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Barry County to Dar Leaf: Election probe waste of money, defunds detective

Dar Leaf speaking in a microphone
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf is one of a handful of so-called constitutional sheriffs in Michigan that believe they are the ultimate law enforcement authority. He’s taken it upon himself to investigate the 2020 presidential election.(Photo courtesy of Chris duMond)
  • Barry County cuts funding for detective in Sheriff Dar Leaf’s office
  • Detective was expected to investigate violent crime, but Leaf hired for 2020 election probe instead
  • Leaf has not produced any evidence of fraud but says ‘things will be coming down the pipe.”

LANSING — Barry County commissioners this week voted to revoke funding for a third detective in Sheriff Dar Leaf’s office after he continued investigating the 2020 election instead of making a new hire to fight violent crime.

It’s the latest setback for Leaf, a self-described “constitutional” sheriff who has led a long-running — but unsuccessful — probe in an attempt to prove voter fraud that former President Donald Trump still claims cost him re-election.

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Leaf is now under investigation himself by a special prosecutor who is considering whether to press charges against the sheriff and others alleged to have tampered with voting tabulators in violation of state law, including GOP attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno. 

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The all-Republican Barry County Board of Commissioners last year approved roughly $100,000 to help Leaf hire a third detective to investigate a series of murders and other violent crimes. 

But earlier this month, Leaf told the board he still had only one detective investigating violent crimes, along with a vacant position and a second detective who was exclusively leading his 2020 election probe. 

"We want to bring resources to law enforcement, but the Board of Commissioners is concerned it's not going to the right place," Chair Ben Geiger told Bridge Michigan after the 6-0 vote to finalize the budget and defund the position.

“Our intention was to give law enforcement the tools to solve violent crime, and the Board of Commissioners found money in the budget to do that,” Geiger said. “A year later, that has not been done.”

Leaf defended his probe this week, telling commissioners “some things will be coming down the pipe,” and his team has had "whistleblowers come up who were actually working in Venezuela.” That prompted laughter from some residents who attended the meeting. 

In an email to Bridge, Leaf said "commissioners sounded confused on what happened at my office" and described the lead investigator on his election probe as a deputy "on special assignment" since mid-March.

Leaf said he has struggled to fill vacant positions but still wants three detectives because of a recent spat of rare but "grotesque crimes" that are "very time consuming to investigate."

Speaking before commissioners earlier in the month, Leaf said he no longer suspects any wrongdoing by election clerks in Barry County, but he’s suggested the probe may extend beyond his jurisdiction. 

"I don't think there was anything that anybody did here in Barry County that would constitute election fraud," Leaf said on Oct. 4.

Commissioner John Smelker, a Republican, first broached the idea of revoking the detective funding in the Oct. 4 meeting. "I think we're wasting taxpayer's money," he said.

Smelker made a successful motion the following week to remove the funding for the detective position and an accompanying vehicle. Commissioners finalized the county budget on Tuesday. 

Smelker told Bridge he hopes the sheriff can fill vacant positions to fight violent crime. He noted that the commission vote does not preclude Leaf from continuing his 2020 election probe using other budget funds. 

"The commissioners have no control over how he uses his man and that special investigator," Smelker told Bridge. "The sheriff is duly elected. He can do with his department as he wants."

Barry County Prosecutor Julie Nakfoor Pratt joined Leaf in requesting funding for the third detective last year, and she told commissioners that the position is still needed given local murders, sexual assault and missing persons cases. 

But she chided Leaf for assigning one of his only detectives to the election probe, noting that “voter fraud is a non-violent case.”

Pratt in July rejected Leaf's request to sign off on search warrants he sought to seize election equipment from three local governments.

Leaf still tried to get a local judge or magistrate to authorize the search warrants but was rejected by them too, Pratt told commissioners this week. 

"There was no probable cause" to justify search warrants in the election probe, Pratt said. “There wasn’t insufficient (evidence). There was none.”

Pratt also publicly disclosed for the first time that Leaf had sought criminal charges against Barry County Health Officer Colette Scrimger for "impersonating an officer" by enforcing state pandemic orders related to COVID-19.

"I not only denied those charges, I cleared her completely, because she's not a police officer and she was not impersonating anybody," Pratt told commissioners.  "She was doing her own job."

As Bridge previously reported, Leaf first contemplated seizing voting machines about a month after the 2020 election, a plan an attorney working for him discussed with key Trump allies, including attorney Sidney Powell and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

Leaf is among a handful of constitutional sheriffs in Michigan who believe they are the highest level of government authority and can disregard laws they deem unconstitutional. 

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He sued the state this summer, alleging officials were "usurping and interfering" with his 2020 election investigation. But Leaf’s lawsuit was dismissed because he did not meet a deadline to respond to motions form state attorneys, who had chided his "conspiracy-fueled" probe.

Leaf’s lengthy investigation has frustrated local officials in Barry County, a largely rural area that Trump dominated in 2020. Election clerks, including Republicans, contend there were no problems with local elections but were nonetheless grilled by a private investigator enlisted by Leaf early in the probe.

“It has been frustrating,” Geiger told Bridge Michigan. “We're happy to hear that he found no wrongdoing in Barry County elections, as we suspected would be the case. We're happy that the prosecutor found nothing wrong with Barry County elections. So we're hoping this gets wrapped up real quick.”

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