Maryland officials were informed by the FBI on Thursday that a key vendor used by the Board of Elections has ties to a Russian “oligarch” said to be close to President Vladimir Putin.
The vendor is ByteGrid LLC, which the Board of Elections said in a statement on Friday “hosts the statewide voter registration, candidacy, and election management system, the online voter registration system, online ballot delivery system, and unofficial election night results website.”
“According to the FBI,” the statement continued, “ByteGrid LLC is financed by Altpoint Capital Partners, whose fund manager is a Russian and its largest investor is a Russian oligarch named Vladimir Potanin.”
The state ended up working with ByteGrid in 2015, when the company purchased the Sidus Group, an Anne Arundel County-based web hosting firm, Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator for the elections board, told reporters.
Gerald T. Banks
At a hastily called news conference on Friday, Charlson, flanked by legislative leaders, said the state was unaware of ByteGrid’s ties to Mr. Potanin, and that they have asked Attorney General Brian Frosh to investigate.
While they attempted to offer reassurance that voters should have confidence in the integrity of November’s elections, there was also a clear expression of concern.
“This goes to the heart of democracy, quite frankly,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).
“There is still a Cold War going on. There are people on Capitol Hill that don’t recognize that. This is the evil empire, and they are at our door when they invest in our election process.”
“The FBI conveyed to us that there is no criminal activity that they [have] seen,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). “They believe that the system that we have has not been breached, while they’re still monitoring it.”
Altpoint Capital, the firm that owns ByteGrid, is a sprawling conglomerate that owns numerous companies, including Lyft and Ford Models.
Their founder and managing partner is Gerald T. Banks, according to Altpoint’s website.
According to Busch, state officials were told this week that Banks “was born and raised in Russia,” and that he changed his name for reasons that were not made clear.
In a statement, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said, “It is imperative that the State Board of Elections take immediate and comprehensive action to evaluate the security of our system and take any and all necessary steps to address any vulnerabilities.”
“While the information relayed to us did not indicate that any wrongdoing or criminal acts have been discovered, we are fast approaching an election in November, and even the appearance of the potential for bad actors to have any influence on our election infrastructure could undermine public trust in the integrity of our election system,” Hogan said.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., left, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Nikki Charlson, deputy administrator of the Maryland Board of Elections at a Friday press conference.
Miller seemed to imply that the information about ByteGrid and Altpoint was hiding in plain sight.
“Nobody knew the background of this company, nobody knew that [the head of the firm] was a Russian, nobody know that the person had changed their name — until yesterday when the four [agents] from the FBI indicated that this is public information, that it’s on the internet.”
Miller called it a “shocking” revelation.
In a statement released on Friday, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) said, “Russian attacks on our democracy are not an abstract idea — they are a threat to Maryland and our entire country. This news is deeply disturbing, and it raises urgent questions about foreign interference in our elections.”
Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D) said: “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. I am not alone in being astounded that this president still continues to call legitimate criminal investigations into Russia’s malfeasance a ‘witch hunt.’”
State leaders disclosed the Russian connection to ByteGrid on the same day that special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian military officials on charges they hacked into two Democratic Party computer systems, in order to sabotage the 2016 presidential election.
President Trump is scheduled to meet with President Putin on Monday.
A series of questions sent via email to Altpoint on Friday did not generate an immediate response.
The following response was received from ByteGrid by email Monday.
“ByteGrid Holdings LLC maintains secure and compliant IT hosting infrastructure for companies and organizations that value data privacy and protection. We stand by our commitment to security in everything we do, and do not share information about who our customers are and what we do for them. Because it is a government contract, information related to our relationship with the Maryland State Board of Elections is publicly available and we encourage you to read the publicly available documents. ByteGrid is managed and run by seasoned Internet and IT industry leaders. ByteGrid’s investors have no involvement or control in company operations,” reads the statement.
Asked Friday if the Board of Elections will continue to use ByteGrid, Busch replied: “The election board is working with the attorney general to see how this contract is written. There’s a lot of information we still need to get.”
This report was updated at 6 p.m. Monday, July 16, to include a statement from ByteGrid Holdings LLC.