In Michigan, election denial probe looms over critical races

·5 min read
FILE - Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks during a news conference in Detroit, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Published reports say Nessel’s office is asking that a special prosecutor investigate whether the Republican candidate for state attorney general, Matt DePerno, and others should be charged in connection with an effort to gain access to voting machines after the 2020 election. DePerno has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump. (Max Ortiz/Detroit News via AP, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Matthew DePerno made his political reputation on loudly and repeatedly questioning the 2020 presidential election results. It gained him the fervor of Republican delegates and the endorsement of Donald Trump in his bid for attorney general.

But now the political novice is accused of helping obtain improper access to voting machines and intending to use them to further the false claims, just three months before voters head to the polls in this and other key statewide races in battleground Michigan.

The reliability of election systems and equipment was already at stake in the race, given DePerno's history, but Michigan political experts said the new accusations ensure the issue will play a critical role as voters decide whether to reelect Democratic incumbents or replace them with three Republicans who wooed primary voters by pledging their belief in Trump's false assertion that he won the election.

The accusations against DePerno became public this week as Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel acknowledged a clear personal conflict and asked that a special prosecutor be appointed to oversee the accusations against her opponent and others.

The Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council, a state agency, said in a statement that it can take 60 to 90 days for its staff to review a request and select a prosecutor. That could mean the issue isn't resolved before the Nov. 8 election.

DePerno released a statement Sunday night denying the allegations and saying that the claims were “purely based on political prosecution.”

During a radio interview Monday morning, Deperno said that “90% of the facts that (Nessel) lays out, that she calls facts in her petition, are either false or I have no knowledge of what she’s talking about.”

The Kalamazoo attorney is a political novice whose embrace of Trump's lies about the 2020 election won him the former president's endorsement and later the state party members' nomination for attorney general over a former Michigan House speaker who narrowly lost to Nessel in 2018.

DePerno's legal career typically focused on tax cases, with rare public scrutiny. As his profile rose following Joe Biden's 2020 victory, a March report by Bridge Michigan found a series of disagreements with his former law partners over billing, clients and other court officials that caused some Republicans to question his readiness to serve as the state's top law enforcement official.

DePerno made a name for himself among Michigan activists on the right by suing Antrim County, claiming voting machines there recorded votes for Trump as being for Biden in the 2020 election. He also clashed with GOP leaders of the state Senate and raised money for attempts to challenge election results in other states.

Trump, though, gave DePerno his endorsement in September 2021 and DePerno relied on it to defeat two other candidates for the party's endorsement in April, despite public acknowledgement that he could be among those investigated by the state for profiting from allegations of election fraud in Antrim County.

The Antrim County suit was dismissed and a Republican-led state legislative panel found no evidence of fraud in Michigan's 2020 elections, calling DePerno's claims “demonstrably false.”

The allegations made public this week went even further — naming DePerno as one of the “prime instigators” of a plan to get improper access to voting machines and use them to dispute the 2020 presidential outcome.

According to documents released by Nessel's office, five vote tabulators were taken from Roscommon and Missaukee counties in northern Michigan, and Barry County in western Michigan. Investigators found others in the group broke into the tabulators and performed “tests” on the equipment.

“It was determined during the investigation that DePerno was present at a hotel room during such 'testing,'” the petition to the prosecutors' council said.

Obtaining undue possession of a voting machine used in an election is a felony punishable by five years in prison.

DePerno and the others named in the Michigan documents join others facing legal jeopardy for embracing Trump's election lies, including a Colorado county clerk indicted for planning to breach election equipment.

Bernie Porn, a nonpartisan pollster who's worked in the state for more than 30 years, said public opinion is against Republican candidates in several key areas, including abortion and the veracity of the 2020 presidential race. In a May poll conducted by his Lansing firm EPIC-MRA, Porn said 61% of Michigan general election voters said Biden won “fair and square.”

Among Democrats the total was 97% and among independents 66%

Based on those numbers, Michigan Democrats “would be insane" not to highlight DePerno's legal woes this fall, along with the Republican slate's unanimous primary statements backing Trump's lie about the 2020 outcome, Porn said.

“If I were running a campaign for any candidate running against the Republican candidates for governor, attorney general or secretary of state, I’d advise them to constantly remind voters that these on the Republican side believe the election was stolen and they have yet to prove it,” he said.

Even before the allegations became public, DePerno told Michigan reporters that the attorney general race shouldn't focus on “the election issue.”

“Let’s start talking about the real issues that are facing people every day in their budget and how they’re managing their families,” he said following a June 30 gubernatorial debate.

Republican leaders in the state stood by DePerno following news of the investigation, with Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan GOP party, tweeting that Nessel is “hell bent on going after her political opponents.”

Party Chairman Ron Weiser said he expects the party's formal nominating convention on Aug. 27 will back all of the candidates previously endorsed by party delegates, including DePerno. He said Republicans “have a great opportunity” this fall in Michigan and questioned the timing of Nessel's request, accusing her using her office to target a political opponent.

“The public is sick and tired of what happened during the pandemic, as well as what’s happening now between Gretchen Whitmer and her allies,” he said.

___

Foody reported from Chicago. Cappelletti is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.