By Jean Marbella and Jean Marbella
Maryland officials are investigating a Russian investor's ties to a local software vendor that maintains part of the State Board of Elections' voter registration system, legislative leaders said Friday.
At a hastily called news conference, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch said the FBI informed them and Gov. Larry Hogan that without the state's knowledge, a Russian investor had bought the software vendor in 2015.
Miller called the news "shocking" but said the FBI did not indicate that Maryland elections had been compromised.
"We felt it imperative that our constituents know that a Russian oligarch has purchased our election machinery," Miller said.
The men said they have asked Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate the contract, and have asked federal officials to help the State Board of Elections review the system to ensure that there have been no breaches.
Deputy election administrator Nikki Charlson said officials would audit existing data, review their defenses and implement any changes to secure the systems before November's general election.
Four FBI agents informed state officials Thursday that a vendor Maryland has contracted with -- ByteGrid LLC -- to host data for statewide elections has ties to a Russian oligarch, Miller and Busch said.
ByteGrid LLC owns the servers that hold the data for voter registration, candidacy, election management, and election night results, state elections officials said. An ownership stake in the company was purchased by AltPoint Capital Partners, whose largest investor is a Russian oligarch named Vladimir Potanin, the election officials said.
Busch said that Potanin is "very close" to Russian Pesident Vladimir Putin and that Altpoint's managing partner is Gerald T. Banks, a Russian millionaire who changed his name from Guerman Aliev.
But Busch said the state has no evidence that Potanin or Banks had done anything untoward.
"We don't have any idea whether they meddled in any elections at all," Busch said.
Attempts to reach the companies were unsuccessful.
The Maryland officials also said they had no indication the Russian-linked firm had anything to do with the problems that arose shortly before June's primary election in which more than 80,000 voters' change of address and party affiliation requests were never forwarded from the Motor Vehicle Administration to election officials.
Nevertheless, Miller said, officials wanted to inform the public about the Russians' ties to ByteGrid.
"Its goes to the heart of democracy," Miller said. "There's still a Cold War going on. This is the evil empire, and they are at our door when they invest in our election process."
Hogan did not appear at the news conference, but the Republican governor joined Miller and Busch, both Democrats, in writing Friday to U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to request that her Office of Cybersecurity and Communications provide the state with technical assistance to evaluate the network used by the State Board of Elections, including auditing the integrity of the network.
"We will continue to closely monitor the situation in the coming days and weeks to ensure that all Maryland voters can have faith in the integrity of our election system," Hogan said in a statement.
Maryland senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen decried Russian involvement in state and national elections, and criticized President Donald Trump for dismissing the seriousness of the threat.
"This latest news from Annapolis reinforces the reality that Russia has been systematically infiltrating America's political infrastructure for years -- and has continued its assault," Cardin said. "I am not alone in being astounded that this president still continues to call legitimate criminal investigations into Russia's malfeasance a 'witch hunt.'"
Van Hollen called the news of the link to Maryland's elections board "deeply disturbing."
"It raises urgent questions about foreign interference in our elections -- questions that President Trump is not just failing to answer, but also failing to even ask," he said. "With just four months until the November midterms, that has to change." Both Maryland senators are Democrats.
The Maryland news came hours after the Department of Justice indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers, charging that they hacked the computer networks of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The 11-count indictment alleges that the Russian agents infiltrated the networks, implanting malicious computer code and stealing documents on field operations, opposition research and campaign analytics as a way of interfering with the election.
The charges include conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S., aggravated identity theft and money laundering.
According to the indictment, the Russians posted stolen documents online and worked with an organization -- unnamed but believed to be WikiLeaks -- to spread them further, and take advantage of continuing tensions between supporters of Clinton and primary opponent Bernie Sanders.
The federal indictment charging 12 Russian includes an allegation that a Twitter account, @BaltimoreIsWhr, was set up to invite people to join a "flash mob" and to post images using the hashtag "#BlacksAgainstHillary."
It is the latest revelation of how social media were used locally and nationally in an attempt to influence the election. Cyber security analysts in September told The Baltimore Sun that a Facebook ad that referred to the Black Lives Matter movement and targeted Baltimore users in the months following the 2015 riots was likely part of a broader effort by Russia to sow discontent and deepen racial tension.
In response to such ads, the General Assembly in April passed a bill requiring social media platforms and websites with significant traffic to track all political ads and record which users are being targeted. In May, Hogan expressed reservations that the law could be found unconstitutional and allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
The @BaltimoreIsWhr account has been suspended.
(c)2018 The Baltimore Sun