A reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News revealed to The Georgia Star News in an interview on Wednesday that the public broadcasting entity received some of Fulton County’s drop box absentee ballot transfer forms from the office of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in April.
GPB News, however, did not publicly report the details of those Fulton County chain of custody documents obtained from the Secretary of State until after The Star News report on June 14 that a Fulton County official admitted absentee ballot transfer forms from the November 2020 were missing.
Stephen Fowler of Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) News requested an interview with John Fredericks, radio talk show host and publisher of The Georgia Star News, part of The Star News Network, earlier in the week. Laura Baigert, the reporter for The Georgia Star News and The Star News Network who broke the June 14 story also participated.
The interview request came after a series of articles by the two outlets regarding Fulton County’s missing absentee ballot drop box chain of custody documents from the November 3, 2020 election.
Late Wednesday, Secretary of State Raffensperger told Just The News that he was calling for the State Election Board to take over the administration of elections in Fulton County due to the county’s inability to competently run its elections.
Following the June 14 report by The Star News that a Fulton County election official admitted “a few forms were missing” and that “procedural paperwork was misplaced,” with regarding to 385 missing drop box transfer forms that represented 18,901 absentee ballots, GPB News published a story time stamped June 16 titled “Fact Check: Fulton County Is Not Missing Ballots or Hundreds of Drop Box Custody Forms.”
The basis of the GPB News fact check, on an initial publication date of June 16, was that they had received all of the absentee ballot drop box transfer forms from Fulton County within 48 hours of their open records request following The Star News report.
In that article and a subsequent one published on June 23, “Here’s a Look at Fulton County’s Drop Box Use,” GPB News also admitted that all of the forms had not been produced by Fulton County elections officials.
“[A]fter GPB News asked the county Monday about the forms not included in the Georgia Star’s records request, elections staff located all but eight of the more than 1,500 forms, sent them to state investigators and provided them to GPB News on a flash drive,” GPB News said in the first report published initially with a June 16 time stamp.
In the second report published June 23, GPB News said that 54 forms – or 3 percent of the 1,500 forms – representing 1,110 ballots are still missing.
‘The county is also missing records for eight individual drop boxes across three days: five from Oct. 15, two from Oct. 17 and one from Oct. 21.”
“For at least 46 drop box entries totaling just under 1,100 ballots, the county has internal records of the total number of ballots collected but did not provide the associated form.”
Over a series of questions, GPB News’ Stephen Fowler revealed that he received some portion of Fulton County’s chain of custody documents from the Secretary of State’s office in April. He received the balance of the transfer forms directly from Fulton County after The Star News report.
Fowler said he sent an Open Records Request to Fulton County on June 14 after reading The Star News article, and received the thumb drive from Fulton County with additional transfer form documentation three days later on June 17. He said his original “Fact Check” article was published on June 17, and that the June 16 time stamp that appeared on the article [from June 17 to June 19] was due to the GPB News publishing system.
Notably, Fulton County has yet to provide to The Star News the transfer forms it provided GPB News on June 17. This despite the fact that The Star News filed its Open Records Request for these documents in December 2020, more than six months ago, and that the GPB request for the same documents was completed by Fulton County in less than 72 hours.
Fowler’s revelations that GPB News obtained some Fulton County transfer form documents in April conflicts with what the Secretary of State’s office told The Star News that same month.
At the time, Brad Raffensperger reported that just three small counties were in violation of the State Election Board Emergency Rule 183-1-14-0.8-.14 regarding secure absentee ballot drop boxes, the chain of custody documents were requested by The Star News.
“You will have to get those documents through open records requests from the counties. We just confirmed with the relevant counties that they had them. We don’t have the documents here.”
The full transcript of the Wednesday June 30, 2021 telephone interview between Stephen Fowler of GPB, John Fredericks, publisher of The Georgia Star News, and Laura Baigert, reporter for The Georgia Star News and The Star News Network can be read here:
Fredericks: … so let me just outline who’ll be on … of the georgiastarnews.com and I’m also the publisher and owner of The Virginia Star. Laura Baigert, who is on the call, with us is the senior reporter for The Star News group.
