(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

LANSING—Matt DePerno, Michigan’s Republican candidate for attorney general, could face criminal charges after allegedly helping supporters of former President Donald Trump illegally gain access to voting machines.

What happened?

On Sunday, The Detroit News reported that Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office had reached out to the Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council, a state agency. They asked the Council to appoint a special prosecutor to consider criminal charges against nine election conspiracy theorists, including DePerno, state Rep. Daire Rendon (R-Lake City), and Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf.

What are the accusations?

Following the 2020 Presidential Election, a cadre of Trump supporters allegedly convinced some local clerks in Michigan to hand over five voting tabulators. Back at their hotel room, they then allegedly broke into those tabulators to perform “tests.”

DePerno was named as one of the “prime instigators” of the plan to illegally gain access to the machines. Investigators also said DePerno was present at the hotel room during the testing.

In addition to DePerno, Rendon, and Leaf, six others were named in the report: Stefanie Lambert Juntilla, Ann Howard, Ben Cotton, Jeff Lenberg, Douglas Logan, and James Penrose. All nine individuals could face charges.

Prior reporting has shown that DePerno cited Cotton, Lenberg, and Penrose as experts in a lawsuit involving Antrim County.

What happens now?

Obtaining undue possession of a voting machine used in an election is a felony punishable by five years in prison. No charges have been issued at time of publication.

Because Attorney General Nessel will likely face DePerno for her seat in the November election, her office asked for intervention by the Council, presumably taking her off the case and removing the potential for a conflict of interest.

A spokesperson for Nessel’s office told the New York Times that the timing of her request for an outside review wasn’t affected by politics. The petition noted that a potential conflict of interest only emerged after DePerno was found to be “one of the prime instigators of the conspiracy.”

The Michigan Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council said in a statement that it can take 60-90 days for its staff to review a request and select a prosecutor. That could mean the issue won’t be resolved before the Nov. 8 election.

What does DePerno have to say?

DePerno released a statement Sunday night denying the allegations and saying that the claims were “purely based on political prosecution.” During a radio interview Monday morning, he said that “90% of the facts that (Nessel) lays out, that she calls facts in her petition, are either false or I have no knowledge of what she’s talking about.”

DePerno made his political reputation on loudly and repeatedly questioning the 2020 presidential election results—including in a lawsuit against Antrim County that gained him the endorsement of Trump in his bid for attorney general.

The Antrim County suit was dismissed, and a Republican-led state legislative panel found no evidence of fraud in Michigan’s 2020 elections, calling DePerno’s claims “demonstrably false.”

“Dana Nessel knows she is losing this race,” DePerno’s campaign manager, Tyson Shepard, said in a statement Sunday night, The Detroit News reported. “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.”

What are other people saying? 

The reliability of Michigan’s elections and voting equipment were already fringe-right talking points this election year, but Michigan political experts said the new accusations show the issues will take top billing as voters consider electing Republicans who pledged their belief in Trump’s false assertion that he won the 2020 election.

Bernie Porn, a nonpartisan pollster who’s worked in the state for more than 30 years, said public opinion is against Republican candidates in several key areas—including abortion and the veracity of the 2020 presidential race. In a May poll conducted by his Lansing firm EPIC-MRA, Porn said 61% of Michigan general election voters said Biden won “fair and square.”

Still, Republican leaders in the state stood by DePerno following news of the investigation, with Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan GOP party, tweeting that Nessel is “hell bent on going after her political opponents.” Party Chairman Ron Weiser also said he expects the party’s formal nominating convention on Aug. 27 will back all of the candidates previously endorsed by party delegates, including DePerno. He also questioned the timing of Nessel’s request for an investigation against DePerno, accusing her of using her office to target a political opponent.

For the Record:

There is no evidence that voting machines have been manipulated. A coalition of federal and state election and cybersecurity officials called the 2020 presidential election “the most secure in American history.” Trump’s own attorney general, along with a growing list of his former staffers, have said there was no fraud in the election.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.