Belinda Knisley pleads guilty, agrees to cooperate in election breach cases against Tina Peters, others

Knisley entered cooperation agreement to testify against any co-defendants
mesa county elections clerk and recorder.png
Posted at 1:49 PM, Aug 25, 2022

DENVER — Belinda Knisley, the Mesa County Deputy Clerk and Recorder, has agreed to a plea deal in which she will cooperate with prosecutors in the criminal election security breach cases against Clerk and Recorder Tina Peters and other co-defendants.

Judge Matthew D. Barrett accepted the agreement in a hearing Thursday afternoon, in which Knisley pleaded guilty to criminal trespass (class 3 misdemeanor), violation of duty (unclassified misdemeanor) and first-degree official misconduct (class 2 misdemeanor) in two separate cases.

She was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation and 150 hours of community service and will have to fully comply with the cooperation agreement she reached with prosecutors.

Under that agreement, she agreed to testify in any state or federal trial, or in front of any grand jury, against any defendants tied to the election systems breach for which she, Peters and the former county elections manager Sandra Brown have been charged. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel first reported news of the pending agreement ahead of the court hearing.

According to the agreement, Knisley, who was suspended from her position on Aug. 23, 2021, and barred from performing any work for Mesa County, told state and federal prosecutors at a June 8 proffer session that “she was aware of and participated in a scheme with Tina Peters and other identified people, to deceive public servants from both the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office and Mesa County,” according to court documents.

That proffer session also led to the charges against Brown and more information about what happened during the security breach.

The documents say Knisley also discussed at the proffer session “other individuals who may have various levels of criminal responsibility for the planning, preparation and/or execution” of the scheme to copy hard drive images of Mesa County’s voting systems.

21st Judicial District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said the proffer session took place at the Attorney General’s Office in Denver and lasted about seven straight hours with just one bathroom break. Rubinstein said during the court hearing that Knisley talked extensively about the facts of the case and said that Peters directed the ordeal stemming from her conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

“There was specific information she provided that was very valuable in the continued prosecution of Ms. Brown and Ms. Peters about the timing and the order of events, and showing Ms. Peters directed this and how calculated her conduct was in laying out the plan,” Rubinstein said in court.

The cooperation agreement further says that Knisley said during the proffer session that Peters had recorded her court hearing on a burglary charge and then lied to the judge about doing so.

In exchange for the cooperation and plea agreements, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the other criminal charges against Knisley in the two cases, which included felony burglary charges, cybercrime, criminal impersonation and attempt to influence a public servant. Knisley was indicted along with Peters in March.

Knisley told the court Thursday that she was directed by Peters to return to the clerk and recorder’s office two days after she was walked out by human resources, an order she followed. She also said Peters had told her to order an access badge for a man named Conan Hayes, who was originally misrepresented as “Gerald Wood” in order to get Hayes into the trusted build of the voting machines in May 2021.

Judge Barrett accepted the cooperation and plea agreements and moved on to sentencing. Knisley's attorney, Scott Reisch, told the court that Knisley “is a rule follower” who accepts responsibility for her actions and who would comply with the agreement, saying “she’d like to get the matter behind her and do what she needs to do” after several medical ordeals over the past year and a half.

Rubinstein told the court that Knisley would be a “critical” witness as prosecutors continue to build their case against Peters and Brown and that he believed “she was largely acting at the advice of Ms. Peters.”

He said during the proffer session, Knisley told prosecutors that the discussions with Peters ahead of the trusted build bothered her so much she talked about it with her husband the entire drive to Moab, Utah, which is part of the reason she was not at the trusted build.

Knisley told the court she assumed responsibility for her actions, and she did not want to further impugn her family’s name.

“I’m at the point in my life I can understand I’m guilty of what I did do based on direction I was given,” Knisley said. “I am a rule follower. My boss asked me to do something; it was my responsibility to figure out how to.”

Judge Barrett was somewhat hesitant to agree with the sentence contained in the agreement, saying he was not sure she had fully taken responsibility for her actions because she said they were done at the direction of Peters. As part of her plea, she will not be able to serve as an election official in the future, Rubinstein said.

“These facts are both troubling and alarming. You engaged in concrete acts to undermine the integrity of our democratic process under the guise of protecting it,” Barrett told Knisley. “You violated your oath, and you betrayed your duty. You were caught, confessed, and were punished.”

He said that the provision in her plea agreement that called for her not to be put in jail was “the sole reason” she was walking out of court and that she would be back if she violates any part of the agreement. He also hinted that he will have little tolerance for the election security breach actions if others are convicted in their cases.

“Democracy will prevail; our system of law will prevail. Because without democracy, we are nothing more than any other failed state in this world run by the loudest of voices … the mob who thinks they know justice without any regard for the facts, or worse.”

Brown faces one count of attempt to influence a public servant and two counts of criminal impersonation – all felonies.

Peters was indicted on 10 counts, including attempt to influence a public servant, criminal impersonation, identity theft, official misconduct, and violations of election duty in connection with the security breach case. She also faces a protection order violation case and one involving obstructing a peace officer and obstructing government operations.