After $9.5K FOIA bill, NAACP releases records on Virginia’s election integrity unit

‘This unit is plainly a paper tiger’

By: - November 29, 2022 4:11 pm

Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr. outside the civil-rights group’s office in Richmond. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

A message Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares’ office sent out in late August in response to “election integrity” complaints included a clear statement that state attorneys had no evidence of widespread fraud in 2020 and, therefore, no reason to stop the legally mandated destruction of ballots two years after the election. The Aug. 24 email also included a line that struck at least one right-wing activist as big news.

“Attorney General Miyares has created an election integrity unit composed of attorneys and investigators that will work closely with law enforcement to ensure that future elections are conducted pursuant to law and at the highest level of integrity,” the email said.

On Aug. 30, a response came from Virginians for America First, a pro-Trump group founded by Republican congressional candidate Leon Benjamin, a Richmond-area pastor who invoked Satan and “spiritual war” as he spoke at a Stop the Steal rally outside the Virginia Department of Elections in November 2020.

Bill Hawkins, the group’s state director, told the attorney general’s office that if it were true a new unit had been created, he’d like to put out a press release to show election integrity activists “the AG’s office has heard us and has responded positively by creating such a unit.”

“If your office is planning on announcing this soon, we will hold off on our own press release,” Hawkins wrote.

As Miyares staffers discussed how to respond, Senior Assistant Attorney General Donald Ferguson asked: “BTW, do we have an election integrity unit? I don’t see it on the org chart.”

A little more than a week later, on Sept. 9, the election integrity unit was officially announced, drawing instant condemnation from Democrats, who called it a nod to conspiracy theorists who spread false election fraud claims that could lead to excessive scrutiny of minority voters. The attorney general’s office has adamantly denied that characterization, saying the 20-person unit is simply a more streamlined way of enforcing election laws and investigating all types of voting-related complaints, activity the office was already empowered to handle.

The emails illuminating the runup to the announcement were released Tuesday by the Virginia NAACP, which paid a little more than $9,500 to get records it called disappointingly scant on information about the unit’s personnel, procedures and purpose.

“This unit is plainly a paper tiger,” NAACP Virginia President Robert N. Barnette Jr. said at a press conference in Richmond Tuesday morning, “a public relations ploy to pander to election deniers and conspiracy theorists, who are the real force undermining public confidence in our elections.”

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita suggested the NAACP was disappointed because it didn’t find proof to back up its allegations the unit is a “partisan masterminded witch hunt designed to prevent Virginians from exercising the very right the Attorney General’s family fled communism for.”

“As we said earlier this month, the Virginia NAACP is making groundless attacks that are offensive, ridiculous and without [a] single shred of proof,” LaCivita said. “Due to the NAACP’s inappropriate and baseless attack, we continue to expect an apology on behalf of the hundreds of men and women at the Office of the Attorney General who work every day protecting the rights and freedoms of all Virginians.”

The early activities of the election integrity unit have been unclear. The state is prosecuting a former top election official in Prince William County over misconduct allegations that could have resulted in the county reporting slightly incorrect vote counts for the 2020 election, but Miyares’ office has refused to reveal additional details about the case.

The NAACP was required to pay a roughly $20,000 deposit to have Miyares’ office act on its Freedom of Information Act request, even though the final bill came in at less than half that amount. 

Barnette accused the office of using exorbitant fees to try to get the NAACP to back off its request, a common criticism from transparency advocates who say Virginia’s laws make it too costly and difficult to try to access government information. 

Most of the records consist of internal emails, press clippings and responses to public feedback about the election integrity announcement. Barnette said he saw nothing noteworthy in the material the NAACP received, which the attorney general’s office told the group required more than 200 hours of staff time to compile.

“This is a questionable amount of time and money given the complete lack of records regarding any actual staffing or operation of the unit,” Barnette said, adding that the NAACP is still challenging the $9,515.07 bill.

Miyares’ office said the fees aligned with state law allowing agencies to recoup the costs of expansive records requests, noting the NAACP had filed 17 requests seeking documents over a 15-year span. The office withheld approximately 282 records, according to correspondence the NAACP released, citing FOIA exemptions for working papers and correspondence, records covered by attorney-client privilege and documents related to criminal investigations.

