The top federal prosecutor in Harrisburg, Pa., announced Friday that his office has closed an investigation into nine discarded ballots found in the northeastern part of the state that President Donald Trump had touted to support his unfounded claims of election rigging, saying in a statement that the probe had found “insufficient evidence to prove criminal intent on the part of the person who discarded the ballots.”
The investigation had been controversial from the start, as election law experts said the department seemed to be violating department policy and tradition in revealing an ongoing probe in such a way that could affect the election.
Though just nine ballots in a dumpster were at issue, then-U.S. Attorney David Freed, who oversaw prosecutors in Middle District of Pennsylvania, announced the probe in a public statement in September soon after Trump alluded to what happened on Fox News Radio’s “The Brian Kilmeade Show.” Freed also first claimed that all nine ballots were cast for Trump, though he later clarified seven of the ballots had been cast for the president and two were found sealed.
Freed is no longer the U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Pennsylvania; the closure of the case was announced by his successor, Acting U.S. Attorney Bruce D. Brandler.
“After a thorough investigation conducted by the FBI and prosecutors from my office, we have determined that there is insufficient evidence to prove criminal intent on the part of the person who discarded the ballots,” Brandler said. “Therefore, no criminal charges will be filed and the matter is closed.”
The statement gave no new details of the investigation.
Though the case drew significant attention because of its public disclosure, investigators had long been skeptical that it would produce a significant finding of wrongdoing. According to people familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe nonpublic details of the case, the person who discarded the ballots was thought to have an intellectual disability. Local officials said the person was an independent contractor who was fired in the wake of the incident.
Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s top elections official, had said in September it was “a bad error,” but added, “This was not intentional fraud.”
Justice Department policies and tradition generally call for prosecutors to avoid taking public steps in cases that could affect a political race so close to an election, even in cases of voter fraud. When Freed announced the case, election law experts said he seemed to be trampling on those policies – and, even worse, seemed to be doing so in support of the president. After the November election, then-Attorney General William Barr controversially relaxed those guidelines in instances when the wrongdoing could change the result.
Soon after Freed issued his statement, a Trump campaign spokesman wrote in a tweet “Democrats are trying to steal the election.” The post was later deleted. Trump had seemed to refer to the case publicly even before the Justice Department’s announcement, responding to a question on Kilmeade’s show about his refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.
“I think we have a long way before we get there,” Trump said. “These ballots are a horror show. They found six ballots in an office yesterday in a garbage can. They were Trump ballots – eight ballots in an office yesterday in – but in a certain state and they were – they had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can.”
The next day, it was revealed Barr had personally told Trump about the matter.