Luzerne County, PA – A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) initial inquiry revealed that staff members at a Pennsylvania elections bureau office “improperly opened” a number of military ballots and threw at least nine of them away.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said in a press release on Tuesday that the Luzerne County Administration notified her office at 5:20 p.m. on Sept. 17 that there were “issues with a small number of mail-in ballots” that had been received by the county’s Bureau of Elections.
Salavantis opened an investigation into the issue and immediately contacted the U.S. State’s Attorney’s office.
Federal investigators took over the case on Monday.
U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania David Freed addressed the ongoing investigation in a letter to Luzerne County Bureau of Elections Director Shelby Watchilla on Thursday.
“While at this point the inquiry remains active, based on the limited amount of time before the general election and the vital public importance of these issues, I will detail the investigators’ initial findings,” Freed wrote.
Freed said that the FBI has found multiple ballots that had been “improperly opened” by elections staff, who had then removed the ballots and “discarded, or removed and placed separately from the envelope containing confidential voter information and attestation.”
Investigators found most of the recovered ballots and envelopes outside in a dumpster, he explained.
Seven of the nine military ballots that had been thrown away were no longer inside an envelope when they were recovered, Freed said.
All seven ballots had been cast in favor of President Donald Trump, he noted.
Elections staff had “previously recovered” the other two ballot sand stuffed them back inside what appeared to be their appropriate envelopes, Freed said.
As a result, it is unknown which candidate those two ballots were cast in favor of.
Investigators were able to link one of the seven opened ballots to a specific voter using a recovered separate envelope.
“Six of the ballots were simply removed and discarded, and cannot be attributed to a specific voter at this time,” Freed wrote.
The FBI also located four empty bar-coded absentee ballot envelopes that had been thrown away, according to Freed.
Investigators further determined that the election bureau office has been opening “all or nearly all” of the ballot envelopes they receive, he said.
“It was explained to investigators the envelopes used for official overseas, military, absentee and mail-in ballot requests are so similar, that the staff believed that adhering to the protocol of preserving envelopes unopened would cause them to miss such ballot requests,” Freed noted. “Our interviews further revealed that this issue was a problem in the primary election–therefore a known issue–and that the problem has not been corrected.”
Freed said the ballot envelopes should not have been opened by staff members in the first place.
“As you know, the appropriate method for processing received military ballots is to securely store the ballot, unopened, until such time as ballot pre-canvassing can begin, which is in no event earlier than 7:00 a.m. on Election Day,” the U.S. attorney wrote.
“Opening a military or overseas ballot, or an absentee or mail-in ballot for that matter, violates the controlling statutes and is contrary to Pennsylvania Department of State guidance,” he added.
Freed called the preliminary findings of the investigation “troubling,” and said there was “no guarantee that any of these votes will be counted in the general election.”
The FBI is still combing through other “discarded materials” as the investigation continues, he said.
Freed said it is imperative that the county election bureau correct the problems that have been identified, and that all votes be counted, “regardless of party.”
Luzerne County Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo said that the county is cooperating with the federal review and refused to comment further due to the ongoing investigation into the matter, FOX News reported.