'Hillbilly spoof': How the team that pushed the 'Big Lie' in 2020 plotted together in Kentucky's 2019 election

'Hillbilly spoof': How the team that pushed the 'Big Lie' in 2020 plotted together in Kentucky's 2019 election
Matt Bevin speaking at the 2018 Student Action Summit, hosted by Turning Point USA at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, Gage Skidmore

When election night returns came in for the Kentucky election on Nov. 5, 2019, Matt Bevin, the Republican incumbent governor trailed Democratic challenger Andy Beshear by about 5,000 votes.

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A brash businessman who antagonized the state’s teachers, Bevin had gone into his reelection campaigns as one of the most unpopular governors in the country. But with Republicans prevailing in every single remaining statewide race, his supporters couldn’t believe it was possible for Bevin to lose.

One the day after the election, Bevin refused to concede, making baseless allegations to reporters, as the Courier Journal reported, “that absentee ballots were illegally counted, people were turned away from the polls, voting machines malfunctioned and ballots were stored in open boxes” — claims that were systematically refuted by state and local election officials.

By Saturday, with Bevin still refusing to concede, two far-right influencers jointly appeared on a podcast cross-published on their respective platforms to herald what sounded like an earth-shattering development.

“We have literally been given the motherlode of leaked documents from a whistleblower that appears to be someone who might be working inside the elections,” declared Millie Weaver, an Ohio-based media provocateur who was a correspondent for the conspiracy theory hub InfoWars at the time.

Weaver introduced Terpsehore “Tore” Maras, a pro-Trump podcaster who lived in North Dakota. Weaver said she and Maras had been on the phone the night before when she checked her email and discovered “that some whistleblower, anonymously, decided to send me hundreds of documents — hundreds — these documents are confirmed legitimate documents — we have official, like, ballots, Kentucky ballots, audit logs, you know, all this crazy information, bank transactions, checks, papers that have literally been taped back together that went through shredders. Somebody must have been doing a lot of work to compile all of this information. But this information looks like there’s significant amount of voter fraud going on in Kentucky.”

Indeed, someone had broken into Harp Enterprises, a Lexington-based company that supplies voting machines, and had accessed checks received by the company and other internal documents. Roger Baird, the company’s owner, told Raw Story he believes either a disgruntled former employee or someone associated with a losing campaign put a janitor up to stealing the documents.

But almost nothing about what the two women said about the documents — starting with Weaver’s claim that Harp Enterprises “runs the electronic voting machines for the entire state of Kentucky” — was true. Harp Enterprises, which exclusively purchases voting machines manufactured by Hart InterCivic, services only some of the precincts in Kentucky’s 120 counties. Voters in Jefferson County, which includes Louisville and holds the largest share of Democratic voters, vote on ES&S machines.

Maras claimed that the documents included hand-written notes showing employees coaching each other on “how to manipulate the votes.” And based on a financial transaction from a company with foreign ownership, Maras concluded, “You can’t get any more smoking gun with regards to foreign-entity meddling, let’s say.”

Chagrined to see his private documents tweeted out and displayed on a video stream, Baird showed Weaver’s video presentation to his banker.

“He was like, ‘This is like a hillbilly spoof,’” Baird recalled. “There was just enough little droplets of real information that you might scratch your head, and say, ‘Huh, maybe there is something there.’ When they started connected me to George Soros….” As he recounted the story, Baird’s voice trailed off in incredulity and he burst into laughter.

As the joint podcast crept into its second hour, Weaver noted with approval that her boss, Alex Jones, was in the chat watching her video.

“This is election fraud,” Maras said. “Kentucky was a dry run. In 2020, they’re coming for everything.”

“We need to blow the lid off this now before they steal the 2020 election,” Weaver agreed.

“Yeah, but look at the losers they’ve got running on the Democratic ticket,” Maras chimed in. She ticked through the list of Democratic presidential primary contenders, noting each candidate’s unappealing attributes and weaknesses, while assigning insulting nicknames to them, before concluding with Trumpian logic that none of them could win fair and square.

“So, what they’re gonna do is they’re gonna steal it,” Maras concluded.

Weaver also attended a press conference at the state Capitol in Frankfurt, and spread many of the same baseless allegations to her followers in a livestream on Periscope. Weaver could not be reached for comment for this story.

The Kentucky election in 2019 was a harbinger, but in a different sense than Maras likely intended.

Many of the same players who would later turn up in Washington, DC after the 2020 election and promote a battery of conspiracy theories falsely claiming the election was stolen were also involved in investigating election fraud claims in Kentucky, according to at least two people involved.

Joshua Merritt, a Dallas area information technology consultant, indicated in a Twitter thread last month that Patrick Byrne, the former Overstock.com CEO “contracted” the Texas-based company Allied Security Operating Group to work on the Kentucky election.

