An independent contractor hired to assist with the general election was responsible for discarding nine military ballots that are now the focus of an FBI investigation, Luzerne County Manager David Pedri said Friday.
The contractor began work sorting mail Sept. 14 and “incorrectly” threw away the ballots, he said. Federal investigators have said the ballots contained seven votes for President Donald Trump and two other ballots whose contents were sealed and remain unknown.
Elections Director Shelby Watchilla discovered the discarded ballots on Sept. 16 and began an internal inquiry, Pedri said.
“The temporary independent contractor was removed from service and informed not to return,” Pedri said.
The statement Friday did not address why the contractor threw the ballots away. Reached for additional comment, Pedri said the reason the person threw the ballots away is an issue for federal investigators to determine.
The ballots being received were military and overseas ballots cast in the general election. The Luzerne County Bureau of Elections began sending out those ballots Aug. 25, although regular mail-in ballots will not be distributed until the first week of October.
According to the statement Pedri released Friday, the county has a longstanding practice of hiring contractors to help with the increased workloads during election seasons.
After the county’s internal review of the unidentified contractor’s actions was completed, county officials asked the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office to investigate. Earlier this week, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis turned over the investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.
Pedri said all election bureau garbage from Sept. 14 through Sept. 16 was placed in a Dumpster and secured by staff members.
“Each bag of garbage from the entire building in the Dumpster was searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office, Pennsylvania State Police as well as Luzerne County staff,” Pedri said. “All items of concern were taken into custody by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Pedri said that when the county gets the compromised ballots back, elections personnel will try to contact the voters and process their votes.
In response to the incident, the county is providing “supplemental extensive training” to its full-time and temporary elections staff members, he said. The county also has a surveillance camera installed in the elections bureau to ensure staff are “adhering to proper procedures and protocols,” Pedri said.
The incident, he maintained, demonstrated the system worked to maintain the integrity of the election.
“An error was made, a public servant discovered it and reported it to law enforcement at the local, state and federal level who took over to ensure the integrity of the system in place,” Pedri said. “The Luzerne County voters should be assured that the elections will move forward with transparency and integrity. Every properly cast vote will be counted.
Mail-in ballots for the general public will be sent out starting Oct. 5.