Fowler: Okay. And just so you know, I’m recording this to make sure that I have everything accurate.
Fredericks: Thank you for the heads up.
Fowler: And, you know, this is part of the fact-checking for a story that I’m doing for NPR. And just making sure that I get comments from everyone involved and to make sure there are no questions about them.
Fredericks: And we’re on the record, right?
Fowler: The questions I have are on the record. Of course, if there’s anything that you do want to say off the record, I will honor that. The questions I’m asking you, these are all on the record questions.
Fredericks: You got it.
Fowler: So has Fulton County given you the form, the remaining forms that they have? Have they given those yet?
Fredericks: No. And we asked for those seven months ago. So we’re perplexed as to why you got them in 48 hours and we have gotten them in seven months. Laura do you want to add to that?
Baigert: All I would add to it is that you got the documents within two weeks ago today, maybe a little bit more. And we still haven’t gotten them yet. So when they gave them to you, why haven’t they given them to us yet?
Fowler: And what I can tell you about that is for me, when I saw your story and the things were missing, I asked them. They said, oh, we have them. We’ll get them to you. We’ll get you the thumb drive. So I do not know why they haven’t given them to you yet or what their processes or why that is.
But because I’ve been covering Fulton County and Fulton County elections for years. When I called to ask about them, they said we’re finding them and they were working on them and we’ll give you them. I can’t speak to why they haven’t given them to you yet.
Fredericks: We can make a comment on that. The reason they gave them to you and not us is because they know that we were going to do a full analysis of it. And they have a relationship with you and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
And they thought they were in a better media and PR position to release it to your publicly-funded organization than our news outlet because we would have scrutinized and analyzed them.
And Stephen, quite frankly, because you published the story within 24 hours of receiving the thumb drive, there’s no way physically humanly possible that GPB could have scrutinized or analyzed any of this data in one day. And you published the story saying they have a thumb drive, nothing to see here. It’s all been produced. That’s why they didn’t give it to us because we would have analyzed it.
Fowler: Well, I did. I stayed up quite late making sure that all of those forms were entered in and entered in accurately. And checked them again on the Fulton spreadsheet that they sent. Because, like you pointed out, they double-counted some of the totals.
And I don’t know why they didn’t just highlight things across from the totals like you pointed out in your story. But they counted things strangely. I found things that they said they didn’t have that I had the forms for. I found one that they had the forms for that I didn’t actually get the forms for.
So I did stay up quite late once I got those putting them all into my existing database. There’s that. What are your plans once you get the remainder of the forms for Fulton County? What’s your plan for a follow-up story?
Baigert: Well, we’ve got to go through the data. But as you pointed out, that you’re still missing 54 forms yourself, or 1,100 ballots, at least. So we’re talking that still even with you getting the records, you’re still short about three percent of the forms and about at least one and a half percent of the ballots that are still missing from even what you got, right?
Fowler: Yeah, there is. They have, I think there’s some sort of and again, they won’t, they’re still looking and they won’t do any other comments. But they have the ballots. They have some sort of form that they filled out exactly how many they collected from when and from where.
But the actual form that we’ve seen, the hundreds and hundreds of, they don’t have those or some of those, but they do have some other sort of forms. So I’m trying to figure out with that.
And so John the overall purpose of the story, too, is about how The Georgia Star News and The Star News Network has come from starting as a fledgling site after the November election to getting the attention of President Trump and getting a nice sit down with him after the rally. And so as the publisher, what is your overall goal for having The Georgia Star News in this media ecosystem?
Fredericks: Tell the truth, get the facts, get the real news out of people, then punch through the state news network and the kingpin of fake news, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which is constantly publishing stories without all the information.
So our goal is to be able to punch through that and give people an alternative for a real newspaper with real investigative reporting that does their homework and gets the facts out. And that’s the difference.
And so you look at the headline of The Atlanta Journal Constitution the day after the hearing with Judge Amero. Their headline had no relation to the reality of the outcome of that decision. The forensic analysis goes forward and they said it was a defeat for those trying to get the forensic analysis.
