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FBI joins state and local law enforcement in investigating attempted election security breach in Lake County

lake county administration building
Posted at 5:51 PM, Nov 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-23 18:54:14-05

PAINESVILLE, Ohio — While Lake County voters were casting their ballots during the May 4 Primary Election, Secretary of State Frank LaRose said, there was an attempt to hack into the county's election system.

"Someone was granted access into a government office in the county administration building, they plugged an unauthorized laptop into a government network and thought that they might be able to, through that, be able to access election information,” said LaRose.

What they got in the end, LaRose, said was nothing.

“This was a success story in that the attempted breach failed,” he said. “What they didn't realize evidently was first off that we have our guard up but they also evidently didn't realize that voting equipment, tabulating equipment, is never connected to the internet, so anything that touches a ballot is strictly air-gapped.”

The other reason they were unsuccessful was the result of cyber-security upgrades LaRose ordered for all boards of election after taking office two years ago.

“I put our boards of elections through the wringer in 2019; what we ordered was a cybersecurity directive — it was a 34-point checklist,” LaRose said, adding it has become a model for other states for security features like network segmentation.

“This meant that the Board of Elections is its own stand-alone separate network,” he said, that couldn’t be accessed through other county computer systems. These were protections Lake County already had in place.

As a result, the data that was collected on May 4 was just interoffice communication.

"Which effectively was a printer talking to a computer and the printer was saying 'I'm ready for you to send me a print job,'" he said.

But still, it was later displayed at an August gathering by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell promoting false claims about the stealing of the 2020 election.

“When these individuals put up a bunch of code on the screen that would have looked like hieroglyphics to most of us, it was just a bunch of symbols and dashes and numbers and punctuation and then they claimed that was somehow proof that they had gained access to election data," LaRose said. “Well, that raised our attention because then they're claiming that they have information that shows a problem in Ohio. So we dug and we asked them to send us that information. We said if there was a crime that occurred in Ohio, we want to know about it. If there's a problem with Ohio's election integrity, of course we want to know about it and we want to research it."

That's when LaRose and his team launched a criminal investigation of their own.

“And so when we were able to access that information, what we saw is, again, that they did nothing of the sort. They weren't able to access the Board of Elections website, they were able to access the local network inside of this one particular administrative office, but that's of course when we launched the criminal investigation," LaRose said. “We’re continuing to work with the county prosecutor, with the Ohio Attorney Generals Bureau of Criminal Investigation, as well as with the FBI, because unauthorized access to a government network is a serious crime."

The Washington Post is reporting that the attempted breach occurred in the fifth-floor office of John Hammercheck, chair of the Lake County Commissioners. At Tuesday’s commissioner's meeting, Hammecheck denied the allegations and said he has yet to be contacted by law enforcement.

“While I haven’t been interviewed by any agency investigating, I think it’s vitally important to get the facts right and to report accurate information,” Hammercheck said.

When asked by a Painseville resident if there would be any actions taken against Hammercheck, fellow commissioner Ron Young said it's too early for that.

"I'm going to wait and see what the professionals have to say,” Young said, “and just go on working with and trusting this gentleman until they make that determination, and if it's a negative determination, at that point then we'll take action."