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Nessel's office seeks special prosecutor in election 'conspiracy' probe of DePerno, others

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Attorney General Dana Nessel's office says a group of high-profile figures in the movement to dispute the 2020 presidential election, including the Michigan GOP's likely nominee for attorney general, engaged in a "conspiracy" to gain improper access to voting machines.

Following a months-long investigation, Nessel's office is seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor to consider an array of potential criminal charges against nine individuals, including Republican attorney general candidate Matt DePerno, state Rep. Daire Rendon, R-Lake City, and Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf.

The group's alleged activities were detailed in a Friday letter to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson authored by Christina Grossi, the chief deputy attorney general.

The group's efforts involved convincing local clerks to hand over tabulators, taking the tabulators to hotels or rental properties in Oakland County, breaking into the machines, printing "fake ballots" and performing "tests" on the equipment, according to the letter.

Matt DePerno, a lawyer from Kalamazoo, is the likely Republican nominee for attorney general. He came to power in the Michigan GOP through his pursuit of unproven claims about fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Because DePerno will likely face Nessel in the Nov. 8 general election, the Attorney General's office is asking a state agency, the Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council, to appoint a special prosecutor to remove an inherent conflict of interest in making potential charging decisions.

"When this investigation began, there was not a conflict of interest," wrote Danielle Hagaman-Clark, chief of the Attorney General's criminal trials and appeals division, in the petition for a special prosecutor. "However, during the course of the investigation, facts were developed that DePerno was one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy."

The tabulators were taken from local clerks for weeks at a time, and one machine was subject to "extensive physical tampering," according to the letter to Benson.

Three months before the November election, the revelations could alter Michigan's political landscape, showing that DePerno, a top ally of former President Donald Trump and the person whom Republican delegates endorsed in April to run against Nessel, could face criminal charges.

The Attorney General's office said it's also filed requests for an investigation with the Attorney Grievance Commission, which has the power to examine allegations of misconduct against lawyers.

In a statement Sunday night, Tyson Shepard, DePerno's campaign manager, said Nessel has a "history of targeting and persecuting her political enemies."

"Dana Nessel knows she is losing this race," Shepard added. "She is desperate to win this election at all costs and is now targeting DePerno, her political opponent. Her actions are unethical and will further demonstrate to the voters that she is unfit for office."

Leaf didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday. Rendon couldn't be reached and her voicemail box wouldn't accept a message.

Benson tweeted Sunday night that there "must be consequences for those who break the law to undermine our elections." The secretary said she was thankful for Nessel's office conducting the election machine investigation.

The new documents, obtained by The Detroit News, show the lengths to which those advancing unproven claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election went to prove their assertions and how, in some cases, they used their elected positions to bolster their efforts.

Rendon, a third-term lawmaker, allegedly told Roscommon County Clerk Michelle Stevenson "'representatives' were doing an investigation into election fraud and needed her voting machine," according to Grossi's letter to Benson.

There is no indication that Rendon was involved in an official House probe of the election. But Stevenson eventually provided a tabulator and allowed others to copy the county's election reporting management software, according to the Attorney General's office. While her tabulator was out of her hands, Stevenson asked Rendon where the equipment was.

"The representative told her not to worry about the tabulators, as she was doing the right thing, and they had her back," Grossi's letter to Benson says. "She further advised the clerk that her name would never come up."

Sharon Olson, the clerk in Irving Township in Barry County, "indicated that she was asked by Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf to cooperate with investigators regarding an election fraud investigation," according to the petition for a special prosecutor.

Olson later turned over her tabulator to Leaf's office, according to Grossi.

'Prosecutorial review'

In February, Benson asked Nessel's office and the Michigan State Police to investigate reports that an "unnamed third party" was granted access to voting technology in Roscommon County.

The new petition for the Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council to appoint a special prosecutor is the result of the probe by the state police and special agents working for Nessel's office.

The petition to the Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council lists nine individuals and says it's "time for a prosecutorial review for charges."

Potential charges include "but are not limited to" conspiracy, using a computer system to commit a crime, willfully damaging a voting machine, malicious destruction of property, fraudulent access to a computer or computer system and false pretenses, the document says.

State Rep. Daire Rendon, a third-term Republican lawmaker from Lake City, allegedly used her office to convince Roscommon County Clerk Michelle Stevenson to turn over a vote-counting tabulator machine, according to Attorney General Dana Nessel's office.

It's a five-year felony for a person to obtain undue possession of a voting machine used in an election. It's also a five-year felony to conspire with another person to commit an offense that is prohibited by law.

DePerno, Rendon and lawyer Stefanie Lambert "orchestrated a coordinated plan to gain access to voting tabulators" used in Roscommon County, Barry County and Missaukee County, according to the petition.

Five tabulators were taken from those counties to hotels or Airbnb rental properties in Oakland County. There, four individuals — Ben Cotton, Jeff Lenberg, Douglas Logan and James Penrose — "broke into the tabulators and performed 'tests' on the equipment," the petition says.

