U.S. Attorney David Freed, an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, veered from Department of Justice standard protocol when he publicly revealed details Thursday about an ongoing investigation into trashed military ballots in Luzerne County that were votes for Trump.
One of the state’s top political analysts questioned the motives of the move. A local political scientist said it clearly gave Trump a political boost. And the head of the Luzerne County Republican Party said it’s an example why people should shun mail-in ballots and vote in person.
“I do think it’s not typical to have the details of an investigation given to the media and public before the investigation is complete,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “I can’t begin to ask why he did it. It could be all the debate and controversy over mail-in ballots. That doesn’t necessarily justify why he made it public.”
Critics around the country argue Freed’s detailed description of the investigation — especially the revelation that seven discarded ballots were cast for Trump — was designed to bolster Trump’s continued skepticism about the mail-in ballot process for the 2020 election.
A former lead Department of Justice spokesman on Twitter called the move an “unprecedented in-kind contribution to the president’s campaign.”
Luzerne County Manager David Pedri on Friday blamed the trashed ballots on a seasonal independent contractor hired to sort mail who has since been removed. He said the fact the controversy was uncovered internally and reported promptly to law enforcement shows there are safeguards in place to prevent voter fraud.
However, the head of the Luzerne County Republican Party said the incident exposes the vulnerabilities of mail-in voting.
“This is a prime example of why I am encouraging everyone to vote in person,” county GOP party chairman Justin Behrens said.
Madonna said the incident shouldn’t be used as an indictment against mail-in voting.
“You can’t make a generalization about mail-in ballots from this,” Madonna said.
Madonna said he has confidence Freed will conduct a thorough and objective investigation to find out what happened.
“I think you give him the benefit of the doubt,” Madonna said.
Freed, the former Cumberland County district attorney who was appointed by Trump in September 2017, issued a press release Thursday afternoon and later shared with the media a letter he wrote to Luzerne County officials about the initial findings of the investigation.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Freed said the office would have no further comment about the investigation.
In Freed’s letter, he briefly mentioned why he revealed details behind the FBI’s incomplete investigation.
“While at this point the inquiry remains active, based on the limited amount of time before the general election and the vital public importance of these issues, I will detail the investigators’ initial findings,” Freed wrote.
Kathy Bozinski, chairwoman of the Luzerne County Democratic Party, said she frequently dealt with the U.S. Attorney’s Office during her years as a local television reporter and the office is notoriously “tight-lipped” about investigations.
“It surprised me immediately the level of detail yesterday’s releases went into,” Bozinski said, adding that Freed’s disclosures seemed designed to benefit Trump and support his skepticism of mail-in ballots.
Bozinski is glad the incident was spotted quickly and hopes investigators uncover the truth about what happened.
“I’m glad this was discovered and that Luzerne County government acted quickly. My biggest question and fear initially was, ‘Is this just a careless act or was this done intentionally to cast a shadow on the mail-in process in Luzerne County?’ From this point on, mail-in voting in Luzerne County must truly be flawless.”
Luzerne County sent out overseas military and civilian ballots beginning Aug. 25. The county plans to start sending out general mail-in ballots the first week of October.
Even before the federal investigation was made public, U.S. Attorney General William Barr briefed president Trump about the trashed ballots, ABC News reported on Friday. Trump then revealed the investigation in a Fox News radio interview, calling the mail-in ballot process a “horror show.”
Benjamin Toll, a political scientist at Wilkes University, said the controversy plays right into Trump’s narrative that the mail-in ballot process is flawed.
“Politically what this does is give President Trump everything he wants to claim there is fraud. Whether or not that is the case, it’s a helpful thing for him politically,” Toll said. “This is a story that will be used repeatedly by the Trump campaign to make the case that, regardless of the outcome of the election, he did not get the full accounting of votes.”