"Horrible abuse of power": Arizona GOP AG withheld his own investigation's findings debunking fraud

"He concealed the truth Arizonans paid for from them," former U.S. attorney says

Published February 23, 2023 1:50PM (EST)

Attorney General of Arizona Mark Brnovich (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
Attorney General of Arizona Mark Brnovich (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Newly released documents obtained by The Washington Post revealed that former Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich publicized an incomplete version of his office's probe of the 2020 election in Maricopa County.

Brnovich, a Republican, launched an investigation into voting in Arizona's largest county nearly a year after the 2020 election, which took up 10,000 staff hours paid for by taxpayers.

In March 2022, investigators prepared a report that stated almost all claims of voter fraud and error were unsubstantiated, according to internal documents reviewed by The Post. 

Brnovich kept the full report private. Instead, in April — while running in the GOP primary for a U.S. Senate seat — he released an "Interim Report" that stated his office had found "serious vulnerabilities." He did not include edits from his own investigators that debunked his claims. 

The attorney general's office then created an "Election Review Summary" in September, after Brnovich's primary loss, that went through accusations of widespread fraud and refuted each one, making it clear that none of the complaints from lawmakers or "election integrity" groups were true. 

Brnovich left office in January without releasing the summary. However, his successor Kris Mayes, a Democrat, shared the documents with The Post, saying she considers the taxpayer-funded investigation closed.

The records Mayes shared with the outlet show how Brnovich used his office to promote claims about voting in Maricopa County that his own staff considered inaccurate. They also show how his team privately ignored fact-checks from state investigators while also publicly sharing incomplete accounts of the office's work.

The documents include two investigative summaries and a draft letter with edits, totaling 41 pages, but as The Post notes, they are far from an exhaustive record of Brnovich's investigation. 

Brnovich quickly confirmed former President Donald Trump loss in Arizona in November 2020, and tried to stop his efforts to overturn the vote, but he continued to discuss potential claims of fraud while trying to gain support from the GOP.  

"It's frustrating for all of us, because I think we all know what happened in 2020," Brnovich said while discussing his interim report on a far-right radio show.

Mayes told The Post that she released the materials from Brnovich's office because "the people of Arizona had a right to know this information before the 2022 election. 

"Maricopa County election officials had a right to know that they were cleared of wrongdoing," she added. "And every American had a right to know that the 2020 election in Arizona, which in part decided the presidency, was conducted accurately and fairly."

Mayes' staff is still reviewing the thousands of pages of documents from investigators and attorneys and will redact sensitive information before releasing them to the public in the next few months, spokesperson Richie Taylor told The Post. 

The 2020 election in Maricopa County was highly scrutinized because it is the largest voting jurisdiction in Arizona and helped to turn the state blue for President Joe Biden. Brnovich's investigation began right after Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based firm hired by the GOP-led state Senate, concluded their review of the election results in September 2021. Their review was criticized by election experts who repeatedly confirmed Trump's loss in the state. 

Brnovich's office spent more than 10,000 hours with 60 investigators in addition to lawyers and support staff, examining claims of irregularities, malfeasance and fraud, records show. One year later in September 2022, the special investigations section of his office received 638 election-related complaints and pursued 430 of them. Of those, only 22 cases were submitted for prosecutorial review, and just two of those cases involving felons who illegally tried to vote were prosecuted, leading to convictions.

Brnovich never released the full findings and would not close the investigation based on his suspicions voiced in the interim report, despite rebuttals from his own office. The interim report was delivered to then-Republican president of the state Senate, Karen Fann. The letter stated, "We can report that there are problematic system-wide issues that relate to early ballot handling and verification."

However, Brnovich's own staff raised complaints about his criticism of the handling and verification of ballots, writing in a draft of the letter, "We did not uncover any criminality or fraud having been committed in this area during the 2020 general election."

Their comments were largely not reflected in Brnovich's final version.

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Brnovich continued to claim that "Maricopa County had not always timely and fully responded to our requests for records," even though staff said in the draft document that it was the "collective opinion of … investigators" that the county "was cooperative and responsive to our requests."

The fuller, 24-page "Investigation Summary" which Brnovich never released despite it being shared with him and his top aide, described the full scope of the allegations investigated by the attorney general's office, including improper signature verification, misuse of drop boxes and incomplete access to records for the state Senate's audit. Almost all allegations were found to be unsubstantiated, according to the full summary.

Even in the one procedural violation found, which involved the retrieval of ballots from drop boxes, the state confirmed that there was no evidence that the county mishandled ballots, just that they did not properly record minute details such as time of retrieval, according to the summary. 

As for the key issue highlighted by Brnovich's interim report — signature verification — the full summary said, "No improper Election Procedures were discovered during the Signature Verification review."

Late last year, his office also received further conclusions that there was no basis for claims of systematic fraud, but they kept those findings private as well.

Maricopa County Board Chair Clint Hickman released a statement on the final AG report, saying "there are a lot of pent up frustrations in play here."

"I would like our Maricopa County residents to know that I am absolutely disgusted by the revelations that former Attorney General Mark Brnovich failed to do his job as a public servant representing the highest law enforcement elected position in the state," he wrote.

"Not only did he ignore his own investigators in issuing a different, 'interim report,' he falsely suggested wrongdoing by Maricopa County, never correcting the record and blatantly never sharing the team's final report with the public," he continued. "This was a gross misuse of his elected office and an appalling waste of taxpayer dollars, as well as a waste of the time and effort of professional investigators."

"For three years, my colleagues have been called traitors, cheaters, and liars…and those are just the names I can print," he added. "It has been absolute hell… I implore everyone who cares about our elections to read what the investigators really found, not a political candidate's cherry-picked story line."

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer also released a statement on the matter, writing that "despite what the interim report stated, it's clear the former Attorney General's staff and investigators agree that our office was 'cooperative and responsive to [their] requests."

Arizona's Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, who was county recorder during the 2020 election said he was "deeply disappointed by the wasteful and pointless actions by a top law enforcement official who diverted thousands of hours of staff time to pursue unfounded allegations of election fraud."

"Furthermore, I am astounded that the result of this costly investigation, which thoroughly debunked these claims, was kept from the taxpayers who paid the bill," he added. "Election workers throughout the state and the nation are facing threats coming from these unfounded allegations of fraud and they deserve an apology… Whether or not I was right all along, vindication is not sweet when it comes at such a cost."

Former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance called out Brnovich over the report, tweeting that he "concealed the truth Arizonans paid for from them."

Former federal prosecutor Michael Stern said he "cringed" at the report.

"This was a horrible abuse of power," he tweeted. 

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

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