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Lansing — A Michigan college student says Republican operatives pushed him to make false sexual assault claims against Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg and then “spewed a bunch of hateful accusations” using his name.

One of the GOP operatives is publicly denying the alleged fabrication scheme. But the young man’s family is calling him a victim in the convoluted plot to tarnish the reputation of Buttigieg, the gay and married mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Hunter Kelly, a 21-year-old student at Ferris State University in Big Rapids who describes himself as a gay Republican, issued a Tuesday morning statement attributing a since-deleted accusation posted in his name on the Medium blog site to GOP lobbyist Jack Burkman and conservative social media personality Jacob Wohl.

“I have never met or spoken with Buttigieg, I have never been a victim of sexual assault, but more importantly I am not a liar,” Kelly said in a statement.

“I will not stand around idly and get dragged through the mud for two people to continue committing heinous acts in the name of ‘protecting our country.’ They are the real danger to our country.”

Kelly did not respond to a voicemail from The Detroit News seeking comment. In a text message, he confirmed his biographical details but referred to his statement and said, “outside of that, I don’t want to contact the media at the moment.”

Two Michigan women Kelly said are his aunts also vouched for him on Facebook, with one claiming he had been "violated" by the operatives and used as a “pawn in your smearing campaign.” The News left voicemails and messages with both women.

Kelly’s two-page statement appears consistent with a story first reported by The Daily Beast. The news site on Monday linked the anti-Buttigieg claims to Wohl and Burkman, citing audio recordings made by a separate Republican source who said the duo had approached him to participate in a similar scheme. 

Burkman, a Washington lobbyist and attorney, said Monday night on Twitter that Kelly had signed a statement attesting to his accusation and “was in full control of all public disclosures,” including a picture he said Kelly sent to Medium support to confirm his identity.

"The mainstream media “bullied him & his family into submission,” Burkman claimed. He stood by his account Tuesday morning.

Student: Buttigieg claims false

But Kelly told a different story in a series of Facebook comments and a lengthy statement, saying Wohl and Burkman booked him on a Sunday night flight from Grand Rapids to the Washington, D.C., area “to discuss political situations from the standpoint of a gay Republican.”

“I thought this was going to be a couple days of talking facts and seeing what LEGITIMATE dirt we could get on Peter Buttigieg,” Kelly said in the statement. “Nothing that they alleged is true about Buttigieg.”

Asked about the unfounded accuations, the Buttigieg campaign referred to comments the candidate made Monday.

“I'm sure it's not the first time somebody is going to make something up about me,” Buttigieg told reporters. “It's not going to throw us. Politics can be ugly sometimes but you have to face that when you're in presidential politics.”

In his statement, Kelly said he had been interacting with Wohl on Instagram for roughly a month and they had their first direction conversation on April 25 through the encrypted “Signal” application.

After the Republican operatives flew him into the D.C. area, Kelly said they took a cab to Burkman’s home in Arlington, Virginia, where they arrived at 2 a.m. and began talking politics.

Wohl showed him a “draft” version of the article posted to Medium accusing Buttigieg of sexual assault, according to Kelly. But he was unsure about the plan and, after going to bed at 4 a.m., used the Signal app to tell Wohl he was “incredibly uncomfortable and not on board.”

Kelly claims he woke up on Monday morning to see the Medium post had already published. Wohl had also created a fake Twitter account and gmail account “and who knows what else” in his name, Kelly said.

“Reading the story made me sick to my stomach and I expressed my thoughts with my family who were incredibly opposed to this and said they would alert media outlets that this was a lie,” Kelly said.

But after a lengthy meeting over a Subway sandwich lunch with Wohl and Burkman at Burkman's house, where he was told leaving “was not an option,” Kelly said he “reluctantly” signed a script that he was told had no legal standing but was “supposed to say in a press conference.”

Kelly said he and his family “basically planned my escape” from Burkman’s home later Monday. While his family near Washington D.C. drove over, he pretended to be tired and nap while he packed his bags, he said. When they arrived, he rushed downstairs and “told Wohl I could not do this because that is not the type of person I am.”

Burkman denies claims

Burkman on Tuesday denied taking part in the alleged scheme to fabricate the sexual assault story against Buttigieg, who has been rising in recent polls of the Democratic presidential primary field.

Burkman said his firm “was approached by a young man who had a disturbing” story about Buttigieg. “We began working with him on sharing his painful story” and noted the signed statement, which Kelly said he reluctantly signed amid pressure from the Republican operatives.

“While we’re disappointed by his reaction today, I can’t imagine the stress he’s currently under. This is a difficult subject for anyone to face and unfortunately, as an attorney, there’s only so much I can do,” Burkman said in a statement. “We wish him the best moving forward.”

Burkman did not address other claims in the story by The Daily Beast, which reported that he and Wohl used fake names when discussing a similar scheme with a separate Republican source.

The News was unable to contact Wohl, a conservative social media personality with whom Burkman has worked in the past.

On Monday evening, TownHall.com Political Editor Guy Benson tweeted that "two young, gay, right-leaning men I know have contacted me to say they were also approached by Wohl to participate in this appalling attempted smear of @PeteButtigieg." Benson didn't identify the men.

Wohl and Burkman teamed up in February to offer $15,000 for “credible information” that could lead to the resignation of embattled Democratic Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax amid sexual assault allegations.

Danielle Brosch-Skrzypczak of Michigan, whom Kelly identified as his aunt, called her nephew a “very dedicated, hard working” college student who was “violated” by the GOP operatives.

“My nephew never made these allegations,” she wrote on Facebook. “He was advocating for those of a different lifestyle. He is a gay republican. Did you not target him because of his sexual orientation, and then turn around and victimize him through using his sexual orientation?”

Jody Higgins, who Kelly confirmed is his aunt, said her nephew has received death threats after he was “used in the sex scam/ploy to file false claims” against Buttigieg.

“Seriously what is wrong with people!” Higgins wrote on Facebook. "Unbelievable!" 

joosting@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.

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