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Mesa County Deputy Clerk Belinda Knisley, left, Clerk Tina Peters are the subject of state and federal criminal investigations of elections security breaches. Knisley was advised in Mesa County District Court on Sept. 1, 2021, that she faces felony burglary and misdemeanor cyber crimes charges in a separate case. (Provided by the Colorado County Clerks Association)

Mesa County Deputy Clerk Belinda Knisley turned herself in on Wednesday after being charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor cybercrimes, according to local prosecutors.

An arrest warrant was issued Thursday after Knisley, 66, allegedly entered the Clerk and Recorder’s office on Aug. 25 and tried to use County Clerk Tina Peters’ credentials to print documents. Knisley had been suspended from her job two days earlier and barred from returning to the office.

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel first reported the charges Wednesday .

Knisley, who appeared in Mesa County District Court Wednesday, was released on a $2,000 personal recognizance bond and has another hearing set for Sept. 9.

“Because Ms. Knisley was willing to turn herself in, the District Attorney made arrangements for her to avoid going through the jail,” according to a statement from the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office.

The charges against Knisley are separate from local, state and federal criminal investigations into a breach of the county’s election software, according to the Mesa County District Attorney’s office. That probe came after the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office said County Clerk Tina Peters, Knisley’s boss, copied election software and allowed an unauthorized person to attend a voting system update in May.

Knisley could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. 

According to an affidavit for Knisley’s arrest, she was placed on administrative leave Aug. 23 pending an investigation into allegations that she created a hostile work environment for employees. She was told not to come to the Clerk and Recorder’s office or interact with employees. Her access badge and system passwords were suspended.

Two days later, a Mesa County information technology employee received an email from Peters’ account asking for printing assistance in the county’s Division of Motor Vehicles workspace. The employee couldn’t find Peters in the office, however, and replied over email that Peters should ask for assistance the next time she is present.

The employee then received another email from Peters’ account requesting an authorization code be sent over email. The employee responded that passwords can’t be shared over email.

Later that afternoon, County Administrator Pete Baier received a message that Knisley was in a work area at the Mesa County DMV office. Baier and the head of the county’s Human Resources Department found Knisley in the office, where she was instructing another person to print a document from a work station, according to the arrest affidavit.

Baier ordered Knisley to leave, which she did after consulting with an attorney.

The county’s human resources department later returned to take Peters’ notebook computer, which is connected to her workstation, to hand off to an investigator from the district attorney’s office. “Based on this, it appeared Knisley was using Peter’s Mesa County work station to access the secure Mesa County computer network while she was in Peters’ office,” the affidavit says.

While Knisley, an employee of the county, had her access revoked from the county’s network, Peters is an elected official and is still allowed access to the county system using her credentials, according to the affidavit.

The items were not printed, and it’s unknown what documents Knisley was trying to print, according to the affidavit.

The charges against Knisley come as she and another employee of the Clerk and Recorder’s Office, Sandra Brown, have been barred from participation in administration of the Nov. 2 election by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office as the investigation into the passwords and hard drive breach are investigated.

Knisley and Brown allegedly assisted Peters in breaching the elections equipment, according to Secretary of State Jena Griswold. A copy of the county’s election system hard drive as well as voting equipment passwords were posted on right-wing conspiracy websites in early August.

Brown has also been placed on administrative leave.

The investigation into the breaches are ongoing and Peters has not been charged with a crime.

Earlier this week, Griswold, a Democrat, filed a lawsuit to prevent Peters, a Republican, from being involved in the Nov. 2 coordinated election, asking a Mesa County District Court judge to appoint former Secretary of State Wayne Williams as the county’s chief designated elections official and Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner as election supervisor.

Both Williams and Reiner are Republicans. 

Griswold’s office said it cannot comment on ongoing criminal investigations, but did issue a statement following the news of the charges against Knisley.

“Officials tasked with carrying out safe and secure elections do so in public trust and must be held accountable when they abuse their power or position,” Griswold said in the statement. “The Secretary of State’s Office will continue the work required to protect every eligible Coloradans’ right to vote and ensure the integrity of the state’s elections.” 

Peters hasn’t been seen in public in Colorado since Griswold announced an investigation of the security breach of election equipment in early August. 

As state officials arrived to investigate the breaches on Aug. 10, Peters apparently took a private plane to a cyber conference in South Dakota put on by Mike Lindell. The My Pillow CEO and supporter of President Donald Trump continues to contend the results of the 2020 election were wrong even though there is no evidence of election fraud in Colorado or elsewhere.

Lindell has said Peters is in hiding with his assistance because of threats she faces.

Knisley attended a rally in support of Peters on Aug. 21, according to Colorado Newsline.

Knisley was placed on leave with pay the following Monday, according to court documents.

Election officials worry that the exposure of Mesa County’s election software and passcodes could give hackers information they might use in the future to tamper with election equipment. Mesa County officials were forced to procure new voting equipment as a result of the breach.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @fishnette

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member.

Twitter: @thyanhvo