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Attorney General Nessel opens criminal probe into Unlock Michigan petition signatures

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday she is launching a criminal investigation into Unlock Michigan's petition initiative effort to trim Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers after receiving complaints.

The probe by the Democratic attorney general follows allegations by opposition group Keep Michigan Safe that Unlock Michigan hired a petition signature trainer who advised volunteers on techniques that may have led to criminal activity in collecting petition signatures to repeal a 1945 state law. 

Citing "substantial irregularities" and "possible illegalities" associated with the Unlock Michigan campaign,election law attorney John Pirich had asked Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson last week to formally investigate the group's "petition gathering activities."

A petition gatherer for Unlock Michigan sets up a table outside the Michigan Capitol on Aug. 14, 2020.

Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek on Monday called the investigation a “partisan political farce.”

“It’s to be expected from this Attorney General’s office," Wszolek said. “It’s just nonsense. I don’t know what this has to do with us."

He said Unlock Michigan had not been contacted by the AG’s Office.

Nessel's office said it has received complaints from residents who say they were deceived by petition circulators who were told the petitions support gay rights, medical marijuana initiatives or small businesses. 

Nessel's office also received a separate letter from the League of Women Voters calling for an investigation into Unlock Michigan’s signature-collecting efforts.

“Our democracy is firmly rooted in the principles of an informed electorate which makes decisions at the polls based on reason and beliefs over lies and deception,” Nessel said in a statement.

“Our ballot initiative process allows efforts with strong public support to be presented to the Legislature. But that process becomes tainted when petition circulators manipulate and cheat to serve their own agendas. My office will investigate these allegations, and if there is a violation of law, we will prosecute those responsible.” 

The Republican-led Legislature has sought the repeal of the 1945 emergency power law as being unconstitutional under the separation of powers in a case the Michigan Supreme Court case is reviewing. 

Unlock Michigan is preparing to turn in more than 500,000 signatures Friday to the Secretary of State's office. If 340,047 of the collected signatures are deemed valid by the Michigan Bureau of Elections before the end of the year, the repeal proposal could go before the GOP-led Legislature for approval without Whitmer having a chance to veto it.

Unlock Michigan has insisted that the office of Benson, a Democrat, can complete a review of the signatures for validation in 60 days. The Secretary of State's office has indicated the effort would last until early 2021 because of its efforts to prepare clerks for a massive influx of mail-in absentee ballots. A delay into the new year would mean a successfully validated initiative would be presented to a Michigan House that may have switched from Republican to Democratic control depending on the Nov. 3 election results. 

The investigation follows the release by Keep Michigan Safe — the committee opposing Unlock Michigan — of 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.

Wszolek has said the video of the volunteer trainer is a "sham" and a "conspiracy" organized by Whitmer's political operatives to undermine the petition drive.

He claims 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.

"It seems like the only people who behaved badly here are Democratic operatives," Wszolek said. "This person who they are concerned about giving advice on how to behave illegally is a Democratic operative who’s done business with the governor’s top political operative.”

Wszolek also said Pirich is a Whitmer campaign operative. 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 also 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.

Wszolek's claim about a sham video is "ludicrous and totally false," Keep Michigan Safe spokesman Mark Fisk said last week.

"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.

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.

cmauger@detroitnews.com