. Former Secretary of State Wayne Williams and Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner, both Republicans, were appointed to oversee the election.
Peters appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, which declined to hear her case.
In mid-November, the FBI searched the homes of Tina Peters, Sherronna Bishop and others associated with the criminal investigation. Peters and her supporters claimed authorities used excessive force during the search.
“Ms. Peters was allowed to move around her home and fix herself breakfast while agents gathered items before departing,” Mesa County DA Dan Rubinstein and Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a statement to refute her allegations.
Dispute with ex-husband. Amid the investigations, Thomas Peters filed a lawsuit alleging criminal theft of his home by his ex-wife, Tina Peters. According to the court complaint, Thomas Peters bought a home with his own money after the couple separated in 2018. He filed for divorce in November 2021. At some point, Thomas Peters granted his former wife power of attorney over his financial matters, but later revoked it, according to the lawsuit. He alleges that, on or around the same day that he revoked the power of attorney, Tina Peters filed a quit claim deed and “unilaterally” transferred the home to her name. Peters has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, but a spokesman for her legal defense fund, Rory McShane, shared a brief statement: “Divorces are deeply painful family situations. We completely understand the necessity of the press to cover Tina’s professional life but we ask for respect and privacy in this matter.”
Enter a grand jury
In the early morning of Jan. 13, 2022, the Mesa County District Attorney’s office released a statement announcing that a county grand jury has been empaneled to investigate Tina Peters and the breach in Mesa County’s election system. Later that afternoon, Peters held a rally announcing she would run for reelection as county clerk.
Griswold’s office filed a lawsuit on Jan. 18, seeking to bar Peters from overseeing the 2022 election.
Peters arrested and 2022 campaigning heats up
Meanwhile, on Feb. 7, Tina Peters attended a court hearing for Belinda Knisley, the deputy clerk who remains on suspension. According to a search warrant, after being alerted to the possibility that Peters was filming the hearing on her iPad, which is against courtroom rules, the judge presiding over the case confronted Peters, who said she was not recording.
Later, a deputy district attorney and paralegal said they saw Peters’ iPad open in the courtroom with the camera application open. That prompted a judge to issue a search warrant and authorities confronted Peters at Main Street Bagels in Grand Junction to seize her iPad.
Videos of the confrontation showed Peters tried to kick an officer who was handcuffing her. She was briefly detained, and was charged the next day with misdemeanor obstruction of a police officer and obstruction of government operations. Peters turned herself in and posted $500 bail.
The following Monday, Peters appeared on an online show hosted by Steve Bannon, the controversial former adviser to President Donald Trump, to announce plans to run for Colorado Secretary of State.
A judge issued a contempt of court citation and ordered Peters to appear at a hearing at the end of March. The citation noted that it’s still unclear whether Peters has a recording of the hearing or deleted the video.
Grand jury indictment
On the evening of March 8, a Mesa County grand jury returned an indictment charging Tina Peters with 10 counts of felony and misdemeanor charges, including attempting to influence a public servant, criminal impersonation, identity theft and first-degree official misconduct.
Belinda Knisley was also charged with six counts, including attempting to influence a public servant, violation of duty and failing to comply with the secretary of state.
Peters and Knisley turned themselves in Wednesday afternoon and are both in custody at the Mesa County Detention Facility.
The grand jury indictment is separate from criminal investigations by state and federal officials into the election breach.
Calls to drop out of the race
The indictment does not preclude Tina Peters from running to be Colorado’s secretary of state. If she’s convicted and sentenced to prison, however, she may not be able to serve.
In reaction to the indictment, leaders of the Colorado Republican Party called on Peters to drop out of the race. Another Republican, former Jefferson County clerk Pam Anderson, is also running.
“The Republican Party is the party of law and order and we need every Republican voter focused on getting Republicans and constitutional conservatives elected across Colorado in 2022,” Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown, Vice Chairwoman Priscilla Rahn and Secretary Marilyn Harris said in a joint written statement on Wednesday.
On the primary ballot for secretary of state
Colorado Republicans at the state assembly April 9 greeted Tina Peters enthusiastically.
“This arena is full of constitutional conservatives who believe our elections are not yet secure,” she told the crowd.
She took aim at liberal secretaries of state, without mentioning Colorado Democrat Jena Griswold.
“They snatched control of Colorado’s election tools,” she said. “Well, I’m Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, and I’m here to snatch ’em back.”
Peters’ name will appear first on the June 28 Republican primary ballot after getting 60% of the assembly vote. She’ll be followed by Mike O’Donnell, a former economic development executive from Yuma County, who also criticized election administration in Colorado.
Pam Anderson, a former Jefferson County clerk and executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, petitioned onto the ballot and will appear on the third line for the GOP.
Peters leads GOP opponents in fundraising, visits Mar-a-Lago
Tina Peters significantly outraised her two Republican secretary of state primary opponents in the first four months of the year, bringing in more than $155,000, according to reports filed in early May.
After filing her campaign finance report a day late, she visited former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, for a screening of a documentary focused on baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Peters also scheduled a May 14 fundraiser featuring former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of a felony for trying to auction the U.S. Senate seat that opened when Barack Obama was elected president.
Judge bars Peters and two of her deputies from involvement in 2022 election supervision
A Mesa County judge ruled May 10 that Peters and two of her deputies cannot be involved in overseeing the 2022 elections. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who successfully prevented Peters from overseeing the November 2021 elections using a similar legal process.
Judge Valerie Robison ruled that Griswold demonstrated in the lawsuit filed in January “that Peters and (one of the deputies) have committed a neglect of duty and are unable to perform the duties of the Mesa County Designated Election Official.”
Colorado Sun contributor Nancy Lofholm and reporter Jesse Paul contributed to this report.