Barnette, who reiterated his group’s call for Miyares to disband the election unit, said the NAACP had received no complaints of voter intimidation in the midterms earlier this month, the first election in which the unit was up and running.

Asked about the suggestion the NAACP owes the attorney general’s office an apology, Barnette said the group’s efforts had nothing to do with Miyares’ family background or his status as the state’s first Hispanic attorney general.

“We’re just calling out the issue that he established an election integrity unit that would have supposedly presented a barrier to African-Americans or people of color from voting,” Barnette said. “That’s our issue.”

Many of the documents the civil rights group turned up show seemingly routine sharing of internal talking points, press clippings and responses to public feedback. But some highlight the fine line Miyares and other Republican officeholders are trying to walk on election issues.

Shortly after the announcement of the unit’s formation, the attorney general’s office was invited to send a representative to an election integrity event in Loudoun County with conspiracy theorist Jovan Hutton Pulitzer, the author of a report on purported fraud in Arizona that an expert hired by the Arizona Senate dismissed as “utter rubbish.” LaCivita said no one from the office attended the event.

The talking points the attorney general’s office circulated in August were more unequivocal than some of its other public statements about the fact there is no proof of significant fraud in Virginia’s 2020 election.

“The office of the attorney general has reviewed the 2020 election results, along with hundreds of documents from concerned citizens and elected officials, and we have not seen any evidence of widespread fraud that would change the results of Virginia’s 2020 election,” the talking points said. “Therefore, we have no justification to sue to stop the discarding of ballots this year.”

The documents also show that former Virginia elections commissioner Chris Piper sparred with the attorney general’s office after Piper sought reassurances that the state’s top legal office would back the elections community against bogus fraud claims. The brief hiring of an election conspiracy theorist to oversee election issues in the attorney general’s office, as well as news that the office had taken a meeting with conspiracy-minded Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, Piper wrote, had raised “numerous concerns” for election officials.

“At this point, I believe it is incumbent upon [Attorney] General Miyares to make a public statement or, at the very least, provide a statement to my staff, the general registrars, and the Electoral Board members that he is behind us and committed to promoting the good work these dedicated public servants have done to administer safe and secure elections that the public can trust,” Piper wrote in the Feb. 24 email. “Anything less would legitimize concerns the Attorney General will not faithfully defend the good work of these dedicated public servants.”

In a reply a few hours later, Chief Deputy Attorney General Chuck Slemp called Piper’s message “disappointing” and “politically charged.”

“Let me be very clear: Our office is looking forward to working with the many public servants at the Virginia Department of Elections, and local election officials, and supporting them in their work to administer safe and secure elections,” Slemp wrote. “By doubting that, you are doubting the integrity of the Attorney General and for that you should be ashamed.”

In an internal memo announcing the unit, Slemp said Miyares’ background as the son of a Cuban immigrant who escaped an “oppressive regime” is part of what makes the attorney general believe “the right to vote is among the most sacred of American freedoms.”

“Accordingly, the attorney general wants every Virginian to have absolute confidence in our election system,” Slemp said.

Slemp called the initiative an efficiency-boosting “restructuring” of personnel already working on election matters and indicated it would not only be interested in anti-fraud investigations.

“The Unit will also work with civil rights attorneys to protect voting rights and crack down on voter intimidation,” Slemp said.

Slemp’s memo said the unit would be supervised by two senior officials in the Government Operations and Transactions Division, Section Chief Josh Lief and Deputy Attorney General Leslie Haley.

In several emails included in the documents, Lief explains to Virginians for Americans First, the Republican-aligned group focused largely on voter fraud, what the state’s election laws require. 

On Sept. 13, Lief explained why there was no “statewide order to preserve ballots” as some GOP activists wanted. The next day, he explained that vote-counting machines are required under state law, meaning local electoral boards can’t stop using them in response to calls to hand-count all ballots.

A Sept. 15 email included in the records shows Lief acknowledging that many election integrity activists don’t have a firm grasp on the state’s actual laws and procedures. As he and other officials addressed an inquiry about how the unit can initiate investigations, Lief described a “private election integrity community that does all this research, looks at other states’ laws, doesn’t understand so many things about VA voting systems, etc.”

“Being blunt but dealing with all this is really something,” Lief wrote to his colleagues.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

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