Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and was shared via AP StoryShare. It was written by Charles Ashby, both work as Grand Junction Daily staff writers.
By Charles Ashby,
One million, two hundred sixty-thousand, five hundred fifteen dollars, and 92 cents — and counting. That’s the cost in taxpayer money to Mesa County, to date at least, for the issues surrounding Clerk Tina Peters in her so-far failed attempts to show election fraud in the 2020 presidential and 2021 city elections. Those expenses, however, don’t include costs to other local agencies, such as the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, the Grand Junction Police Department, the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, the 21st Judicial District and the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting several criminal matters against Peters and her chief deputy, Belinda Knisley.
“It has been a complete and utter waste of tax dollars,” Commissioner Janet Rowland said. “The original cost continues to climb with active litigation, CORA requests, staff time dedicated to the issue and additional salary for the DEOs (designated election officials),” added Commissioner Cody Davis. “In addition, we’re paying the now-defunct clerk and recorder a full-time salary to do nothing but campaign for an office in which she won’t be able to serve if found guilty. Sadly, it’s a complete and unneeded waste of taxpayer money.”
According to county officials, the county has already incurred costs of $909,821 for such things as new computers for the elections division in Peters’ office, a special hand count of ballots for the 2021 election, an additional cost to run ballots through a second computer tabulation system, and overtime pay for county workers having to do extra work for people who were being paid for doing jobs they were barred from doing, such as Peters and Knisley, who has since been placed on unpaid administrative leave.
That happened as a result of an investigation over multiple allegations that she had created a hostile work environment, allegedly for telling clerk staff not to cooperate with investigations into her and Peters over potentially criminal elections matters. The Human Resources Department hired an outside investigator to examine those complaints at yet another cost to the county. Knisley’s new work status, at least, saves the county about half of her $90,000-a-year salary, but the county still is having to pay Peters her $93,000 annual salary. Because of her bond conditions on the criminal charges, she’s barred from having any contact with her office. As a result, she’s spending all of her time running in Tuesday’s primary for the GOP nomination for secretary of state.
Neither Peters nor her pay can be suspended because she is an elected official. Both women face a 13-count grand jury indictment on criminal charges of tampering with elections equipment and official misconduct as part of their alleged role in creating images of election computer files and compromising election equipment as a result, including charges of identity theft and criminal impersonation by giving someone else’s name to an unknown person to help make those images.
Peters also faces related obstruction, contempt of court and state ethics charges, while Knisley faces related burglary and cybercrime charges. The county also estimates it will have to pay an additional $167,775 in compensation and benefits for some county workers that was incurred directly as a result of Peters’ actions, and another $182,919 in projected costs for ongoing staff, a figure that is expected to continue to rise as the year progresses. The county also was on the hook for $83,689 to pay former Secretary of State Wayne Williams to act as the county’s designated election official for the 2021 election. The county also could have been but isn’t on the hook for additional payments to Mesa County Treasurer Sheila Reiner, who was appointed to help Williams conduct those elections.
But because she realized that costs to the county were mounting, Reiner rejected accepting any additional compensation for that job.
“I chose not to bill for my additional assignment as elections supervisor for the 2021 Coordinated Election,” Reiner said. “The entire fiasco has put additional pressure on our commissioners, facilities staff, Human Resources Department, attorneys, finance, Information Technology Department, my treasurer staff and especially the clerk and recorder staff,” Reiner added. “None of my teammates are getting paid extra to deal with this, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to monetarily benefit.” Williams, too, charged the county far less than he could have. When he was initially contracted by the county to do the work, he said he would charge less than half his normal rate.
He also didn’t bill for hotel stays while in town. Instead, Colorado Mesa University officials put him up, for free, in vacant rooms it had available on campus.
Both Reiner and Williams have since been named by Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold as special observers for the primary race — at the county’s expense — but neither are expected to charge the county additional dollars. Brandi Bantz, Peters’ director of elections who has been appointed the county’s designated election official for the June primary, said the workload for her staff increased “significantly” for the 2021 election.
“We had some turnover and were short-staffed, so in addition to the day-to-day duties and election-specific duties, extra attention was provided to new staff for training and supervision of tasks/duties to ensure we were successful,” Bantz said. “I am an exempt employee, so all of the additional time I have worked since I started in 2020 hasn’t cost the county anything additional,” she added. “I choose to work the additional hours myself with the budget in mind, and to allow my team to have the weekends and evenings with their families.”