"It was determined during the investigation that DePerno was present at a hotel room during such 'testing,'" the petition says.

Cotton, Lenberg, Logan and Penrose have all been involved in efforts to question the 2020 election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden. Cotton, Lenberg and Penrose have been cited as experts by DePerno previously in a lawsuit he's led against the election in Antrim County.

Logan, the founder of Cyber Ninjas, was involved in the audit of results in Arizona's Maricopa County.

The eighth and ninth individuals mentioned in the petition were Leaf, whose office has been investigating unproven claims of election fraud, and lawyer Ann Howard.

Howard "coordinated printing of fake ballots to be run through the tabulators and recruitment of 'volunteers,'" the petition for a special prosecutor from the Attorney General's office says.

On a call with supporters in June, Leaf said he didn't "confiscate" any tabulators.

Ties to suit

Republican convention delegates endorsed DePerno, a lawyer from Kalamazoo, to be the party's nominee for attorney general on April 23. Later this month, delegates are expected to officially nominate him for attorney general, the top law enforcement official in the state.

On the campaign trail, DePerno has argued Nessel has used her office for political purposes.

"I think Dana Nessel has weaponized her office to attack her political enemies," DePerno said previously. "It appears like she does not investigate crimes. What she does is persecute her political enemies."

DePerno rose to prominence after the November 2020 election by investigating unproven claims of fraud in northern Michigan's Antrim County.

The conservative northern county's initial election results showed Biden winning, but they were later corrected to display a Trump victory.

The problematic initial numbers were caused by human errors: Election workers' failure to update equipment after additions to the ballot. However, DePerno and his supporters have alleged the problems were because of the technology itself. They've also suggested fraud and hacking.

A voting machine with red tape on it is featured in a video from One America News posted on the website of Matt DePerno's law firm. A so-called "system vulnerabilities expert" Jeffrey Lenberg is pictured. He was identified as part of DePerno's legal team.

According to Grossi's new letter to Benson, a photo of a tabulator taken from Roscommon County was used as an exhibit by DePerno in his court case in Antrim County. And his website featured a video showing a tabulator with red tape placed in "a distinctive manner over the seal number and other identifying information," the petition says.

When a tabulator that was taken from Lake City Township was seized by authorities, they found the seal number on the machine was covered "over with red tape in the same manner as that of the tabulator shown in the video," the attorney general's office said.

Likewise, DePerno subpoenaed information from Verizon about specific modems. The modems he sought information on, citing their ID numbers, were those of two tabulators belonging to Richfield Township and one tabulator from Roscommon County.

An expert told state authorities the only way to get the ID numbers from the tabulators "is to break open the security seals and physically remove the outer panels to look inside of the tabulators and read the ID numbers on the modems," the letter to Benson said.

Trump has spotlighted DePerno's work, previously labeling him a "super lawyer." On Saturday, Trump called DePerno "tough" during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, which DePerno attended.

"People are afraid to be in the same room as him," Trump said of DePerno.

DePerno also has made headlines for other political stories. In May 2021, DePerno and his client, former state Rep. Todd Courser, agreed to pay The News $20,000 in a settlement agreement that concludes a nearly three-year defamation lawsuit. The agreement came about two years after Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Timothy Connors dismissed a defamation lawsuit against The News and ordered Courser and DePerno to pay $79,701.63 in sanctions related to the suit.

Courser and DePerno had appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Rendon, Leaf, Lambert

The News first reported in May that Rendon had become entangled in the state's investigation. In June, The News first reported that Leaf and Lambert were under scrutiny from investigators.

Carol Asher, the longtime clerk in Denton Township, told The News that Rendon had contacted her after the November 2020 election with a request that baffled her.

“She wanted to get access to our tabulator, and I said no," Asher recalled.

Other clerks said they had received similar requests. And Markey Township Clerk Sheryl Tussey informed other officials in May 2021 that Rendon told her a team was hoping to perform a "forensic audit."

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.

In May, Rendon declined to answer whether she had been interviewed by the Michigan State Police as part of the tabulator probe.

"I’m aware that something’s going on, but I don’t know what it is," said Rendon, referring to public reports on the Roscommon County incident.

When asked whether she had any knowledge about the situation outside of public press releases, Rendon told The News, "I do not."

Lambert was previously involved in Texas lawyer Sidney Powell's so-called "kraken" legal push to overturn Michigan's 2020 presidential election through a lawsuit. Lambert was one of nine lawyers sanctioned for their actions in the suit.

Leaf has been advancing and investigating unproven claims of election fraud since the weeks after the November 2020 vote.

With Lambert as his lawyer, he filed a lawsuit in May against Nessel, Secretary of State Benson and the Michigan State Police. The suit alleged the state officials were attempting to "obstruct justice" and "ultimately usurp" the powers of Leaf as sheriff by investigating his probe into the election.

Multiple clerks in Barry County have said Leaf's department used what they viewed as "scare tactics" as it examined the last presidential election.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.