DOJ Quietly Closes Investigation Into PA Ballots That Captured Trumpworld’s Imagination

SCRANTON, PENNSYLVANIA - NOVEMBER 03: People vote in the presidential election at a polling station on November 03, 2020 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans head to the... SCRANTON, PENNSYLVANIA - NOVEMBER 03: People vote in the presidential election at a polling station on November 03, 2020 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After a record-breaking early voting turnout, Americans head to the polls on the last day to cast their vote for incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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January 15, 2021 3:56 p.m.

The Justice Department closed a case involving nine military ballots found in a dumpster in Pennsylvania without fanfare on Friday, an incident that once set Trumpworld ablaze.

“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,” said acting U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler of the middle district of Pennsylvania in a statement. “Therefore, no criminal charges will be filed and the matter is closed.”

Back in September, the trashed ballots in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania became a go-to talking point for President Donald Trump and his allies as they sought to prove widespread voter fraud.

A seasonal worker “incorrectly discarded” nine Uniformed Military and Overseas Voters Act (UMOVA) ballots, special absentee ballots sent early to members of the military so they can return them in time to be counted. When Luzerne County Elections Director Shelby Watchilla found the ballots, she immediately ran the discovery up her chain of command and the worker was let go.

The FBI, Luzerne County District Attorney’s office and Pennsylvania state police collected and sorted through three days worth of garbage, the duration that the worker had been on site.

Before long, the incident involving just nine ballots got blown way out of proportion.

Trump first mentioned the “Trump ballots” in a “garbage can” on Fox News host Brian Kilmeade’s radio show. Later reports showed that it may have been Attorney General Bill Barr who planted the seed in Trump’s head, briefing him after Main Justice found out about the ballots from the local U.S. Attorney’s office, which was seeking help fielding media requests.

MAGA world pounced. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany teased more information about the case during a daily press briefing.

U.S. Attorney David Freed, a Trump nominee who has since resigned and been replaced by Brandler, issued a press release that provoked outrage among DOJ alum. He announced that the department was looking into “potential issues” with military ballots, already raising eyebrows as to why the department would publicize an investigation that was only in its nascent stages. But stranger still, Freed decided to announce that “[a]ll nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.”

That press release was quickly taken down and replaced by another clarifying that only seven of the ballots were known to be cast for Trump, though not before a Trump campaign official blasted out that “100%” of the ballots were cast for Trump, and that “Democrats are trying to steal the election.”

Experts were outraged.

“It’s grotesquely improper to announce whom the ballots were cast for, as if that mattered in the investigation,” Justin Levitt, a Loyola Marymount law professor who served in Obama’s DOJ, told TPM at the time. “(Also: was Donald Trump the only candidate identified on those ballots? No other federal or state offices?)”

Freed followed the press releases up with a letter to a local election official that did little to calm suspicious minds. While he admitted that it seemed the worker had thought the ballots were ballot applications and wrongfully opened them, he imbued the letter with a sense of alarm, calling initial findings “troubling.”

Freed resigned at the end of December.

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