Charges filed in signature fraud scandal that rocked Michigan governor race
- Three face felony charges for 2022 signature fraud scandal
- Forgeries disqualified five GOP gubernatorial candidates
- Attorney General Dana Nessel expected to announce more details Thursday
LANSING — Two petition firm owners have been arrested, and a third is being sought by authorities, as they face a slew of felonies stemming from a signature fraud scandal that disqualified leading Republicans from last year’s gubernatorial primary and prompted calls for reform.
Attorney General Dana Nessel announced the arrests Thursday, calling the five governor and three judicial candidates who were kept off the ballot last year because of invalid signatures “victims” of a “criminal conspiracy” to intentionally defraud them.
Nessel’s office has filed 27 felony counts each against Willie Reed, 37, who is being pursued by U.S. marshals out-of-state, and Shawn Wilmoth, 36. Jamie Lynn Wilmoth, 36, faces 25 similar counts.
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Through three separate petition firms, the trio are accused of conducting a criminal enterprise, forgery, computer crimes and making false pretenses to intentionally deceive and obtain more than $100,000, among other things, according to records from 37th District Court in Warren.
“Many of these are financial crimes we're talking about today, but they're also crimes against our democracy and against the integrity of our system of elections, and against those voters who may have wanted to support these prospective candidates,” Nessel said at a Lansing media event.
The criminal enterprise charge, which is similar to a racketeering charge at the federal level, is punishable by up to 20 years in prison under state law, as are the charges for false pretenses above $100,000.
The massive signature fraud scandal disqualified including early GOP front-runners former Detroit Police Chief James Craig and businessman Perry Johnson, who is now running for president, and also may have kept some citizen initiatives off the ballot.
Like many states, Michigan requires candidates to gather signatures from voters to qualify for the ballot. Last year, a worker shortage, glut of candidates and inflation drove up prices from about $4 per signature to $12, Bridge Michigan has reported.
On Thursday, Nessel told reporters the prices “incentivized” fraud, and she called on the Michigan Legislature to craft “better and stronger” laws to govern the petition circulation process.
“Michigan should view this as a cautionary tale,” the attorney general said.
Shawn Wilmoth helped run First Choice Contracting LLC, a signature collection company that worked for all five gubernatorial candidates who were disqualified, according to a Bridge Michigan investigation.
His Warren home was raided by police last summer.
He and his wife are due in court Thursday afternoon. Bridge’s efforts to reach them and Reed for comment were unsuccessful.
The Michigan Bureau of Elections, in a May 2022 report, said 36 fraudulent circulators forged an estimated 68,000 signatures on nominating petitions for ten different candidates, including the five GOP governor hopefuls who each needed 15,000 valid signatures to make the ballot.
One signature gatherer hired by Wilmoth told Bridge last year the man recruited workers off the street and alleged that his name was forged on petitions.
Nessel called the Wilmouths and Reed “principal actors” who were “aware of and directly responsible” for the forged signatures. But she told reporters her office could still charge others, including circulators who were paid by the petition firms to collect signatures.
The trio collected more than $700,000 from nine separate campaigns – including GOP gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley who never received signatures he paid them for but still made the ballot, Nessel said.
The accused “knowingly and intentionally deceived their clients, took their money, provided fabricated petition signatures and delivered them as the quality product of their companies,” the attorney general alleged.
“The methods used to disguise their con were sophomoric and transparent.”
John Yob, a Republican political strategist who worked for both the Craig and Johnson campaigns during the 2022 cycle, celebrated the new charges Thursday morning.
"Enjoy prison, assholes," Yob tweeted before going on to compliment Nessel, a Democrat. "Despite being from opposite party, I’ve seen nothing but professionalism from the AGs office. Thank you for your solid work."
As with all defendants, the trio are considered innocent until proven guilty.
Michael Brown, a Michigan State Police captain who ran for governor but withdrew when the validity of his petition signatures were questioned, also welcomed the criminal charges.
"I want to thank the investigators for the Attorney General's office and the Attorney General for their diligent work as they unraveled the fraudulent petition scheme that affected many individuals."
Calls for reform
State House Elections Chair Penelope Tsernoglou, D-East Lansing, attended the Thursday media event and told Bridge she is planning to review petition laws with hopes to propose reforms by the fall.
Tsernoglou promised an “in-depth look at what we can do to improve it.”
Nessel noted some states limit who can circulate petitions by requiring them to be registered voters or precluding individuals with prior criminal convictions.
She suggested the state could also license or bond signature collection firms to ensure appropriate conduct and advised political candidates to do more vetting of their own when considering whether or which campaign vendors to hire.
She said a routine Google search would have revealed that Shawn Wilmoth in 2011 had pleaded guilty to two counts of election fraud in Virginia.
“A lot of these candidates got taken because they were political neophytes, and they've never done this before,” Nessel said.
Donna Brandenburg, a first-time gubernatorial candidate disqualified from last year’s GOP primary, said she never spoke directly to the Wilmoths or Reed but hired one of their firms.
She alleged the political “goat rodeo” is stacked against new candidates and argued the state should have alerted her to the suspected fraud earlier in the process so she could have tried to collect alternative signatures.
“This isn’t about me as a candidate,” Brandenburg said. “This is about every single one of us whose voices were silenced because of a process that got away.”
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