I’m just giving you one example. But our goal is to speak truth to power in the world of fake news. And that’s really what we’re dealing with. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we have an audience. And when you have great in-depth, detailed reporting work like Laura Baigert did.
She spent weeks and weeks on this, but we started doing this seven months ago, then you’re able to publish things with tremendous credibility. And I think that’s what we’ve done. We’re a credible news service in Atlanta and throughout Georgia, offering as an alternative to the fake news.
Fowler: Hmm hmm. And then the last main question I have is when Fulton said that they disagreed with your number of about 19,000, and when there was the email from Mariska Bodison saying she thinks some of the forms are missing, why didn’t you wait until they explained why they disagreed with the 19,000 or if they said they had the form?
Why didn’t you wait until they said, oh, we’ll get you those forms? Or if they said we’ll get you the form, then kind of published the story before there was kind of a finality of a resolution of whether they had the forms or not?
Fredericks: Go ahead, Laura.
Baigert: I was just going to say we asked for this stuff months ago. We’ve explained several times what we were missing. And to be honest, they’re the experts on what they have and what they don’t have, right? We don’t know what they have. You don’t know what they have.
We can only go by what they’re saying. We shouldn’t have to backtrack for them to tell them what they’re missing. Okay? They should be able to pinpoint. It’s their documents. These are the officials who are running the election.
If they can’t tell us how many forms they have and how many ballots they have, that’s an issue for people who are administering an election. That’s not our problem to solve that for them. We did explain it to them.
They didn’t answer except to say a few forms are missing. Well, by anybody’s account 24 percent of the forms missing, representing 24 percent of the ballots, which we used their spreadsheet to calculate it with, that’s their issue.
I mean, I’m not trying to be unreasonable here, but how many times do we have to explain their own documents to them? This wasn’t stuff we produced.
Fowler: No, I understand. And also, John, one more. I know The Georgia Star is one of the newer parts of The Star News Media Network, but it’s chock full of advertisements. Brandon Beach, Republican Party, the David Belle Isle “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” ad and things like that. Is The Star News profitable?
Fredericks: Everything we do is profitable because we sell legitimate advertising to fund our operation, not like Georgia Public Broadcasting, which is taxpayer-funded by the hard-working men and women of Georgia.
The final thing that I’m going to say is that the reason we started this is because the AJC is the kingpin of fake news and they’ve become a propaganda machine for the Democratic Party of Georgia and we offer an alternative to get to the truth.
That’s why we’re successful. And we’re in the business to sell advertising. We are proud of the advertising that we have. And we work very hard to fund our operation through legitimate advertising of all kinds, people that want to reach our expanding audience.
And if somebody needs to reach informed, motivated readers that want the truth, advertising with us is a great opportunity for them. It has great ROI potential.
Fowler: Certainly yes. I noticed there are most like sites that have those Taboola ads about doctors hate this. (Inaudible talk) But every time I see the site it is chock full of different ads. So that was my last question. I really do appreciate both of you taking the time to talk to me and as I said this story goes on tomorrow afternoon.
Baigert: Great. Stephen, can I just ask you out of curiosity, what date did you file your open records request with Fulton County?
Fowler: (Sighs) Let me make sure. Let me look at my email. I believe your story came out Sunday. It was a Sunday and then Monday morning.
Baigert: Right. Right.
Fowler: I reached out to Fulton on that Monday the 14th.
Baigert: Okay. And you got all the records by Tuesday, the 15th then?
Fowler: No, Thursday. There were some. Thursday morning is when they gave me the flash drive.
Fowler: I got it from them early Thursday morning.
Baigert: Okay. Your story came out your story, the fact check story, your first one said it was actually published on June 16th at 2:46 PM. But then your follow-up story, Here’s a Look at Fulton County’s Absentee Dropbox.
You said that “more than 48 hours were spent entering and analyzing the forms, including about 30 hours from the morning of June 14th to the afternoon of June 17th, when the initial fact check was published.” That was a quote out of that second story. The fact check was actually published…
Fowler: Yeah. For that, I actually had the forms from late April. I had the same forms that you had as part of a different request that I did with Fulton County to get their own drop boxes, much the same as you did.
