By Peter Eisler and Nathan Layne
(Reuters) -Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is alleging that her Republican political opponent in the November elections orchestrated a conspiracy with a state lawmaker and a lawyer to break into voting equipment in a hunt for evidence to prove former president Donald Trump's false voter-fraud claims.
The charge that Nessel's Republican challenger, Matt DePerno, was involved in a potential felony is outlined in a petition filed by Nessel, a Democrat, seeking the appointment of a special prosecutor to continue the investigation. The petition notes that DePerno has emerged as "one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy," creating a conflict of interest for her office to take the case further.
Reuters exclusively reported on Sunday https://www.reuters.com/world/us/exclusive-trump-backed-michigan-attorney-general-candidate-involved-voting-2022-08-07 that DePerno led a team that gained unauthorized access to voting equipment in Richfield Township. The news organization linked the Trump-backed Republican candidate to the incident by matching the serial number on the compromised machine to a photograph in a report submitted by DePerno in a failed lawsuit alleging voter fraud.
The Richfield tabulator is among five such machines that the attorney general said were accessed without authorization, including a separate incident in Roscommon County and other breaches in Missaukee County's Lake Township and Barry County's Irving Township. The incidents occurred between early March and late June of 2021, the attorney general said.
DePerno did not respond to requests for comment, but said on Twitter that Nessel's investigation was politically motivated. His tweet included a fundraising plea for donations to help him "fight back."
"My opponent called for me to be arrested for the 'crime' of investigating voter fraud in 2020," DePerno said in a tweet. His campaign called Nessel's actions "unethical" in a statement.
Nessel declined a request for an interview and her communications director, Amber McCann, did not answer questions about when DePerno became a suspect in its investigation and why the office did not request a special prosecutor earlier. McCann said in a statement that the office "reviews facts and follows evidence" during investigations.
It remains unclear when the conflict of interest emerged. DePerno announced his candidacy against Nessel in July 2021 and received the Republican Party's endorsement in April. Nessel announced her investigation into voting breaches in February.
The investigation into a Republican attorney general candidate in a voting-system breach comes amid a national effort by backers of Trump's stolen-election falsehoods to win state offices that could prove critical in deciding any future contested elections.
Nessel's petition says DePerno plotted to illegally access voting equipment with Republican State Rep. Daire Rendon and Stefanie Lambert, a lawyer who helped high-profile Trump allies file an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn Michigan's election results. The trio "orchestrated a coordinated plan to gain access to voting tabulators" in three township offices and a county office, the petition said. In one case, Rendon allegedly told the Roscommon County clerk, falsely, that the state House of Representatives was conducting an investigation into election fraud.
The machines were taken to "hotels and/or AIRBNB's" in Oakland County, in metropolitan Detroit. There, technical experts "broke into the tabulators and performed 'tests' on the equipment," the petition says. In at least one instance, the petition notes, DePerno "was present at a hotel room during such 'testing.'"
Rendon and Lambert did not respond to requests for comment.
The attorney general's petition listed a series of crimes for potential prosecution, including malicious destruction of property, fraudulent access to a computer, and conspiracy. A conspiracy charge could be punished with up to five years in prison under Michigan state law.
The attorney general's petition said her office had sought approval for criminal charges from the state Criminal Trials and Appeals Division. The office asked that a special prosecutor take over the handling of that request and any subsequent prosecutions. The Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council, an autonomous entity within the attorney general's office, will decide if a special prosecutor is warranted.
Nessel's petition also names Dar Leaf, the sheriff in rural Barry County, as a participant in the scheme, alleging that he asked the Irving Township clerk to cooperate with "investigators" involved in the conspiracy. In a story last month https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-elections-michigan-investigation, Reuters detailed the alleged involvement of Leaf, a far-right backer of Trump's stolen-election falsehoods and a prominent figure in the extremist "constitutional sheriffs" movement. He said in an interview that no one in his department was involved in taking the tabulator and that he did not authorize anyone to do so.
Leaf did not respond to a request for comment on Nessel's allegations.
The technical team that examined the voting equipment removed from government offices included James Penrose, a former analyst for the National Security Agency who has assisted prominent Trump allies in their efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, the attorney general's petition said. It also included Doug Logan, head of Cyber Ninjas, the now-defunct company hired to do a widely criticized partisan audit of the 2020 voting results in Maricopa County, Arizona. Others involved in examining the machines were Jeff Lenberg, a computer security consultant, and Ben Cotton, founder of the digital forensics firm CyFIR LLC.
Penrose, Lenbert and Cotton all worked with DePerno on his lawsuit alleging election fraud in Michigan's Antrim County. None responded to requests for comment. Logan also did not respond to a request for comment.
Nessel's petition names all four members of the technical team as targets for possible charges, along with DePerno, Rendon, Lambert and Leaf, the Barry County sheriff. Another person named as a target is Ann Howard, a Michigan lawyer who allegedly coordinated the printing of fake ballots to be run through the tabulators during their examination.
Howard declined to comment.
Nessel's allegations mark a dramatic turn in an investigation that the attorney general launched in February at the request of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, who had received information on at least two of the breaches. Benson, a Democrat, said in a statement to Reuters: "There must be consequences for those who broke the law to undermine our elections in order to advance their own political agendas."
(Reporting by Peter Eisler and Nathan Layne; editing by Brian Thevenot)