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The election claim at the heart of Bill McSwain’s feud with Bill Barr came from Delco. And it’s been debunked.

A GOP poll watcher in Delaware County claimed 47 voting machine USB drives had disappeared. But they weren't used to store votes.

Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, left, and former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, right.
Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, left, and former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, right.Read moreLeft: JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer; Right: AP

The specific allegation of electoral misconduct that blew open the relationship between Bill McSwain and former Attorney General Bill Barr this week — and may have hurt McSwain’s gubernatorial prospects before he even launched his campaign — arose out of Delaware County and has since been debunked.

McSwain, the top federal prosecutor in the region during the 2020 election, complained in a letter released this week by former President Donald Trump that Barr ordered him not to make public statements about how the election was run. And he cited a directive from a top Justice Department aide to share “serious allegations” of fraud and election irregularities with state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

But Barr, in a Tuesday interview with The Inquirer, flatly rejected the impression the letter left that McSwain had been ordered to stand down from investigating malfeasance. And after calling to confront him Monday night, Barr said McSwain admitted to him that he’d carefully worded the missive to curry favor with Trump.

According to Barr, the only disagreement on an actual proposed investigation McSwain raised on that call involved the Delaware County case, which Justice Department officials in Washington felt would be better run by state authorities because it did not appear to involve criminal activity.

“We’re not a quality assurance agency for state elections,” Barr said. “If someone violates a federal criminal law, we’ll look into it.”

» READ MORE: Bill McSwain tried to walk a political tightrope on Trump’s election lies. Bill Barr cut it.

The allegations, according to Barr, originated from Gregory Stenstrom — a Navy veteran, GOP poll watcher, and CEO of a data sciences firm in Glen Mills who emerged as a figure in the Republican election denial campaign last year with his complaints about events he says he observed at Delaware County’s vote tabulation center.

Stenstrom has aired a litany of concerns — ranging from frustrations over his access as a poll watcher to baseless theories that county elections workers illegally manufactured votes for Joe Biden — in appearances on Fox News and at a Republican legislative hearing in Gettysburg.

“I literally begged multiple law enforcement agencies to go get the forensic evidence from the computers,” he testified at the Nov. 25 hearing. “It’s a simple process. … That was never done despite my objections, and that was three weeks ago.”

Stenstrom also submitted affidavits in support of long-shot legal challenges seeking to overturn Pennsylvania’s election results filed by State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) and Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — both of which were rejected by courts.

But McSwain’s interest, Barr said, centered on one claim from Stenstrom’s long list: 47 voting-machine USB drives he claimed went missing after the election. Stenstrom has publicly claimed without evidence that the drives contained as many as 120,000 votes.

County elections officials have said the drives were used for programming voting machines, not for keeping records of ballots. Even if that were the case, the voting machines keep secured, paper records of each vote cast as a backup.

It remains unclear exactly when McSwain took an interest in the Stenstrom’s allegations and to what extent — if any — his office vetted them before bringing them to the attention of Justice Department officials in Washington.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which McSwain led until January, declined to confirm whether it had opened an investigation, how long it lasted, or whether it has since been closed, citing Justice Department policy.

McSwain himself has turned down multiple interview requests this week to discuss his letter to Trump. However, in an appearance Tuesday on Talk Radio 1210-WPHT’s conservative Dom Giordano Show, he obliquely referenced the allegedly missing thumb drives, saying he couldn’t get into specifics.

“I’m not making any judgments about what I would or would not have found,” he said. “But what I didn’t like was that I wasn’t free to follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

Barr says he never personally spoke to McSwain about the matter or ordered him to stand down.

» READ MORE: Bill Barr says Bill McSwain wanted to just ‘flap his gums,’ not investigate 2020 election fraud

Barr said Richard Donoghue, one of his top deputies at the Justice Department, instructed McSwain to share information about the USB drives with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which also has jurisdiction in election cases.

“Passing something to another law enforcement agency doesn’t mean that he’s been told to give up,” Barr said. “Things are passed back and forth all the time because a lot of these allegations don’t have to do with criminal conduct.”

McSwain bristled at that guidance. In his letter to Trump, he expressed distrust of Shapiro, who is widely seen as an early front-runner in next year’s Democratic primary for governor and, thus, a potential opponent for McSwain. McSwain cited predictions Shapiro had made publicly before the 2020 election that Trump was likely to lose Pennsylvania.

“I disagreed with that decision, but those were my orders,” McSwain wrote. “As a Marine infantry officer, I was trained to follow the chain of command and to respect the orders of my superiors.”

Shapiro’s office has said McSwain never referred anything about the Stenstrom case or any other election-related investigation.

And Barr, in the interview, said he agreed with his deputy’s guidance. Unless there was evidence of criminal malfeasance or a violation of civil rights — the traditional domains of federal election inquiries — questions of whether proper election procedures were followed were better left to the state, he said.

McSwain responded to Barr in a tweet Tuesday night, maintaining that everything in his letter to Trump is “100% true.”

He added: “I have more important things to be concerned about than Bill Barr’s feelings.”