So, I had those late April, but I had not entered them in. I was working on another county. And so when the story came out, that’s when I started. Basically, I worked all day Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, entering in all the forms that I had.
And so that’s where that number of that hours came from, because those forms, the initial ones that you had that were mostly complete, I had already received a couple of months ago. And so to look at your claims and to look at Fulton’s claims, I had to enter them all in myself. And so that’s where that number came from. I basically spent those days entering the forms.
Baigert: A couple of follow-up questions then. So the date of your fact check. The original story got changed from June 16th to June 17th.
The publication went from June 16th, 2:46 pm to June 17th at 3:11 pm. But there is no difference in the story. But your second story on Here’s How They Were Used, references that June 17th date. So what’s the significance there?
Fowler: The back end of our website sometimes does that when I started a draft story on, I guess, whatever that 2:46 pm time was a draft story. And the final story wasn’t done until the actual publication date on that Thursday.
And for whatever reason, the CMS, it’s a relatively new CMS on the back end. And so both of those dates were there. And so one of my editors changed it to the actual publication date when it was published because it wasn’t done on Wednesday because we didn’t have everything. It’s a back-end CMS issue.
Baigert: Yeah, that just doesn’t jive with our records. We have an actual publication date of June 16th at 2:46 pm. And I even included that…
Fowler: And that’s when the actual story went live the Thursday afternoon. But it was dated like it went live on Wednesday afternoon.
Baigert: It went live on Wednesday.
Fowler: I had the IT people deal with it.
Fowler: And also if you go back and I post my stories, I post my stories online soon after they are published. I didn’t post that story until that Thursday when it came out.
Baigert: Well, I saw it on…
Fowler: Yeah it was posted.
Baigert: I wrote my story as a follow-up to that and quoted from there what time it was published. So that still just doesn’t jive.
But are you willing to share what you got from Fulton County from back in April with us and your email exchanges? The documents of the exchange there with us? Would you share that with us?
Fowler: That, as far as, I filed a records request with the state. And so the state sent me a file with Fulton and some other ones.
Fowler: The state can and I can send you an email with what I asked the state for with all the forms, and you can send it to them. Because the state will probably have better luck. Because it has to go through the state.
Baigert: So the state gave you copies of all of the transfer forms for the 123 counties that used drop boxes?
Fowler: Yeah. It was copies with all the communications so there’s some that are emailed with somebody, I think, like the one that I mentioned where they said, what do you mean, drop box forms?
And some of them were converted of people sending phone pictures of their forms and in the attachments or whatever. The state does have all the records of the counties. Some of them are emails saying, hey, we don’t have drop boxes.
Baigert: Right. Right. Okay. So you’re going to send me what you said? You would send me the file that you got or the information you got from the Secretary of State?
Fowler: I’ll send you the language that I used in asking them for it because it’s a big file. It’s not actually one file. It’s multiple files. I can send you the language that I sent that you can send to them to ask because they have their own file transfer system that they use.
Fowler: Yeah. Well, as I said, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. (Inaudible talk)
Fredericks: Thanks for reaching out to us and getting both sides of the story, Stephen. I appreciate that. Thank you.
Fowler: I mean, that’s the goal, and that’s why people trust what they read from outlets instead of random letters and numbers websites and letters and numbers Twitter accounts. So I appreciate it and have a safe drive.
Fredericks: Alright. We’ll see you bye.
Fowler: Take care.
Baigert: Thank you. Bye.
The Nashville-based Star News Network owns and operates The Georgia Star News, The Ohio Star, The Tennessee Star, The Michigan Star, The Minnesota Sun, The Virginia Star,, The Florida Capital Star, and The Arizona Sun Times, as well as The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy radio program.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Star News Network and The Georgia Star News.
Photo “Stephen Fowler” by Georgia PBS. Background Photo “Georgia Public Broadcasting building” by Daniel Mayer. CC BY-SA 3.0.