A Democratic senator in a tight re-election race says Russians are interfering in his campaign — but some top officials say they don't know what he's talking about

  • Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has claimed the Russians have “penetrated” state systems ahead of his re-election bid.
  • Florida’s secretary of state said they do not have any evidence of what Nelson has claimed, and began probing federal agencies for answers.
  • But so far top agencies and the Senate Intelligence Committee have been cagey in their responses, leaving Nelson without evidence of any interference.
  • Nelson’s challenger, Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, has seized on the claims by questioning whether he made it all up or potentially divulged classified information.

WASHINGTON – When Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who is up for re-election in Florida this November, said the Russians have penetrated state voting systems, it set off alarm bells across the state.

But in the days since, Nelson has not shown any proof – and various officials have not provided any either – leading to a brutal political fight with his Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott.

It started when Nelson told the Tampa Bay Times that Russians were interfering in the 2018 campaigns in Florida.

“They have already penetrated certain counties in the state and they now have free rein to move about,” he said, adding that elaborating any further was classified.

“We were requested by the chairman and vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee to let the supervisors of election in Florida know that the Russians are in their records,” Nelson added.

Nelson’s claim was important because other Senate campaigns have been targeted as well. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, both of whom are Democrats, have reportedly been hit in recent months.

But Nelson’s lack of details prompted Scott to question his claim, suggesting he fabricated the whole thing.

“Either Bill Nelson knows of crucial information the federal government is withholding from Florida elections officials or he is simply making things up,” Scott said at a campaign event. “Did Nelson illegally release some classified information? Or did he make this charge of Russian penetration up?”

Florida Department of State is seeking answers to Nelson’s claim

State official appeared to have no idea what Nelson was talking about.

Florida Department of State spokeswoman Sarah Revell said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that the agency “has received zero information from Senator Nelson or his staff that support his claims.”

“Additionally, the Department has received no information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that corroborates Senator Nelson’s statement and we have no evidence to support these claims,” Revell added. “If Senator Nelson has specific information about threats to our elections, he should share it with election officials in Florida.”

Because the serious claim that Russians were already interfering in the state caught the attention of Florida’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner, he asked both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to address the matter.

Neither agency responded to Detzner by his deadline at 5 p.m. on Monday, Revell confirmed to Business Insider.

In addition, Sen. Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter to Detzner neither confirming nor explicitly denying Nelson’s claims.

Burr’s letter noted that the committee released its recommendations on election security in May, but deferred to the relevant agencies regarding any “intrusions” by hostile actors.

“While I understand your questions regarding Senator Nelson’s recent public comments, I respectfully advise you to continue engaging directly with those Federal agencies responsible for notifying you of and mitigating any potential intrusions – specifically, the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Burr wrote. “Any briefings or notifications about ongoing threats would, rightfully, come from those agencies.”

But Nelson is standing by the claim. Monday evening, Nelson told reporters that he believes it is “foolish” to deny Russian interference and that Scott’s questioning of it all is for “partisan political purposes.”

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