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Charles Homans, Ken Bensinger, Alexandra Berzon and
When federal agents seized the cellphone of Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow, in the drive-though line of a fast-food restaurant in Minnesota on Tuesday, it was a clear indication that the Justice Department had intensified its interest in a state case against a Colorado county clerk accused of tampering with voting machines.
Mr. Lindell, both in interviews and on his online television show, said that the agents who took his phone had asked about his ties to Tina Peters, the clerk of Mesa County, Colo., who is facing a state indictment over an effort to obtain data from voting machines produced by Dominion Voting Systems. The Dominion machines were central to conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, and Ms. Peters is accused of engineering a scheme that she believed would prove the devices had been used to steal the race from former President Donald J. Trump.
By seizing Mr. Lindell’s phone, federal investigators brought into the case one of the most prominent purveyors of pro-Trump disinformation about elections. The warrant used against him went even further, placing him on a list of what it described as several “co-conspirators.”
Those people, according to a copy of the warrant, included not only Ms. Peters but also Douglas Frank, an influential activist who claims to have mathematical proof that the 2020 election was stolen, and Sherronna Bishop, a former campaign manager for Representative Lauren Boebert, Republican of Colorado.
The warrant also said that investigators were seeking information about Conan Hayes, a surfer-turned-infotech expert who, according to court records and interviews, posed as an elections office employee to gain access to the voting machines.
While the full scope of the inquiry remained unclear, the F.B.I. was investigating at least three federal crimes, the warrant said: identity theft, intentional damage to a protected computer and a conspiracy charge. The warrant added that prosecutors were seeking records and information about “damage to any Dominion computerized voting system” as well as other attempts to alter or manipulate the voting machines or their software.
The episode involving Ms. Peters was only one of several instances in which local officials and activists motivated by a belief in election fraud have gained access to Dominion machines in the hopes of proving their theories true. Prosecutors in Michigan and Georgia are also investigating whether data was improperly copied from machines in their states.
It remained unclear if the Justice Department was also investigating any of these other data breaches.
Late Tuesday, the F.B.I. field office in Denver confirmed that it had served Mr. Lindell with a warrant, but Deborah Takahara, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver, said the office would have no further comment.
In an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday night, Mr. Lindell said that he had been in the drive-through line at a Hardee’s restaurant in Mankato, Minn., that afternoon, while returning with a friend from a duck-hunting trip in Iowa, when his vehicle was surrounded by several cars driven by federal agents. The agents, he said, presented him with the warrant for his phone and interviewed him for about 15 minutes.
In addition to his ties to Ms. Peters, he said, they also asked about an image copied from a Dominion machine in Mesa County that appeared on FrankSpeech, a website and hosting platform he operates.
Others named in the documents did not comment publicly on the F.B.I. investigation. Ms. Bishop, the former aide to Ms. Boebert, declined to directly answer when asked if she had received a warrant for her phone, writing in a text message on Tuesday, “Nothing to report here.” Mr. Hayes and Mr. Frank could not be reached for comment.
How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.
Mr. Lindell protested loudly against the F.B.I.’s confiscation of his phone. “They think they’re going to intimidate me,” he told The Times. “That’s disgusting.”
He said he did not own a computer and ran his entire business off his phone. “I do everything off my phone,” he said. “It’s all texting or talking.”
Still, since the warrant was served, Mr. Lindell has posted twice on Telegram, including a post urging his followers to “fight back” by buying more of his pillows.
Prosecutors have said Ms. Peters enlisted help from a network of activists, some of them close to Mr. Lindell. Data purported to have come from machines under her supervision was later shown at a symposium hosted by Mr. Lindell last year. Ms. Peters appeared onstage at the event.
Among the questions the F.B.I. asked Mr. Lindell, he told The Times, was whether he had paid Ms. Peters to show up at his gathering. The agents “asked if I gave her any money after the symposium,” he said.
Mr. Lindell once told a local reporter that he had funded Ms. Peters’s legal efforts directly. He now says that he was mistaken about his contributions and that he did not directly contribute to her defense. “I was financing everything back then,” he said, referring to the various lawsuits filed in relation to the 2020 election. “I thought I’d financed hers, too.”
Mr. Lindell earlier told The Times that he had funneled as much as $200,000 to her legal defense through his legal fund, the Lindell Legal Offense Fund. Ms. Peters had directed supporters to donate to that fund.
On his web TV show — which is streamed on Facebook and several other platforms — Mr. Lindell claimed that the F.B.I. agents had also asked about Mr. Frank. They wanted to know specifically, he said, whether he had ever employed Mr. Frank. Mr. Lindell said that Mr. Frank didn’t work for him that “but I’ve helped him out a couple of times,” according to the MyPillow executive’s account.
In February 2021, Dominion filed a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Lindell claiming that he had repeatedly promoted “the ‘Big Lie’ that Dominion had stolen the 2020 election.” The suit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Washington, seeks damages of more than $1 billion.
Alongside his efforts to attack Dominion, Mr. Lindell also helped to sponsor so-called Stop the Steal events in Washington after the election as well as a pro-Trump bus tour that recruited protesters for Mr. Trump’s rally in the city on Jan. 6, 2021.
While the search warrant for his cellphone did not suggest that the government was directly interested at this point in anything related to his activities leading up to Jan. 6, prosecutors could, in theory, obtain that sort of material from the phone at some point in the future.
In recent days, the Justice Department has ramped up its investigation of attempts by Mr. Trump’s allies to overturn the election, issuing more than 40 subpoenas with a broad reach. One of the many subjects the subpoenas are seeking information about is evidence “tending to show that there was fraud of any kind in or relating to the 2020 presidential election.”