PHOENIX (AP) -- The top Republicans in Arizona's largest county gave an impassioned defense of their handling of the 2020 election Monday, calling on fellow members of the GOP and business leaders to speak out against an unprecedented partisan election audit.
The GOP-dominated Maricopa County Board of Supervisors cast the audit as a sham that's spun out of the control of the state Senate leader who's ostensibly overseeing it. Board Chairman Jack Sellers said Senate President Karen Fann is making an "attempt at legitimatizing a grift disguised as an audit."
After former President Donald Trump claimed without evidence that his loss was marred by fraud, Fann used the Senate's subpoena power to take possession of ballots and voting machines from Maricopa County, a longtime Republican stronghold that was won by Democrat Joe Biden last year. She turned all of it over to Cyber Ninjas, a small Florida-based cybersecurity firm owned by a Trump supporter who has promoted election conspiracies, to conduct an audit along with several subcontractors.
Last week, Fann sent a letter to Sellers questioning records that document the chain of custody of the ballots and accusing county officials of deleting data. The county on Monday sent a 12-page response vehemently denying wrongdoing, explaining its processes and accusing Cyber Ninjas of incompetence.
"They can't find the files because they don't know what they're doing," Sellers said during a public meeting held to refute Fann's allegations. "We wouldn't be asked to do this on-the-job training if qualified auditors had been hired to do this work."
Fann did not immediately comment but sent a tweet saying the media was given the county's letter before she was. She has said the audit is an effort to address concerns raised by many Trump supporters who worry the election was not conducted fairly and to find out whether the Legislature should change election laws.
Fann's accusations touched a nerve with county officials, who have grown increasingly exasperated with the audit. They said they won't appear in the Senate on Tuesday, as requested by Fann, to answer questions, and would not give in to Fann's demands for the county's internet routers, which county officials say would compromise sensitive data unrelated to elections.
Fann has also demanded an administrative password for vote-counting machines, but county officials say those are maintained by the system's manufacturer, Dominion Voting Systems Inc., which says it will only give such access to certified election vendors. None of the firms involved in the audit is certified.
On Monday, county Republicans threatened to sue if senators or auditors accuse them of breaking the law. And they implored elected officials who have doubts about the audit to stop keeping their criticisms to themselves.
"Elected Republicans, I think, are afraid of the next election and they can't be," said Bill Gates, the vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "They've got to stand for what is right. Otherwise, why did they run for office in the first place?"
Later, he lamented silence from business leaders and urged them to "contact those elected officials who they donate money to."
"This is creating a black eye to Arizona and I would think that those business leaders would want this to stop," Gates said.
County officials also highlighted the backlash they've experienced for speaking out, including death threats and protests at their homes.
Promoted heavily in right-wing media, the audit has become a cause celebre among some of Trump's most loyal fans, who believe it will uncover evidence of the former president's claim that he was the rightful winner of the election.
Trump sent a statement saying, in part, that "the entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED! This is illegal and the Arizona State Senate, who is leading the Forensic Audit, is up in arms."
Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, one of the county's top election officials, on Saturday called the statement "unhinged" and called on other Republicans to stop the unfounded accusations.
Richer was elected in the same election many in his party are now questioning, defeating an incumbent Democrat. As recorder, he oversees the voter registration database and the mail voting operation, including signature verification, while the county board oversees the team charged with election-day operations and counting ballots.
On Monday, he said he hoped that he and other county officials were making it easier for others to speak out against the narrative of election fraud.
"We're out here now. We've moved," Richer said. "I think you're going to see others joining. The water's warm. Come in."