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GOP nominee for Michigan AG named in election security breach probe

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/8/2022 Rosalind Helderman, Emma Brown, Tom Hamburger
Former president Donald Trump endorses Matthew DePerno, who is running for the Michigan Republican Party's nomination for state attorney general, during a rally on April 2 near Washington, Mich. © Scott Olson/Getty Images Former president Donald Trump endorses Matthew DePerno, who is running for the Michigan Republican Party's nomination for state attorney general, during a rally on April 2 near Washington, Mich.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) is seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the Republican nominee for her job after a state police investigation found evidence that he helped orchestrate an effort last year to gain unauthorized access to voting equipment in an effort to prove there was fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

In a petition filed Friday with a Michigan agency that coordinates prosecutors, a Nessel representative wrote that her office has a conflict of interest because a preliminary investigation by state police has determined that her opponent — lawyer Matthew DePerno — was “one of the prime instigators” of a conspiracy to persuade Michigan clerks to allow unauthorized access to voting machines.

She asked that an independent prosecutor be named to review the investigation and determine whether to file criminal charges against DePerno and eight others. They include a Michigan state representative and a county sheriff, as well as other key figures in the election-denier movement.

Tyson Shepard, DePerno’s campaign manager, told the Detroit News that Nessel has a “history of targeting and persecuting her political enemies.” The News reported the petition, which was originally disclosed Sunday evening by Politico.

“Dana Nessel knows she is losing this race,” Shepard told the News. “She is desperate to win this election at all costs and is now targeting DePerno, her political opponent. Her actions are unethical and will further demonstrate to the voters that she is unfit for office.”

In addition to the petition, the attorney general’s office announced early Monday that it had filed a request for an investigation by Michigan’s Attorney Grievance Commission, which examines allegations of ethical misconduct by attorneys in the state.

State police have been investigating since February efforts by supporters of former president Donald Trump to persuade Michigan clerks to give them access to voting software and tabulating machines so they could examine them to prove fraud took place in 2020. According to Nessel’s petition, DePerno and two others, including a Michigan state representative, “orchestrated a coordinated plan to gain access” to equipment in four Michigan communities.

According to the petition, the tabulators were taken to hotel rooms and Airbnb rentals in Oakland County, where a group of four men “broke into” the tabulators and performed “tests” on them. The petition says that DePerno was present in a hotel room during some of the testing.

DePerno has been a leading election denier in Michigan since shortly after the 2020 election, filing a lawsuit challenging the results in Antrim County because of a quickly corrected error by the county clerk that resulted in the heavily Republican county at first reporting a victory for Joe Biden.

In the course of that lawsuit, DePerno persuaded a judge to authorize an examination of Antrim’s Dominion voting machines in early December 2020. That examination yielded a so-called forensic report claiming evidence that Dominion machines had been rigged to flip votes from Trump to Biden. And though the central claims of the report were immediately debunked by the Justice and Homeland Security departments, Trump held it up as evidence of fraud in the run-up to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Former attorney general William P. Barr recalled that Trump called the report “absolute proof that the Dominion machines were rigged,” according to a clip of Barr’s deposition played during a hearing of the House’s Jan. 6 committee in June. Barr recalled that Trump said the report “means that I’m going to have a second term.”

Barr said that the report was “amateurish” and that Trump would have to be “detached from reality” to believe it.

According to the petition filed on Nessel’s behalf, the state police investigation found that DePerno was assisted in the effort by Michigan state Rep. Daire Rendon (R), who told one local clerk that the Michigan House of Representatives was conducting an investigation into election fraud. Others named in Nessel’s petition are Sheriff Dar Leaf — the sheriff in Barry County, Mich. — as well as two individuals who played key roles in a GOP-commissioned effort to review election results in Arizona last year. Rendon and Leaf did not respond to requests for comment Sunday evening.

Mark Brewer, a Michigan elections lawyer who was formerly chair of the state Democratic Party, called the action “unprecedented and historic. I don’t recall any previous candidate for attorney general being under investigation.”

