GOP liaison to Arizona reverses course after vowing to resign

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The Republican serving as liaison between the Arizona state Senate and the private company conducting a partisan ballot review said Wednesday that he intended to resign, then walked it back.

Ken Bennett, a former Arizona secretary of state, said he'd decided to resign when it became clear he would not regain access to the Phoenix fairgrounds where the private company, Cyber Ninjas, continues its examination of millions of ballots cast last November in Maricopa County.

"Right now I’m the liaison in name only," he told conservative radio host James Harris on Wednesday morning. "I don’t know if that makes me a LINO or what."

Bennett, who has been the public face of the review, was first barred from entering the audit site Friday after he shared some results with outside election experts, according to The Arizona Republic. Those experts told the paper that what they reviewed indicated the auditors' vote tally was in line with the results reported by the county.

"I’ve always tried to act as a man of integrity and honesty and I’m sure I don’t accomplish that all the time, but I cannot put a rubber stamp on a product I am being locked out of its development," he said Wednesday. "I’m going to step down today. I’ll issue a statement later for the press later this morning."

But by the end of the day, he still hadn't issued his promised resignation statement, and in a text to NBC News, told NBC News that Arizona state Senate President Karen Fann and he were working up a new, joint statement that would keep him on the team.

"It will include me continuing as Senate Liason," he said in the message.

Fann, also a Republican, had said in a statement to NBC News on Wednesday that a liaison was no longer needed on site because the tabulation of votes was complete and ballots would be returned to Maricopa County on Thursday.

"At this point, we do not need a Senate liaison on site since all data gathered will now be taken to the auditors labs for analysis," she said. "After the auditors have submitted their draft report, Ken will be part of this process as the authorized Senate liaison. Ken and the entire Senate team will have full access to all the core audit data to verify their findings. The Senate contract with the auditor explicitly says all data and findings gathered from the entire audit is the property of the Arizona Senate."

Bennett suggested in a series of interviews earlier this week that he might step down because his exclusion from ongoing processes would make him leery of signing off on a final report.

On Tuesday, Fann said it was "imperative anyone working with the audit is required to adhere to the rules of not disclosing unconfirmed information."

But in that same statement, she said Bennett "will be involved and a vital part of the draft and final reports to ensure their accuracy with his knowledge and contributions throughout the audit process."

In his Wednesday morning interview, Bennett said he was "appreciative" of Fann's statement indicating he would play a role in drafting the final report, "but I’ve got to have access to the source data and everything that will be the building blocks to that final report."

"I can’t just come in at the last minute and be asked to endorse something that I can’t be a part of really building," he said.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat critical of the audit, said in a statement that Bennett's impending resignation "further illustrates the ongoing issues with the sham audit that has gone on far too long."

She added, "It proves what I have been saying from the very beginning: this exercise lacks transparency and is being run by a group with no election or auditing experience."

The audit is months behind schedule, though additional avenues of inquiry appear to be expanding.

Fann and Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Petersen authorized new subpoenas earlier this week, The Associated Press reported, requesting even more data from Maricopa County as well as administrator-level access to the voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems. The auditors initially demanded those passwords from the county; Dominion has said it would not cooperate with firms that are not authorized by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

On Friday, Fann also sent Hobbs a request under Arizona's public records law for "all records concerning any audit or recount of, or litigation concerning, the 2020 general election," according to a copy of the request shared with NBC News.

Hobbs told NBC News that her office is reviewing Fann's request but that it "appears to be the kind of nebulous fishing expedition we have come to expect from the Senate President."

A representative of the Arizona audit did not immediately respond to requests for comment from NBC News. Bennett declined to comment further, noting his intention to release a statement later Wednesday.

Cyber Ninjas founder Doug Logan has promoted election conspiracy theories. The company's Republican-backed review of more than 2.1 million Maricopa County ballots has been heavily criticized by elections experts and officials, including GOP leaders in Maricopa County who cite the auditors' inexperience with election reviews and systems.

The Republican-controlled state Senate authorized the review of ballots in Arizona's most populous county and hired the private company to conduct it after President Joe Biden flipped the state blue for the first time in decades, winning Arizona by more than 10,400 votes last fall. The audit's findings will not overturn his certified victory in the state.

In his interview, Bennett said he spoke with Logan on Tuesday and reiterated he would give his stamp of approval on the final report only if he was reinstated with full access to the audit. He also said the final report could be "thousands" of pages long.

"If I’m going to put my credibility on the line that it’s something they can trust and believe in, I can’t be locked out until the last minute,” he said.

Bennett's announcement comes as another public-facing element of the audit — its Twitter account, @ArizonaAudit — was permanently suspended by Twitter along with seven other pro-audit accounts that promoted former President Donald Trump's lies about last fall's vote. The suspensions were first reported by BuzzFeed News.

A Twitter spokesperson told NBC News the accounts were barred for violating its rules on platform manipulation and spam.

The conspiracy-infused audit in Arizona has inspired calls from pro-Trump Republicans for similar efforts in a number of other states — including some Trump won. Trump allies from across the country have visited the site of the monthslong audit and have otherwise hyped it.

Voter fraud in U.S. elections is exceedingly rare. Trump's top cybersecurity official said the election last year was "the most secure in American history," while then-Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department found no evidence of widespread malfeasance.

In Arizona, prior ballot reviews have affirmed Biden's win. But those who still question the vote said those counts didn't go far enough.

In May, Bennett told NBC News the review is aimed at uncovering any flaws with the prior election so legislators can recommend fixes — not about seeking to overturn the results.

"I think it will largely put to rest the people who are most concerned about whether things were done correctly in November of 2020," he said then.

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