Whitmer briefly asked to remove sheriff probing 'election fraud'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Barry County resident asked Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to remove his sheriff, Dar Leaf, contending the conservative officeholder had abused his authority in an investigation of unsubstantiated claims about the 2020 election.

Larry Osborne of Delton urged Whitmer's office to take action against Leaf this week, according to a Wednesday email obtained by The Detroit News. But by Thursday evening, Osborne said he had rescinded the request and declined to discuss what prompted his decision.

Under state law, the governor can remove a sheriff under certain circumstances, including if the governor believes the person is "guilty of official misconduct or of willful neglect of duty."

"I would like to formally request that the governor remove Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf from his elected office," Osborne's message said. "He has and continues to abuse his power as sheriff and not effectively represent the citizens of Barry County."

Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf addresses the crowd during the "American Patriot Rally — Sheriffs Speak Out" event at Rosa Parks Circle in Grand Rapids, May 18, 2020. Leaf said that he will not enforce the governor's stay-at-home order stating it's unconstitutional.

Leaf, a Republican who was reelected in 2020, was a plaintiff in an unsuccessful federal lawsuit claiming there was "massive election fraud," and his office continues to probe unproven assertions about the vote. Leaf did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Whitmer's spokesman Bobby Leddy confirmed the office had received Osborne's request Thursday afternoon.

"Once an individual submits a formal petition to the state for removal, it is sent to the attorney general for review and recommendation," Leddy said. "Only after the attorney general makes a recommendation would the governor review the request."

That means the request was set to be reviewed by Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Earlier this month, Leaf informed other Barry County officials that his investigation into the election was ongoing, according to The Hastings Banner. Julie Jones, a former sergeant with the sheriff's office, submitted the report that launched the inquiry, the newspaper has also said.

On April 12, Jones told the sheriff's office that votes were "intentionally manipulated to favor one candidate over another in one or more seats," according to a sheriff's office report obtained by The Detroit News. However, there has been no proof of this claim.

Despite a wide array of unsubstantiated fraud theories, Democrat Joe Biden beat Republican Donald Trump by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points in Michigan. A series of court decisions, bipartisan boards of canvassers and dozens of audits by election officials have upheld the outcome. The GOP-controlled Senate Oversight Committee investigated the election and found "no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud."

Michigan's hand-marked paper ballots are available for recounting, the Senate Oversight Committee's report noted in response to "cyber attack theories."

"Where this was done, no evidence of hacking or attack was ever shown," the report said. "Nor did any official representative of the losing party call for a hand recount in any precinct so to prove an instance of such."

Regardless, Jones told the sheriff's office that people had been "victims of fraud with the most harmful effects yet to be realized."

"(I) want a formal complaint filed so that we have on record that we have done everything we can in Barry County to secure our elections, and if somebody is a tyrant, fraud, cheat, thief and wants to control the population in other ways and we can't stop them, fine," Jones said, according to the police report. "But I'm doing everything I can to stop them."

Jones could not be reached for comment.

The police report listed the type of victim as "society" and the victim name as "state of Michigan." Under the description of the "offense," the report said "election laws." At another point, the document described the complaint as "reported election fraud."

Leaf has used his county email address to forward conspiracy theories about the election and said there had been "a handful of violations" when asked about the potential arrest of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, according to emails obtained earlier this year through an open records request.

Leaf told another sheriff on Dec. 18 to "get familiar" with federal and state election statutes, according to the documents. Included in Leaf's list was one that says it's a duty of sheriffs to "institute criminal proceedings for the punishment" of an election crime. On Dec. 14, Leaf received a message from a Genesee County resident who asked the sheriff "under what circumstances" could Benson, a Democrat and Michigan's top election official, "be arrested for her actions?"

Leaf's response began, "There's a handful of violations that could be used."

Osborne's request of Whitmer said the sheriff misused county funds to investigate "non-existent election fraud" and "plotted to seize 2020 election materials and equipment."

A Barry County sheriff's office report in April focused on unsubstantiated claims about the 2020 election has spurred an ongoing probe.

"In my opinion, he’s not doing his duty," Osborne said of Leaf. "He’s more interested in his constitutional sheriff (effort), promoting that, than he is in protecting Barry County."

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), which named Leaf sheriff of the year in 2016, according to a media report, says, "The law enforcement powers held by the sheriff supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of the county."

Leaf participated in the association's "Freedom Fest" in South Dakota in July, according to a video posted on the group's website, which billed Leaf as "the sheriff investigating election fraud in Michigan."

"He refuses to fly to Rapid City. He's driving to Rapid City because he will not wear a mask," a promotional video says of Leaf.

Leaf submitted $165 in travel receipts to the county in July. The receipts were described as "fuel - travel CSPOA," according to documents obtained by Osborne.

This Barry County document describes $165 in fuel receipts tied to Sheriff Dar Leaf and a Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association event.

In July, Bridge Michigan reported the sheriff had attempted to get other sheriffs to seize Dominion voting machines. Dominion has been at the center of election fraud claims after human errors in conservative Antrim County, where Dominion machines are used, led to incorrect initial results that showed Biden as the winner. Later, the tallies were changed, and in the official numbers, Trump won.

cmauger@detroitnews.com