Election experts have been sounding the alarm for months about efforts around the country by Trump allies to examine or copy tightly guarded voting equipment to search for evidence of fraud in the 2020 election. They fear the outsiders might have compromised the sensitive tabulators or could publish details about how voting machines and software work that would make it easier to commit fraud in the future.

In some episodes that have become public, third parties persuaded sympathetic election officials to assist. Tina Peters, a local clerk in Colorado, was indicted in March on charges stemming from her participation in a successful effort to allow outsiders to copy the hard drives of voting machines in her county. She has denied wrongdoing.

An elections supervisor embraced conspiracy theories. Officials say she has become an insider threat.

In Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help probe allegations that Trump allies working with local elections officials illicitly copied voting equipment in Coffee County in 2021, his attorneys disclosed in a document filed in court last week.

On Friday, Nessel’s chief deputy wrote a letter to Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D), urging that Benson remind election clerks that they have a legal obligation to carefully guard voting equipment. It is a felony under state law to have “undue possession” of a voting machine, she wrote in the letter, obtained by The Washington Post.

In a statement, Benson said: “There must be consequences for those who broke the law to undermine our elections in order to advance their own political agendas.” She said her office would work to ensure local clerks are “equipped with a full understanding of the legal protections in place to block bad actors from pressuring them to gain access to secure election systems.”

The letter to the secretary of state included a narrative of the state police findings of a concerted effort to persuade clerks to hand over carefully guarded voting equipment to unauthorized outsiders — and slapdash efforts to return the equipment once clerks grew wary. According to the letter, the Michigan state police investigation has now determined that “a group of individuals gained unauthorized access and compromised tabulators” in four communities between March and June of last year.

In each case, clerks were contacted by a person identified in the letter only as “Person 1,” who said he was conducting an investigation of alleged fraud and asked for access to the machines. In some cases, clerks were also contacted by a state representative who is not named in the letter but, according to the petition, appears to be Rendon.

The representative told Michelle Stevenson, the clerk in Roscommon County, that state representatives were “doing an investigation into election fraud and needed her voting machine.” Stevenson then turned over a tabulator and several USB drives to “Person 1” on a Sunday in March 2021, according to the letter. She declined to turn over a computer containing the election system hard drive but allowed several individuals to make a copy.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Christina M. Grossi wrote that in Irving Township, “Person 1” told town clerk Sharon Olson that he was acting on behalf of the Barry County Sheriff’s Office. According to the letter, Olson gave “Person 1” a tabulator that had been used in the 2020 presidential election in March 2021. Reuters has reported that the sheriff’s office had asked Olson to give the equipment to a private investigator, as part of an election probe that Leaf, the sheriff, has claimed his law enforcement role empowered him to undertake.

According to the letter, clerks were told their equipment would be returned within days and “grew apprehensive” when it was not. Stevenson began to press the state representative over several weeks about the whereabouts of Roscommon County’s tabulator. “The Representative told her not to worry about the tabulators, as she was doing the right thing and they had her back. She further advised the clerk that her name would never come up,” Grossi wrote.

Roscommon County’s voting equipment was finally returned to Stevenson in April 2021, Grossi wrote, a handoff that took place in the carpool lot of an interstate exit. A tabulator that had been taken from another community, Lake City Township, was returned to the town clerk in September 2021 at a local shopping mall.

In her letter, Grossi noted that the tabulators in question had already been decommissioned and were not in use for Michigan’s primary election, which took place this month. Technicians employed by Election Systems & Software, the company that manufacturers the equipment, reviewed the tabulators as part of the state police investigation, she wrote. They found that one of the five tabulators had been subjected to “extensive physical tampering,” but they did not believe any software was manipulated.

“We view the actions of these individuals to be very serious, yet we do not believe these actions impair the integrity of the recent August 2nd primary election,” she wrote.

Nessel declined further comment on the open investigation. But a Monday morning press statement from the attorney general’s office said that the petition and a related overview document sent to Michigan’s secretary of state were being publicly released because both would be made available under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

Patrick Marley contributed to this report.

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