In early 2021, with the turmoil of a bitterly contested presidential contest still fresh, several election clerks in Michigan received strange phone calls.
The person on the other end was a Republican state representative who told them their election equipment was needed for an investigation, according to documents from the Michigan attorney general’s office.
They obliged. Soon, the machines were being picked apart in hotels and Airbnb rentals in Oakland County, outside Detroit, by conservative activists hunting for what they believed was proof of fraud, the documents said. Weeks later, after the equipment was returned in handoffs in highway car-pool lots and shopping malls, the clerks found that it had been tampered with, and in some cases, damaged.
The revelations of possible meddling with voting machines have set off a political tsunami in Michigan, one of the most critical battleground states in the country.
The documents detail deception of election officials and a breach of voting equipment that stand out as extraordinary even among the volumes of public reporting on brazen attempts by former President Donald J. Trump’s supporters to scrutinize and undermine the 2020 results.
But one of the most politically striking elements of the case is the identity of one of the people implicated in the scheme by the office of the attorney general: Matthew DePerno, who is now the presumptive Republican nominee for that very post.
Mr. DePerno, a lawyer who rose to prominence challenging the 2020 results in Antrim County and has been endorsed by former President Donald J. Trump, is vying to unseat Dana Nessel, a Democrat who is Michigan’s top law enforcement official and who fought attempts to undermine the state’s election.
Now, evidence provided by her office places Mr. DePerno at one of the “tests” of voting equipment and suggests that he was a key orchestrator of “a conspiracy” to gain improper access to machines in three counties, Roscommon and Missaukee in Northern Michigan and Barry, a rural area southeast of Grand Rapids. The tampering resulted in physical damage, but the attorney general’s office indicated that there was no evidence that there was “any software or firmware manipulation” of the equipment.
Even before the new accusations, the prospective race between Ms. Nessel and Mr. DePerno was one of the most closely watched contests for attorney general in the country.
During his campaign, Mr. DePerno has continued to falsely claim that mail voting is rife with fraud and that voting records were deleted or destroyed after the election, and he has pledged to “prosecute the people who corrupted the 2020 election.” He has also said he would begin inquiries of Ms. Nessel, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, all Democrats.
His candidacy has worried election experts, Democrats and even many Republicans, who fear that he could use his powers to carry out investigations based on fraudulent claims or engage in other forms of meddling in elections.
Yet because Mr. DePerno is the likely Republican nominee — he clinched the state party’s endorsement this year and is expected to be formally nominated later this month — any investigation by Ms. Nessel is politically fraught and risks a conflict of interest. With that in mind, her office on Friday requested that a special prosecutor be appointed to continue the investigation and pursue potential criminal charges.
The allegations against Mr. DePerno and eight others — including Daire Rendon, a Republican state representative, and Dar Leaf, the sheriff of Barry County — were detailed in a letter sent on Friday from the deputy attorney general to Ms. Benson, and in a petition from Ms. Nessel’s office requesting the special prosecutor. The Detroit News first reported the letter, and Politico first reported the petition. Reuters first reported Mr. DePerno’s alleged involvement.
Tyson Shepherd, the campaign manager for Mr. DePerno, said in a statement that “Matt DePerno categorically denies the allegations presented” and that “the petition itself is an incoherent liberal fever dream of lies.” He also said that the investigation was political, and that “if Dana Nessel decides to move forward with these claims, she will ultimately find herself on the defendant’s side of a malicious prosecution case.”
A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the timing wasn’t affected by politics.
The petition from Ms. Nessel’s office states, “When this investigation began, there was not a conflict of interest,” adding, “However, during the course of the investigation, facts were developed that DePerno was one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy.”
It continues: “DePerno is now the presumptive Republican nominee for attorney general. A conflict arises when ‘the prosecuting attorney has a personal interest (financial or emotional) in the litigation.’”
The petition identifies several people, like Jim Penrose, a former official at the National Security Agency, who have looked into claims about fraud in Mr. Trump’s loss in 2020 over the past two years, many of them focusing on the use of digital voting machines, like those made by Dominion Voting Systems. Others mentioned in the petition, like Doug Logan, the former chief executive of the tech firm Cyber Ninjas, were involved in different efforts to discredit the election results, like a partisan review of ballots in Arizona.
Neither Mr. Penrose nor Mr. Logan responded to calls on Monday seeking comment on Ms. Nessel’s petition.
Local election clerks have been targeted by election deniers in several places across the country. Some have been pressured by sheriffs to participate in election investigations. One county clerk herself, Tina Peters of Colorado, faces felony charges related to a breach of her election equipment, and local officials in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia have been accused of helping unauthorized people find evidence of tampering in the 2020 election.
Election experts worry that local officials are a possible weak point in the nation’s voting infrastructure, and that “inside jobs” could allow for tampering in future contests or unintentionally expose election infrastructure.
“It raises alarms,” said Harri Hursti, an election security expert who was in Georgia during the 2020 election. “Contamination is a real threat, and it doesn’t take a bad actor. It’s also just an unskilled actor.”
Mr. DePerno was also a lawyer for an earlier attempt, shortly after the 2020 election, to gain access to voting machines in Antrim County that were produced by Dominion Voting Systems.
The notion that Dominion machines were part of a vast conspiracy by Chinese software companies and other foreign actors to manipulate vote counts in 2020 was central to some of the most outlandish election lawsuits filed by allies of Mr. Trump like the lawyer Sidney Powell.
Another person identified by Ms. Nessel in the recent investigation, a lawyer named Stefanie Lambert Juntilla, helped Ms. Powell with one of the Dominion lawsuits in Michigan and later helped to fight an effort by a federal judge to punish Ms. Powell and other lawyers for their “historic and profound abuse of the judicial process” in bringing the Dominion suit.
Mr. Trump was so persuaded by a report by Mr. DePerno’s allies on Dominion machines in Antrim County that, in December 2020, he told his attorney general at the time, William P. Barr, that it would be a key piece of evidence in helping him to stay in power, according to testimony heard by the House committee investigating the Capitol riot.
In a videotaped deposition played at one of the panel’s hearings, Mr. Barr called the conspiracy theories about the machines “complete nonsense” and “crazy stuff,” adding at one point that Mr. Trump had “become detached from reality” if he believed them.
Ms. Nessel’s request for a special prosecutor followed a monthslong investigation by her office into a referral sent from Ms. Benson, the secretary of state, that unidentified people had gained inappropriate access to tabulation machines and data drives used in Richfield Township and Roscommon County.
Ms. Nessel’s office also contacted the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, which looks into allegations of legal misconduct in the state, and asked it to open its own inquiry “based on information uncovered during the tabulator investigation.” Such an investigation could affect Mr. DePerno’s standing as a lawyer in Michigan and potentially his ability to serve as attorney general.
In a statement on Sunday night, Ms. Benson said she would work to inform and arm clerks with the rules regarding election equipment security to try to safeguard against future breaches.
“The Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan election clerks of this state do their jobs with professionalism and integrity,” Ms. Benson said. “And we will continue to ensure they are equipped with a full understanding of the legal protections in place to block bad actors from pressuring them to gain access to secure election systems.”
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