In response to an account with the username @AmericanRE15 who asked him to confirm that he was saying “Byrne contracted you guys to work on the Bevins [sic] fraud in f***ing 2019,” Merritt replied, “Bingo….”

He added in a separate tweet: “And then there are all the people we briefed after 2018… We investigated Bevins case, Florida, Dallas, Maryland… And others.”

Josh Merritt responds to a question on a Twitter thread by @AmericanRE15 on April 30Screengrab

Merritt could not be reached for this story, and he blocked this reporter on Twitter during the reporting of this story.

Russell Ramsland, the founder of Allied Security Operating Group, began pushing election fraud claims after Democrats made gains in Texas during the 2018 mid-term elections, and would go on to push specious claims about the 2020 election on Lou Dobbs’ show on Fox Business Network, and then file a declaration alongside Maras to support federal lawsuits seeking to overturn the election.

Weaver also confirmed Allied Security Operations Group’s involvement in the Kentucky election, which has not been previously reported.

“I went down to Kentucky to go hand-deliver an SD drive or a USB stick to Governor Bevin himself at his office,” Weaver recounted in a December 2020 livestream. “And I also met with a group called ASOG. So, there’s this group called Allied Security Operations Group, and they’re heading a lot of the election fraud efforts that have been happening.”

Weaver said in the same livestream that she had provided the documents to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and described working with Allied Security Operations Group.

“Yeah, we met with them,” she said. “We essentially went over the information. They already had seemed to have gotten it, which means they probably got it from Grassley or something.”

Messages to Grassley’s office seeking clarification on whether the senator received the documents or anyone from his office passed them on to Ramsland were not returned before press time.

In November 2020, Weaver, Maras and Weaver’s partner Gavin Wince came to Washington, DC as the nucleus of a conspiracy-happy group that would come to be known as “Team America.” Patrick Bergy, who was also part of the group, previously told Raw Story that Byrne paid for their hotel rooms at the Westin Arlington Gateway hotel in northern Virginia.

Merritt also indicated in the April 30 Twitter thread that Byrne and Maras together connected with Allied Security Operations Group during the efforts to uncover fraud in Kentucky. In response to a question from the @AmericanRE15 account on whether he had disclosed that he worked with Maras on the Kentucky fraud claim, Merritt replied, “She was brought in with Byrne when we were working with them through ASOG.”

Raw Story could not independently confirm Byrne’s involvement in the Kentucky 2019 election. Byrne and Maras have previously said in a podcast published two months ago that they did not formally meet until November 2020.

“The first time that I think of myself as meeting Tore, we were in a restaurant in Alexandria; it was a week or two after the election,” Byrne said in the podcast. “She was with some people. I was with some people. Somebody took me over to meet her people. Boom boom boom. When I shook hands with her, after looking at her or listening to her for a few seconds, I said, ‘Gee, I’ve met you somewhere, haven’t I?’ And she actually turned away, didn’t answer. I thought it was funny.”

Byrne went on to share a cryptic story about how a couple of nights later Maras made an admission to him that suggested she had spied on him eight years earlier. According to Maras, she had been Byrne’s “waitress” at a restaurant in London in 2012 and he was her “target.”

Neither Byrne nor Maras could be reached for comment about Merritt’s assertion that they worked together on the 2019 election in Kentucky.

As previously reported by Raw Story and ProPublica, Byrne has described tasking a group of intelligence professionals with interviewing Maras after she submitted a declaration to support lawsuits filed by Sidney Powel that sought to overturn the 2020 election. Byrne said the team that interviewed Maras concluded that “we cannot rely on her for anything factual because we caught her in too many lies and exaggerations.”

Despite Byrne’s determination in December 2020 that Maras was not credible, the two continue to appear together on podcasts, where they promote election fraud conspiracy theories and praise one another.

Maras and Weaver have both said they worked with Phill Kline, a former Kansas attorney general on examining alleged election fraud in Kentucky. In December 2020, Kline reportedly promoted a scheme to submit pro-Trump electors in the six swing states carried by Joe Biden, talking up the plan on far-right media outlets like One America News and former White House strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast.

Weaver mentioned Kline’s involvement in the Kentucky election in her December 2020 livestream, and Maras said she worked with Kline “in 2019 on the election fraud in Kentucky” in a podcast earlier this year. Kline could not be reached for comment for this story.

Warning signs in Kentucky

“I had said back then and have said all along that 2019 was a mini version of what potentially could happen in 2020, and did happen,” Joshua A. Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, told Raw Story. “I said then that we need to pay attention to what happened in Kentucky for fear of that happening on a larger scale with the presidential election.”

Douglas said he sees one critical difference in how Bevin’s baseless fraud claims played out in 2019, compared to the firehose of the spigot of falsehoods issued by President Trump that culminated in the attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. After the 2019 election, Douglas said, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell issued an ultimatum to Bevin to present evidence of voting problems or concede. In contrast, McConnell waited for more than a month after the 2020 election as Senate majority leader before congratulating Joe Biden on his win.

