State officials should investigate Unlock Michigan, election lawyer says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A longtime Michigan election lawyer requested an investigation Thursday into the petition campaign seeking to limit Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Citing "substantial irregularities" and "possible illegalities" associated with the Unlock Michigan campaign, John Pirich asked Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to formally investigate the group's "petition gathering activities."

The request came after Keep Michigan Safe, the committee opposing Unlock Michigan, released a secretly recorded video that showed a person training petition circulators for the campaign and appearing to suggest they could use practices that violate state law.

John Pirich

"Unlock Michigan cannot escape responsibility and liability for any possible illegal conduct by its volunteers or paid agents," Pirich wrote in his letter. "All of them should be investigated and be held accountable."

In an interview, Pirich said he's asked for investigations into other ballot campaigns in the past and he's not being paid to make the new request.

"I'm happily retired," he said while acknowledging that he supports Whitmer's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pirich contributed $3,750 to Whitmer's campaign committee for governor since the start of 2017. He also helped Whitmer's team with debate negotiations during the 2018 race but wasn't compensated for the work, he said.

Pirich was hired by President-elect Donald Trump during a 2016 recount of Michigan's presidential vote that was stopped because Green Party candidate Jill Stein was ruled ineligible to request the retabulation.

Unlock Michigan wants to repeal the 1945 law that allows the Democratic governor to declare a state of emergency and keep the declaration in place without input from the currently Republican-controlled Legislature. The group announced Wednesday that it had collected more than 500,000 petition signatures. If 340,047 of them are deemed valid, the proposal could be enacted by the GOP-led Legislature without the possibility of a Whitmer veto.

"We believe Mr. Pirich should investigate the obvious conspiracy among Gov. Whitmer’s political operatives to undermine our constitutional right to initiate legislation via petition drive," Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek said in a statement. "This sham video is a disgrace, and it shows the lengths Gov. Whitmer’s team will go to hang onto these emergency powers she’s abused these many months."

Wszolek contends that the secretly recorded video from Sept. 4 was a setup by Keep Michigan Safe because the person doing the training had ties to progressive causes.

That claim is "ludicrous and totally false," said Mark Fisk, spokesman for Keep Michigan Safe who's previously worked for Democrats.

"Their trainer was caught on tape and rather than take responsibility they continue to duck, dodge and try to deflect blame from their pattern of illegal and improper conduct," Fisk said.

In the secretly recorded video, trainer Erik Tisinger advised the prospective gatherers, who would be paid $3.50 per signature, to tell people their signatures would simply help put the issue "on the ballot," which isn't necessarily true because lawmakers also could approve it without it going on the ballot.

At another point, one of the trainees asked if he could leave a petition sheet on the counter of a friend's store, which goes against state policy because the signing is supposed to happen in the circulator's presence.

"Technically, no ... None of you are recording anything right now are you?" Tisinger responded, according to the video.

Someone in the room responded, "No."

Tisinger, who couldn't be reached for comment, then said, "Don't ever tell me about it again," according to the video footage.

Wszolek has said Unlock Michigan is not going to use signatures turned in by In The Field since the Sept. 4 training, which he estimated as a few thousand.

In his letter, Pirich said Nessel's general powers include investigating and prosecuting violations of the Michigan election law.

"We have received and are reviewing Mr. Pirich's letter requesting a criminal investigation of Unlock Michigan," Nessel's spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said.

A day earlier, Nessel spokesman Ryan Jarvi said he couldn't confirm whether the office is conducting or will conduct any investigation.

There's a separate debate about how long it should take the Michigan Bureau of Elections to determine whether Unlock Michigan collected enough valid signatures. The campaign's supporters say it should take about 60 days. A spokeswoman for Benson said it would take about 105 days.

There are 99 days remaining in 2020 and the state House, which is currently controlled  by Republicans, could change hands in the Nov. 3 election. Unlock Michigan plans to turn its signatures into the state "soon," according to a Wednesday announcement.

As of July 20, Keep Michigan Safe hadn't reported any financial contributors.

As of Aug. 3, Unlock Michigan reported $938,916 in contributions with $695,200 coming from Michigan Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a nonprofit group with ties to Senate Republicans that doesn't have to disclose its donors.