Michigan sheriff enlists private eye to grill clerks in vote fraud probe
LANSING — A Michigan sheriff investigating the 2020 election is using a private investigator to question clerks, an unorthodox arrangement that baffles local officials in a region former President Donald Trump dominated last fall.
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, a Republican who plotted to seize voting machines after the November election and was in communication with allies to Trump at the time, is now working with a private investigator named Michael Lynch, a former security official for DTE Energy in Detroit.
Leaf did not answer calls or respond to a text message from Bridge Michigan. The Hastings Banner newspaper reported that the sheriff said Lynch was recommended to him by Stefanie Lambert Junttila, a Detroit-area attorney facing potential sanctions related to the “Kraken” lawsuit that sought to overturn President Joe Biden’s election win.
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Lynch and a sheriff’s deputy have visited at least six township clerks, according to Barry County Clerk Pam Palmer, a Republican who criticized what she called a secretive investigation that has frightened local officials.
“I was told by my clerks that they were told not to say anything to each other or to me,” Palmer recalled. “So I don’t know what (Leaf and his team) are trying to hide. I’m told by the investigator that they’re doing this under the element of surprise.”
Biden won Michigan by 154,188 votes. The Republican-led Michigan Senate Oversight Committee spent seven months investigating the election and found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud, concluding the public should be confident in the results.
Leaf’s probe has been shrouded in mystery since inception.
Bridge Michigan used a Freedom of Information Act Request to reveal a trove of documents showing Leaf’s personal attorney discussed the initial investigation with Trump allies including Sidney Powell and a foundation with ties to L. Lin Wood, attorneys who are also facing possible sanctions for speculative claims in a failed lawsuit that sought to declare Trump the 2020 election winner.
Leaf has refused to disclose an initial complaint that he said prompted the investigation. The local media has quoted Leaf as saying his office is not paying Lynch, the private investigator who is working with his office and has questioned local government officials alongside a sheriff’s deputy.
In a brief phone interview Thursday, Lynch told Bridge Michigan he is “part of” the Barry County probe but declined to say who hired him. He said he was about to have a meeting and would call back. He has not.
Instead, Junttila responded by email to a separate Bridge inquiry, describing Lynch as a “certified fraud examiner” and “licensed investigator” who “was previously employed at DTE for 40 years with 20 years spent serving as the director of security.”
“Michael Lynch has not been paid to investigate election fraud in Barry County,” Junttila wrote.
She did not respond to follow-up questions, including whether Lynch is being paid to investigate anything else. Lynch did not answer a phone call on Friday and did not respond to questions via text message, telling Bridge Michigan that “Ms. Lambert (Junttila) sent you a response.”
The investigative approach is unusual, according to Barry County Prosecutor Julie Nakfoor Pratt, a Republican who told Bridge Michigan she is poised to meet with Leaf on Monday to try and learn more about the probe.
“You’ve got this person, and we don’t even know who he is, and he’s going around talking to people as if he’s some sort of certified police officer,” she said of Lynch. “I don’t think he’s a certified police officer, and if he is, I’d like to know.”
Law enforcement officials would typically bring prosecutors in on a case “of this magnitude,” but Leaf has not done so with the election probe, Pratt said.
“I know investigations are fact-finding missions, but usually there’s some allegation that provides some basis for that, and I’ve not seen it,” Pratt added.
Clerks questioned by Lynch told the Hastings Banner that the investigation appears to remain focused on Dominion Voting Systems tabulator machines used in Barry County.
The same type of machines are used in Antrim County, where human error by the GOP clerk skewed initially reported results and fueled a global conspiracy theory that the election was “rigged” to hurt Trump.
The Antrim error was fixed days after the election, and officials later conducted a hand recount of paper ballots to confirm official results. Continued claims of Antrim fraud or voting machine manipulation are “indefensible,” the GOP-led Senate Oversight Committee wrote last month in an investigatory report.
Trump easily carried Barry County last fall, winning 65 percent of the vote, up from 63 percent in 2016.
But Leaf, who was re-elected in November, told Bridge in June he remains concerned about “reports" questioning whether votes may have been "flipped" or "if we got hacked.”
Barry County clerks did a "stellar" job in the presidential election, but various individuals and organizations urged him to investigate, Leaf told Bridge at the time, declining to divulge the source of those complaints.
"I'm not giving out any names because of the death threats and harassment that people get,” he said.
Local clerks say there is no evidence of any wrongdoing in the 2020 election, nor were there problems with voting tabulators.
“They’re digging for something, but I don’t believe that there was fraud,” said Palmer, the GOP county clerk. “Our machines worked perfectly on Election Day.”
Junttila, the attorney who recommended the private investigator now working in Barry County, represented Leaf in a failed December lawsuit that sought a court order to impound voting machines across Michigan for “expert inspection.”
Among other things, the suit repeated a debunked claim that using Sharpie markers on ballots fed into Dominion tabulators "likely" impacted the accuracy of the Michigan election. Leaf indicated his office intended “to conduct a full investigation into reports.”
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker, a GOP nominee, dismissed the lawsuit a day after it was filed, writing that Leaf and Junttila had made "speculative leaps towards a hazy and nebulous inference that there has been numerous instances of election fraud and that defendants are destroying the evidence.”
Larry Osborne, a Delton retiree who is considering a recall campaign against Leaf, told Bridge he has filed public records requests to try and determine how much money the ongoing election probe has cost Barry County.
Even if the private investigator is not being paid, Leaf is wasting taxpayer dollars by assigning a deputy to investigate a contest decided eight months ago, he argued.
“(Leaf) can think what he wants, but when he goes out and basically harrasses the clerks… that’s pretty bad,” Osborne said. “If you look at sheriffs around other areas, they’re coming up with good crime programs and good drug programs. Dar never does any of that. He seems to be too busy.”
Leaf is among a handful of self-described "constitutional sheriffs" in Michigan who contend they are the highest level of governmental authority and have the power or duty to defy or disregard laws that they find unconstitutional.
But several colleagues he tried to recruit for a 2020 election investigation declined.
"Dar's in his own little world," St. Joseph County Sheriff Mark Lillywhite told Bridge Michigan earlier this month. “I know that he’s pushed the conservative agenda for a while. I’m conservative, but not that conservative.”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office declined to comment on tactics Leaf has used in his election investigation. A spokesperson for Michigan State Police also declined comment, telling Bridge the department “does not have authority over other law enforcement agencies.”
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