In early 2021, when the turmoil of a hard-fought presidential contest was still fresh, several Michigan election secretaries received strange phone calls.
The person on the other end was a Republican state representative who told them their election gear was needed for an investigation, according to documents from the Michigan attorney general’s office.
They obliged. Soon the machines were recovered from hotels and Airbnb rentals in Oakland County, outside of Detroit, by conservative activists looking for what they believed to be evidence of fraud, the documents show. Weeks later, after the equipment was hand-delivered to carpool parks and malls, employees discovered it had been tampered with and, in some cases, damaged.
Revelations of possible interference with voting machines have sparked a political tsunami in Michigan, one of the nation’s most critical battleground states.
The documents detail deception by election officials and a violation of voting materials that stand out as extraordinary even among the volumes of public reporting on cheeky attempts by supporters of former President Donald J. Trump to scrutinize and undermine the 2020 results.
But one of the most politically striking elements of the case is the identity of one of those implicated in the scheme by the attorney general’s office: Matthew DePerno, who is now the presumptive Republican nominee for that office.
Mr. DePerno, a lawyer who has grown in importance contesting the 2020 results in County Antrim and was endorsed by Mr Trump, is vying to unseat Dana Nessel, a Democrat who is Michigan’s top law enforcement official and has fought off attempts to undermine the state election.
Now evidence from his office puts Mr DePerno at one of the ‘tests’ of voting hardware and suggests he was one of the main orchestrators of a ‘plot’ to gain improper access to the machines in three counties, Roscommon and Missaukee in northern Michigan. and Barry, a rural area southeast of Grand Rapids. The tampering resulted in physical damage, but the attorney general’s office said there was no evidence that there was “software or firmware manipulation” of the equipment.
Even before the new charges, the potential run between Ms Nessel and Mr DePerno was one of the most watched contests for the nation’s attorney general.
During his campaign, Mr. DePerno continued to falsely claim that mail-in voting is riddled with fraud and that voting records were deleted or destroyed after the election, and he pledged to “prosecute people who corrupted the 2020 elections”. He also said he would open investigations with Ms. Nessel, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, all Democrats.
His candidacy has worried election experts, Democrats and even many Republicans, who fear he could use his powers to conduct investigations based on fraudulent allegations or engage in other forms of election interference.
Yet because Mr. DePerno is the likely Republican nominee – he obtained State Party approval this year and is expected to be formally appointed later this month – any investigation by Ms Nessel is politically tense and risks a conflict of interest. With that in mind, his office on Friday requested that a special prosecutor be appointed to continue the investigation and bring possible criminal charges.
The allegations against Mr. DePerno and eight others – including Daire Rendon, a Republican state representative, and Dar Leaf, the sheriff of Barry County – were detailed in a letter sent Friday by the Deputy Attorney General to Ms. Benson, and in a petition from Ms. Nessel’s office asking for the special prosecutor. The Detroit News first brought back the letterand Politico first reported the petition. Reuters first reported Mr. DePerno’s alleged involvement.
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Tyson Shepherd, Mr DePerno’s campaign manager, said in a statement that “Matt DePerno categorically denies the allegations presented” and that “the petition itself is an incoherent Liberal fever dream lie”. He also said the investigation was political and that “if Dana Nessel decides to move forward with these allegations, she will ultimately find herself on the side of the defendant in a malicious prosecution case.”
A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the timing was not affected by politics.
The petition from Ms. Nessel’s office states, “When this investigation began, there was no conflict of interest,” adding, “However, during the course of the investigation, facts were developed that DePerno was one of the main instigators of the plot. .”
He continues, “DePerno is now the presumptive Republican nominee for Attorney General. A conflict arises when “the prosecutor has a personal interest (financial or emotional) in the litigation”.
The petition identifies several people, like Jim Penrose, a former National Security Agency official, who has looked into allegations of fraud in Mr. Trump’s 2020 loss over the past two years, many of which focus on the use digital voting machines. , such as those made by Dominion Voting Systems. Others mentioned in the petition, such as Doug Logan, the former chief executive of tech company Cyber Ninjas, have been involved in different efforts to discredit the election results, such as a partisan scrutiny of ballots in Arizona. .
Neither Mr. Penrose nor Mr. Logan responded to calls on Monday seeking comment on Ms. Nessel’s petition.
Local poll clerks have been targeted by election deniers in several locations across the country. Some have pressured by sheriffs participate in electoral investigations. A clerk herself, Tina Peters from Coloradofaces felony charges related to tampering with his election equipment, and local officials in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia have been charged with helping unauthorized people find evidence of tampering during 2020 elections.
Election experts worry that local officials are a possible weak point in the country’s election infrastructure and that “inside jobs” could allow tampering in future contests or unwittingly expose the election infrastructure.
“That sounds alarm bells,” said Harri Hursti, an election security expert who was in Georgia during the 2020 election. “Contamination is a real threat, and it doesn’t take a bad actor. He’s also just an unqualified actor.
Mr DePerno was also a solicitor for an earlier attempt, shortly after the 2020 election, to gain access to County Antrim voting machines which were produced by Dominion Voting Systems.
The idea that the Dominion machines were part of a larger conspiracy by Chinese software companies and other foreign actors to manipulate the vote count in 2020 was at the heart of some of the more outlandish election lawsuits brought by allies of Mr. Trump as the lawyer. Sidney Powell.
Another person identified by Ms. Nessel in the recent investigation, an attorney named Stefanie Lambert Juntilla, helped Ms. Powell in one of the Dominion lawsuits in Michigan and later helped fight an effort by a federal judge to punish Ms Powell and other lawyers for their “historic and profound abuse of the legal process” by bringing the Dominion lawsuit.
Mr. Trump was so convinced by a report by Mr. DePerno’s allies on the Dominion machines in County Antrim that in December 2020 he told his then attorney general, William P. Barr, that it would be a key piece of evidence in helping him stay in power, according to testimony heard by the House committee investigating the Capitol riot.
In videotaped deposition shown at one of the panel’s hearings, Mr Barr called the conspiracy theories about the machines “complete nonsense” and “crazy stuff”, adding at one point that Mr Trump had “to detach from reality” if he believed them.
Ms. Nessel’s request for a special prosecutor follows a months-long investigation by her office into a referral sent by Ms. Benson, the Secretary of State, that unidentified people were granted inappropriate access to tabulation machines. and data readers used in the Township of Richfield and County Roscommon.
Ms. Nessel’s office also contacted the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, which reviews allegations of lawful misconduct in the state, and asked it to initiate its own investigation “based on information uncovered during the investigation into tabulators”. Such an investigation could affect Mr. DePerno’s standing as a lawyer in Michigan and potentially his ability to serve as attorney general.
In a statement on Sunday evening, Ms Benson said she would work to educate and arm clerks with the rules regarding the security of election materials to try to protect against future violations.
“Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan election clerks in this state do their jobs with professionalism and integrity,” Ms. Benson said. “And we will continue to ensure they have a full understanding of the legal protections in place to prevent bad actors from pressuring them to access secure election systems.”