Michigan Republicans charged in connection with 2020 voting machine tampering

A former Michigan lawmaker and a losing candidate for state attorney general were charged with felonies Tuesday as part of an investigation into the improper acquisition of voting machines.

Special prosecutor D.J. Hilson since last year has been looking into efforts by a group of conservatives to persuade election clerks to give them voting machines as they attempted to prove the 2020 presidential election had been wrongly called for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. The group never turned up any proof, and courts in dozens of cases across the country ruled that the election was properly decided.

Former attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno (R) was charged with improper possession of a voting machine, conspiracy to unlawfully possess a voting machine, conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to a computer system and willfully damaging a voting machine, according to Hilson. Former state representative Daire Rendon (R) was charged with conspiracy to unlawfully possess a voting machine and using false pretenses with the intent to defraud, he said. Both were arraigned Tuesday and released.

DePerno’s attorney, Paul Stablein, said his client “maintains his innocence and firmly believes that these charges are not based upon any actual truth and are motivated primarily by politics rather than evidence.” Rendon could not be reached, and her attorney did not immediately have a comment.

Several other investigations into attempts to overturn the 2020 election are ongoing, including one at the Justice Department headed by special prosecutor Jack Smith. That probe led to an indictment against Trump just hours after the Michigan charges were issued.

The investigation in Michigan has mirrored ones in other states after the 2020 election. In Colorado, a grand jury last year indicted Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters (R) for allegedly secretly copying hard drives from voting equipment in an attempt to investigate whether anyone tampered with the election. Peters, who has since left office, was convicted of a misdemeanor obstruction charge in March in a separate case. In Georgia, prosecutors are investigating the potential involvement of the Trump campaign in an unauthorized breach of election equipment in rural Coffee County.

The round of charges is the second in Michigan targeting those who aggressively questioned the outcome of the 2020 election. Last month, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) brought felony forgery charges against 16 Republicans who signed official-looking paperwork falsely claiming to be the state’s presidential electors even though Biden had won the state.

Nessel launched a separate investigation into the improper acquisition of voting machines and last year turned it over to Hilson. At the time, she said a special prosecutor was needed because DePerno was running against her for attorney general. Nessel went on to defeat DePerno in November.

“These allegations are incredibly serious and unprecedented,” Nessel said in a statement Tuesday. “The 2024 presidential election will soon be upon us. The lies espoused by attorneys involved in this matter, and those who worked in concert with them across the nation, wreaked havoc and sowed distrust within our democratic institutions and processes.”

Following the 2020 election, four clerks in three Michigan counties turned over voting tabulators to third parties, investigators found. They were taken to suburban Detroit, where a group of four men broke into the machines and performed “tests” on them, according to Nessel’s office. The group held onto the machines for weeks or months but returned them to clerks — in one case in a carpool parking lot — after the clerks grew apprehensive, documents show.

When Nessel’s office turned over the case to Hilson, it said those involved in the effort included Rendon; DePerno; attorney Stefanie Lambert; Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf (R); and Doug Logan, the former chief executive of Cyber Ninjas. Logan’s firm shut down last year after a judge ordered it to pay fines of $50,000 a day if it did not release public records about its work on a controversial review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, Ariz.

More charges could come, and Hilson said in a statement: “This process is still ongoing and not over.”

Lambert said last week on the “Conservative Daily” podcast that she had been informed she was facing charges, but none are listed in online court records.

“My attorney has been informed that I have been indicted by D.J. Hilson, the special prosecutor in Michigan working at the request of Dana Nessel,” she said on the podcast.

“We did not violate any laws,” she added.

Later, in an interview, she said she planned to sue Hilson for wrongful prosecution.

In March, Hilson convened a secret grand jury to consider whether charges should be issued, according to court records. He subpoenaed Lambert, who responded by saying he misunderstood state law and arguing that anyone can possess a voting machine with the permission of an election clerk. Hilson then went to court to seek a ruling on what constitutes improper possession of a voting machine, arguing that people can possess them only with the authorization of the secretary of state or a judge.

An Oakland County judge agreed with Hilson last month, clearing the way for Hilson to issue charges. Hilson said Monday that his office did not make a recommendation to the grand jury on whether to issue an indictment, but he supports its decision and will oversee the prosecution.

DePerno, with the help of others, began looking into the 2020 election after initial results showed Biden had won in northern Michigan’s Antrim County, which historically votes for Republican candidates for president. The county clerk detected the reporting error and quickly corrected the mistake to show Trump had 61 percent of the vote there, but the episode became a fixation of those who falsely claimed the 2020 election was stolen. DePerno sued over how the election was conducted in Antrim County, but his case was dismissed soon afterward.

In an interview this spring, he said he had not improperly accessed voting machines and had not done anything wrong. He contended he was named as a target of the investigation last year to hurt his bid for attorney general.

After losing the race for attorney general, DePerno won Trump’s endorsement as he pursued a bid to become chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. He lost in February to Kristina Karamo, the party’s 2022 nominee for secretary of state. While DePerno and Karamo have both put much of their attention on the 2020 election, they have become harsh critics of one another.

Jon Swaine contributed to this report.

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