(WASHINGTON) — After federal prosecutors unsealed charges Wednesday against a Missouri man who allegedly sent a voicemail threat to an Arizona election official last year, Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer confirmed the death threat and expressed confidence in the Justice Department task force on elections, despite the group’s indictments remaining in the single digits more than a year after it was formed.
“The reality is that all prosecution agencies receive gazillions more referrals than they have the capacity to investigate. So it is, perhaps, a result of shifting priorities within the department,” Richer told ABC News in a phone interview Wednesday. “It is an allocation of resources gain, and that’s not to say that they didn’t care about it previously, but this could signal a shift in priorities.”
Launched last year to address the rise in threats against election workers and officials, the task force, as of Aug. 1, has charged just four federal cases and joined one other case that was charged prior to its establishment. Richer’s case brings the total to six, with one conviction.
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. said at the beginning of August that agents have reviewed over 1,000 so-called hostile contacts, and only a fraction of those, approximately 11%, met the threshold for a federal criminal investigation, amounting to roughly 100 probes. Though the task force has faced criticism for not more aggressively prosecuting threats against election officials, Richer advised patience.
“I have great respect and patience, and even admiration for law enforcement that treads carefully and doesn’t bring something unless it is in the interest of justice in doing so,” Richer said. “Here, we’re complaining about people not operating within the confines of the law. They have to operate within the confines of the law.”
In the case involving Richer, Walter Hoornstra, 50, of Missouri, faces one charge of communicating an interstate threat and another count of making a threatening phone call, with the charges coupled carrying out a maximum of seven years in prison and $500,000 in fines.
“You call things unhinged and insane lies when there’s a forensic audit going on. You need to check yourself,” Hoornstra allegedly said on May 19, 2021, in a voicemail targeting Richer. “You need to do your [expletive] job right because other people from other states are watching your ass. You [expletive] reneg on this deal or give them any more troubles, your ass will never make it to your next little board meeting.”
A lawyer for Hoornstra did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
Richer, a Republican who was elected as Maricopa County Recorder in 2020, said threats multiplied when he started pushing back on election fraud claims amplified by former President Donald Trump and Arizona State Senate President Karen Fann. Fann, notably, hired the Cyber Ninjas, a Florida-based cybersecurity firm, which had no experience auditing elections, to oversee a widely-criticized review of results in Maricopa County as Trump’s false claims gained popularity with Arizona supporters.
“This was one of the first fever pitch moments,” he told ABC News, recalling receiving the voicemail. “And it was because the county started pushing back against some of the allegations.”
Last May, days before Hoornstra’s alleged threat, a “war room” account Richer alleges was run by the Cyber Ninjas Firm publicly and falsely claimed, without evidence, that Maricopa County had deleted election files unlawfully. When Trump amplified the false claim of deleted files to his base in a written statement, Richer rebuked him on Twitter — calling the former president’s comments targeting the state’s election “unhinged.”
“We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country,” Richer said in a tweet.
“We decided it was time to start pushing back against this because this was spilling over outside of what we had seen as the usual course of crazy politics,” Richer recalled to ABC News. “We had people quite literally calling for the heads of some of our IT members, for doing nothing.”
Richer is far from the only Arizona election official to be targeted.
Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democratic nominee for governor, was the target of an alleged bomb threat from Massachusetts man James W. Clark, 38. Prosecutors on the DOJ task force charged Clark in July with one count of making a bomb threat, one count of perpetrating a bomb hoax and one count of communicating an interstate threat. He faces up to 20 years in prison.
“Election officials across the country are being threatened regularly for doing their jobs,” Hobbs said in a statement last month confirming she was the target of the threat. “It’s unconscionable and undermines our democracy. This harassment won’t be tolerated and can’t be normalized. We thank the FBI for their persistence on further investigating this incident.”
Richer continues to criticize the so-called audit and its supporters for dredging up “very real-world consequences for me, for the board, for our collective offices,” over an allegation that was “facially ludicrous.”
“The whole endeavor was supposed to be towards improving confidence, but I think it has damaged it, in fact,” he said.
He said he still gets thousands of negative messages a day.
Still, he called his job “worthwhile.”
“Most people don’t get to work, wake up and say, ‘I’m going to be part of one of the most meaningful conversations in the world right now.’ And I’m going to do it with people I like,” he said. “So yeah, that’s pretty lucky.”
ABC News’ Alexander Mallin contributed to this report.
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