Indicted Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters’ deputy, Belinda Knisley, has agreed to cooperate with investigators and testify in court against her former boss as part of a plea deal announced Thursday by prosecutors.
The deal represents a significant threat to Peters’ defense against felony charges stemming from a security breach of her county’s election system last year during a software update when election system passwords were photographed and later posted online.
Knisley, 67, pleaded guilty Thursday to trespassing, first-degree official misconduct and violation of duty, all misdemeanors. The felony counts against Knisley, who was indicted alongside Peters in March, were dismissed.
Knisley was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation and 150 hours of community service. She is also permanently barred from working in elections.
Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, a Republican, said during a plea hearing in Grand Junction that Knisley was interviewed at the attorney general’s office in Denver in June for seven hours, during which she provided information to assist in the investigation into Peters.
“Her value to us as a witness — it’s important, it’s critical,” Rubinstein said, adding that Knisley was acting at the direction of Peters in relation to the conduct that led her to face criminal charges.
A plea document says Knisley acknowledges she “participated in a scheme with Tina Peters and other identified people to deceive public servants from both the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office and Mesa County.”
MORE: The Tina Peters saga explained: Everything that’s happened with Mesa County’s clerk
The document added: “This scheme, which was significantly directed by Tina Peters, ultimately permitted an unauthorized individual to gain access to secure areas inside the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.”
The document also says Knisley “acknowledged that Tina Peters recorded proceedings during a (court) hearing for Ms. Knisley … and then lied to the judge about doing so, including acknowledging to Ms. Knisley that she lied.”
Rubinstein said Knisley has been helpful in the case.
“There was some specific information she provided to us that was very valuable in the continued prosecution about the timing of events, the order of events, and showing that Ms. Peters both directed this and how calculated her conduct was,” Rubinstein said in court Thursday.
Peters, a Republican who promotes the unfounded claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, was indicted in March on 10 counts, including charges of attempting to influence a public servant and criminal impersonation. The allegations stem from a security breach of her county’s election system last year in which election system passwords were photographed and later posted online.
Peters’ attorney, Harvey Steinberg, wasn’t immediately available for comment Thursday. In a written statement, Peters said “at a certain point against that kind of pressure most people will give in to have their lives back.”
“We hold no ill will towards Chief Deputy Knisley,” Peters said, “but Tina Peters will not back down and the truth will come out.”
Peters is due to be arraigned Sept. 7.
Knisley, who was the Mesa County deputy clerk before being placed on leave in August 2021, was also indicted on three counts of attempting to influence a public servant and one count each of attempting to influence a public servant, violation of duty and failing to comply with the secretary of state.
Knisley was also separately charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor cybercrimes after she disobeyed an order to stay away from the Mesa County Clerk and Recorder’s Office and not interact with the office’s employees.
Peters ran unsuccessfully for Colorado secretary of state this year. She lost in the June 28 Republican Primary by nearly 20 percentage points — or roughly 90,000 votes. She paid for a recount, which showed no substantial change in the results.
Peters has been barred from overseeing elections in Mesa County through the end of her term in early January.
Rubinstein said Knisley has been regretful and that she even suffered a heart attack in the months after she participated in the Mesa County election system breach, which happened in May 2021.
“My actions were all directed by someone else,” Knisley said as she was being sentenced. “As an adult, I assume responsibility for them. My husband was gracious enough to give me his name over 48 years ago and it’s been my concern as to how his name has been brought up through all of this, as well as my children.”
Mesa County District Court Judge Matthew Barrett said he had some trepidation about the plea agreement — and that he did think Knisley’s crimes were worthy of jail or prison time — but that he trusts the judgment of those involved in the case that the plea agreement is appropriate.
Barrett told Knisley the fact that her plea agreement calls for no incarceration “is the sole reason you will walk out of this courtroom.”
“You engaged in concrete acts to undermine the integrity of our Democratic process under the guise of protecting it,” Barrett said in sentencing Knisley. “In doing so, you abdicated your role (as a clerk), you violated your oath and you betrayed you do.”
He added: “Democracy will prevail. Our system of law will prevail. Because without democracy, without our law, we are nothing more than any other failed state in this world, run by the loudest of voices with the worst of intentions — the mob who thinks they know what justice is without any regard of the facts, or worse.”