For conspiracy theorists, Kentucky in 2019 was a ripe target.

“Twenty-nineteen is an off-election year, so you could really focus on Kentucky,” said Roger Baird, the Harp Enterprises owner. “You get a lot of attention all of a sudden when you’re the only one having an election. We get more attention in an off-election year than we do in a big year like 2020.”

Similar to the feverish claims about election fraud in the 2020 election, Maras’ theory about the Harp Enterprises documents quickly expanded to include claims about official betrayal to explain why no one was being prosecuted.

“If you had asked me, I would tell you: Everyone in Kentucky government is guilty,” Maras said during the Nov. 9, 2019 podcast. “And maybe this is why the secretary of state is like, ‘Oh, just leave it alone.’ Yeah, leave it alone because everyone’s gonna be going to jail.”

Maras said she called the Kentucky State Police hoping that she could bring the documents to the attention of Governor Bevin. She said a detective called her back and tried to get her to explain how she obtained the documents. A spokesperson told Raw Story he couldn’t confirm that the agency received a complaint about the matter.

The Kentucky Attorney General’s office, which would typically investigate allegations of election fraud or other criminal misconduct, did not respond to inquiries.

Baird told Raw Story he asked Homeland Security to try to determine how his company’s internal documents were stolen, but they never reached any conclusions.

In the weeks following Bevin’s loss in Kentucky, Maras continued to refine a fanciful theory of electronic vote-swapping.

In 2019 and 2020, according to the Washington Post, Ramsland and Merritt from Allied Security Operations Group appeared on a podcast called “Economic War Room” and claimed that hackers or rogue operators could direct vote data to a remote location and manipulate it. During his media appearances, Ramsland also circulated baseless claims about Scytl, a Spain-based company that provides election-night reporting services, asserting that “they’re housing all of our vote, and they’re doing it in an insecure fashion,” the Post reported.

Maras appears to have been exposed to the same baseless claims about Scytl in November 2020, roughly the same period when Merritt and Weaver indicated Allied Security Operations Group was looking at the Kentucky election.

In a podcast two weeks after the 2019 election, Maras spent an hour offering a breezy discourse on how various election technology companies supposedly carry out electronic vote manipulation, asserting that “the Hart-Intercivic software” was “working together” with Scytl.

“So, this phase is shuffling ballots, mixing them,” Maras said, adopting the professorial air of an adept instructor breaking down a complex formula for undergrad students. “Picture a bag of Scrabble tiles, and you’re mixing them. That’s basically what they do to all your votes. And during this mixing phase is where you can swap a vote for some other vote.”

In a previous podcast, on Nov. 10, Maras had acknowledged that “elections aren’t my thing,” and admitted she knew little about how voting machines work. Now, on Nov. 19, Maras was saying that it had taken her a week to figure out what a highly compensated cybersecurity contractor in northern Virginia who was paid to safeguard US elections would have known for at least 10 years.

What Maras missed — and what election deniers in 2020 missed and continue to miss as they go around the country sewing doubt about the election system — is that vote data that is reported on election night is separate from the votes that are tallied up and certified by local and state elections officials.

In Kentucky, two poll workers — one Republican and one Democrat — hand-deliver a tape displaying a printout of the aggregate vote and a media card in a sealed bag to the county election office. A duplicate of the tape is displayed at the polling place as a record of the precinct tally. At the county office, the media card is inserted into a machine that tallies the votes from across the county. Like the voting machines, the machine that tallies the votes is not connected to the internet. To ensure that the votes remain secure, an election worker uses a clean thumb drive to pull the data off the tally machine and then walks it over to a networked computer to upload it to the election-night reporting site.

“Our job is to make sure nothing touches the computer that does the tally,” Baird said.

“Common sense tells you that if you hook up your voting machines to the internet, you’re plumb dumb,” he added.

References to Scytl and foreign servers purportedly housing votes would prove to be a ubiquitous feature in declarations sworn by Maras and Merritt for the lawsuits filed in November and December 2020, along with video documentaries and livestreams by Weaver during the same period. Maras’ 37-page declaration, executed on Nov. 29, 2020, alone contains 23 references to Scytl.

Ensconced in Washington, Weaver addressed her followers on Periscope around the same time, outlining her qualifications to be part of an elite team churning up dubious evidence to aid in the effort to overturn the election.

“I want to give you guys a little bit of background as to why I know what I know and I’m in the situation where right here where I’m even being invited to some of the groups that are heading these efforts, where you see people like Phill Kline, and you see people like Sidney Powell and these other people out here heading these movements,” Weaver said. “Why would they care what little Millie has to say?... So, I’ve been making these videos for over a year now, talking about the plan that the Democrats and really the establishment has had to throw Trump out of office, to get rid of him.”

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