Before Matt DePerno launched a bid for attorney general, he cleared up an arrest warrant

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Republican Matt DePerno, who's asking voters to make him Michigan's top law enforcement official on Nov. 8, faced a bench warrant for his arrest about two months before he launched his campaign for attorney general, according to court records.

Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Timothy Connors signed a warrant in February 2020 for DePerno's arrest after he failed to appear for a creditor's exam in an unsuccessful defamation case brought by his client, former state Rep. Todd Courser, against The Detroit News. Connors previously ordered DePerno and Courser to pay a sanction of $79,701.

"The creditor's exam was scheduled for today," Connors said in court on Feb. 7, 2020, according to a transcript. "They are not here. I will issue bench warrants."

The warrant was in place until the sanction was resolved in May 2021 because of a $20,000 settlement with The News.

A court filing showed the bench warrant was stamped "canceled" on May 6, 2021. Then, on June 23, 2021, DePerno filed a motion to have the bench warrants set aside "nunc pro tunc," essentially meaning the cancellation should be retroactive to the day the warrants were issued in February 2020. Connors agreed on July 2. DePerno formed his campaign committee to run for attorney general 12 days later, on July 14, 2021.

In a Michigan Court of Appeals filing, DePerno accused lawyers for The News of telling him before the Feb. 6, 2020, hearing that it had been adjourned.

Michigan attorney general candidate Matt DePerno, a Republican from Kalamazoo, answers reporters' questions on July 30 at Recoil Firearms in Taylor. There was a bench warrant for DePerno's arrest for 14 months during the COVID pandemic.

It was a "trick," DePerno told the state Court of Appeals on Feb. 26, 2020. "Petitioners have also have been in direct contact with the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department to resolve the bench warrants."

The bench warrant for DePerno's arrest was not resolved, according to available court records, and remained in effect for more than 14 months.

In a statement, Tyson Shepard, DePerno's campaign manager, said the campaign is focused on issues affecting people across Michigan instead of "washed-out stories from years and years ago."

"The Washtenaw County Sheriff Department said they thought the bench warrant was so outrageous that they did not consider it enforceable," Shepard said.

The sheriff's office this week didn't provide a response to questions about the warrant.

Metro Detroit lawyer Jalal J. Dallo, who practices criminal defense, said bench warrants are typically ordered when someone is supposed to appear in court but doesn't show up.

“If a person does not appear and the bench warrant is issued, that means should that person be stopped while driving or anything like that, it will show up on the police’s system," Dallo said of what would lead to an arrest. "So a police officer will be able to see on their laptop that there’s a bench warrant for this person.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan weeks after the DePerno bench warrant was signed. He went on to repeatedly appear in Antrim County court to challenge the November 2020 election results while the warrant was in place.

The Courser case

Before the 2020 campaign, DePerno was most known for representing Courser, a Lapeer area Republican who resigned from the state House after he attempted to cover up an extramarital affair with a fellow lawmaker, and for challenging election results in northern Michigan's Antrim County.

DePerno's work with Courser led to a years-long defamation suit against The News and staff member Chad Livengood, who broke the story of Courser's affair and the lawmaker's scheme to hide it. Courser and DePerno unsuccessfully argued audio recordings that prompted Livengood's reporting in 2015 had been improperly edited.

Former state Rep. Todd Courser, right, listens with his attorney, Matt DePerno, while Ingham County Judge Hugh Clark Jr. dismisses some charges criminal charges against Courser and allows others to proceed on June 14, 2016 in Lansing. Three years later, Courser pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor of willful neglect of duty by a public officer for soliciting a state employee to send a “false flag” email to discredit rumors of his extramarital affair with fellow state Rep. Cindy Gamrat.

In October 2019, Connors dismissed the case against The News "with prejudice" and ordered DePerno and Courser to pay The News $79,701 as a sanction, according to Washtenaw County court records. DePerno and Courser couldn't pay the amount, they argued in court.

Lawyers for The News attempted to collect the money from DePerno but said in court documents that DePerno transferred his interest in a 2015 Ford Flex and 2012 Ford Focus to his wife, Laura, "with actual intent to hinder, delay and/or defraud The News from collecting the amount awarded." DePerno also transferred "his interest in the marital home" to his wife's trust for $1, according to the lawyers for The News.

The News eventually sued Laura DePerno in Kalamazoo County court, and Matt DePerno challenged the Washtenaw County court's ruling in the state Court of Appeals.

Robert Baker, DePerno's lawyer for a portion of the case, told the court at one point that DePerno had "virtually no assets," according to a court transcript.

"The sanction award far exceeds the petitioners' ability to pay," Baker wrote in a filing on Jan. 9, 2020.

But in the 32 months that followed, DePerno launched a campaign for attorney general, won the Republican Party's nomination and poured $130,000 of his own money into his bid, representing about 13% of his total fundraising.

"Mr. DePerno has received calls from the sheriff's deputy that's going to come and try to execute writs of execution, I guess, on his office furniture and supplies," Baker said during a Jan. 16, 2020, court hearing. "And I assume that the next step would be after this debtor's exam today to determine who owes Mr. DePerno money, and then they're going to proceed to garnish all of his, or what they can, of his receivables."

Baker didn't respond to a request for comment.

Asked about his candidate's changing financial status, Shepard said DePerno's law firm attracted a lot of new business during the period after early 2020 partly because of restrictions Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. DePerno took on "several cases regarding the unconstitutional nature of these lockdowns and mandates."

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, whom DePerno is hoping to unseat, and her supporters have made DePerno's efforts to undermine the 2020 presidential election and the uncertainties surrounding his finances key issues in the race to be the state's chief law enforcement officer.

“Matt DePerno has been dodging questions about his personal finances for years, and this is one more reason why Michiganders can’t trust him to be their next AG," said Emily Trifone, deputy communications director at the Democratic Attorneys General Association. "From his dangerous stances on abortion and birth control, to his embrace of Donald Trump’s most fringe election conspiracy theories, it’s clear that Michigan needs to reelect Dana Nessel as AG."

The News asked DePerno and Nessel to release their most recent tax returns. DePerno's campaign didn't respond. Nessel campaign spokeswoman Sarah Stevenson said the incumbent would provide hers if DePerno provided his.

'I will issue bench warrants'

On Feb. 6, 2020, Connors signed a bench warrant for DePerno's arrest and for him to be brought before the court "immediately" for failure to appear, according to a document.

A Washtenaw County court filing features a Feb. 6, 2020, bench warrant for Matt DePerno's arrest.

It's unclear why DePerno was never arrested. DePerno told the Lansing publication Gongwer News Service that he had spoken with a sheriff who said his agency wasn't going to enforce the warrant and it became a "nonissue."

In a Feb. 26, 2020, filing in the Court of Appeals, DePerno addressed the warrants facing him and his client.

"There is currently a hearing scheduled for March 12, 2020, at which time petitioners will presumably be arrested pursuant to the bench warrants," DePerno wrote.

The March 12, 2020, hearing was eventually canceled, according to court records.

The warrant was in place as DePerno led high-profile litigation in the weeks after the November 2020 presidential election to challenge the results in northern Michigan's Antrim County. It was also in place as DePerno met on Jan. 6, 2021, with staff for then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the election, a convening he has acknowledged on a Republican group's candidate questionnaire.

The warrant was recalled when DePerno and The News reached a $20,000 settlement in May 2021. The newspaper donated the attorney fees it recovered from DePerno to the Rosa Parks Scholarship Foundation.