Latest twist in state electoral board mystery: Executive director to retire after he was victim of extortion attempt
Steve Sandvoss sent a letter announcing he will retire effective June 30, the chair of the Illinois State Board of Elections said Tuesday. Sandvoss was put on leave two weeks ago after reporting he was the victim of an extortion attempt that officials have refused to publicly detail.
The executive director of the state’s election authority will retire this summer, an abrupt announcement that comes a little over two weeks after board members placed him on administrative leave after he reported being the victim of an online extortion attempt.
Steve Sandvoss sent a letter announcing he will retire effective June 30, Charles Scholz, chair of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said during a virtual board meeting Tuesday.
“We commend him for 32 years of service to the agency,” Scholz said before closing the meeting.
Sandvoss, 55, joined the board in 1988 and served as its general counsel from 2004 to 2015, then was named executive director in 2015, the board said in a statement. He will be on administrative leave until his retirement.
An investigation conducted by the board’s chief information security office didn’t find any evidence of tampering with the board’s data or system, that statement said.
“Steve is the victim in this, and we have no reason to believe the state board was a victim or that any of our systems were ever compromised because of this,” board spokesman Matt Dietrich said.
Dietrich said given Sandvoss’ age and length of service with the board “he could take retirement at any time.”
Asked if Sandvoss was pushed to retire, Dietrich said “the decision was Steve’s.”
Scholz didn’t share details of the letter announcing Sandvoss’ retirement during the meeting.
On April 5, the board voted unanimously to place Sandvoss on leave after he reported an attempted extortion scheme that “appeared typical of many such online scams,” according to a statement from the board.
That statement did not divulge any details on the attempt nor did the board get into details at its Tuesday meeting. Officials have declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation.
Dietrich said the board has no reason to believe Sandvoss was targeted because of his position.
Dietrich didn’t know the details of the extortion attempt but described it as “typical” of online scams — “the scammer initiates communication online with the victim, and then at some point during the communication, the perpetrator demands money and says, ‘If you don’t, then I’m going to take action that’s going to damage you.’
“That’s what this typical scheme was. I do not know any details beyond that, other than it was online, and no money was exchanged, and [Sandvoss] went to the State Police immediately,” Dietrich said.
After the board’s voter registration database was breached in a cyberattack in 2016, the board took action to prevent another breach from happening.
One step the board took included Sandvoss receiving security clearance to attend a national briefing with the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., on cybersecurity and election integrity efforts in February 2018, according to a news release from the board.
It was not immediately clear if Sandvoss still has that security clearance or if it is related to the extortion attempt.
After Sandvoss alerted the board, the election agency authorized the board’s chief information security officer, Jeremy Owens, to conduct an internal assessment of all devices to which Sandvoss had access.
The extortion attempt was reported to the Illinois State Police, which began an investigation. A spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment on that investigation.
At the time, the board said in a statement there was “no reason to believe that any election data or information has been compromised.”
“However, because this attempt targeted a top official at the Illinois State Board of Elections, and out of an abundance of caution, the board has taken the cautionary step of placing Director Sandvoss on administrative leave,” the statement reads in part.
Acting Executive Director Bernadette Matthews has led the board since Sandvoss was placed on leave and will continue as head of the agency until a permanent director is named, according to a statement from the board.