Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters at her primary election watch party at the Wide Open Saloon in Sedalia on June 28, 2022. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)
The deputy Mesa County clerk who served under Clerk Tina Peters has agreed to testify against Peters as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors who are investigating an election security breach.
A Mesa County District Court judge accepted the plea agreement during a hearing Thursday.
Peters and Belinda Knisley, the deputy clerk, were indicted on felony charges by a grand jury in March. Peters, a Republican who has promoted election conspiracy theories, is alleged to have facilitated in her own election office a security breach in which unauthorized copies of election system hard drives were made. Sensitive information from the machines became public.
A judge in May barred Peters and Knisley from overseeing elections.
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As part of the plea agreement with Dan Rubinstein, the Mesa County district attorney, Knisley agreed to testify against Peters and Sandra Brown, the former Mesa County elections manager, who also faces charges related to the security breach, as well as “other potential co-defendants.”
In return Knisley was allowed to plead guilty to trespass, first degree official misconduct and violation of duty, all misdemeanors, and she will avoid jail time.
Mesa County District Court Judge Matthew Barrett said during the Thursday hearing that he had doubts about accepting the plea agreement.
“I had hesitation. I still have some about this plea agreement,” Barrett said, addressing Knisley. “Cooperation or not, these crimes are worthy of incarceration.”
He added, “Know this, Miss Knisley. The provision in your plea agreement that calls for no incarceration today is the sole reason you will walk out of this courtroom. That’s how serious I perceive these convictions to be, these facts you’ve confessed to, to be.”
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 voices with the worst of intentions.
– Mesa County District Court Judge Matthew Barrett
Barrett cast the case as involving a threat to democracy.
“You violated your oath and you betrayed your duty,” he said before imposing a sentence. “You were caught, you’ve confessed, and you’ll be punished. 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 voices with the worst of intentions, the mob who thinks they know what justice is, without any regard for the facts, or worse.”
He sentenced Knisley to two years unsupervised probation, 150 hours of community service, and the maximum fine on each of the counts she pleaded guilty to. She will be permanently barred from working in elections.
A plea agreement document released by Rubinstein Thursday says that on June 8 Knisley gave a recorded interview to state and federal prosecutors. She said that last year “she was aware of and 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” and that the scheme “was significantly directed by Tina Peters.”
As part of the scheme, Peters and Knisley arranged for an unauthorized person to participate in late May 2021 in a “trusted build” — or secure software update — of Mesa County’s election machines. A staff member from Secretary of State Jena Griswold’s office also participated in the trusted build.
The unauthorized person was “fraudulently” presented as Mesa County resident Gerald Wood but was actually an impersonator, Conan Hayes, the plea document says.
“Due to the series of deceptive acts and statements which were employed against the public servants one or more violations of state statute and election rules occurred,” the plea says, adding that Knisley “discussed other individuals who may have various levels of criminal responsibility for the planning, preparation and/or execution of this scheme.”
Peters was a Republican candidate for secretary of state but lost the June 28 primary, a defeat that was confirmed by a recount she paid $255,000 to force.
She has attracted national attention as a symbol of the election denial movement that grew out of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.
Peters released a statement after Knisley appeared in court condemning “the intimidation tactics from the organized left.” Rubinstein is a Republican.
“For two years the government, the media, and the organized left have made Tina Peters’s and her supporters’ lives a living hell, bringing them to the brink of financial ruin, denying them employment, arresting them, having federal agents kicking in their doors, assault their families — at a certain point against that kind of pressure most people will give in to have their lives back,” Peters said in the statement. “We hold no ill will towards Chief Deputy Knisley, but Tina Peters will not back down and the truth will come out.”
Editors note: This story was updated at 11:16 a.m., Aug. 26, 2022, to include a statement from Tina Peters.knisley-plea-082522
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