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Muskegon prosecutor to consider charges in DePerno tabulator tampering case

Matthew DePerno
Matthew DePerno, a Republican candidate for attorney general, is among nine people accused of vote machine tampering in a case referred to a special prosecutor. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
  • Muskegon prosecutor assigned as special prosecutor in Michigan vote tabulator tampering case
  • State probe involves Republican attorney general nominee Matthew DePerno
  • Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel referred case due to conflict of interest

LANSING — Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson will serve as a special prosecutor and consider "possible charges" in an alleged Michigan vote tabulator tampering scheme linked to Republican attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno. 

Hilson, a Democrat, was assigned to the case Thursday by the Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council, which intervened upon the request of Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, who had disqualified herself due to her conflict of interest as DePerno's political rival.

D.J. Hilson headshot
Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson will serve as a special prosecutor in Michigan vote tampering case (Muskegon County)

Nessel requested the special prosecutor last month, when her office said a state investigation revealed that DePerno, state Rep. Daire Rendon and seven others "orchestrated a coordinated plan to gain access” to voting machines in multiple jurisdictions following the 2020 presidential election.

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Hilson "will review the investigation and information for possible charges," the Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council said Thursday. "At this time, no charges have been filed against any of the possible defendants." 

Nessel is "disqualified from further involvement" but her office will cover "all costs and expenses of the handling of this matter, with the exception of personnel costs," PACC executive director Cheri Bruinsma wrote in a one-page order

The assignment of a special prosecutor comes just 61 days before the November general election. DePerno will take on Nessel after the Michigan Republican Party formally nominated him as their attorney general candidate last month. 

Hilson’s office did not immediately respond to an interview request from Bridge Michigan. The Muskegon County Democrat was first elected by local voters in 2012 after serving 13 years as an assistant prosecutor following graduation from Cooley Law School.

Campaign finance records show Hilson donated $100 to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's re-election campaign last year, but he has never contributed to an attorney general candidate, including Nessel. 

The state probe, which began in February, focused on tampering with voting machines used in the 2020 presidential election. Nessel's office alleged  potentially criminal attempts to access those machines to try and prove Trump's unsubstantiated claims that voter fraud cost him that year's contest.

DePerno and Rendon were part of a group that "gained unauthorized access and compromised tabulators" in Roscommon County, Richfield Township, Lake Township and Irving Township between March and June of 2021, Chief Deputy Attorney General Christina Grossi disclosed last month.

Other alleged conspirators include Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, attorney Stefanie Lambert Juntilla, Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, Ben Cotton, Jeff Lenberg, Ann Howard and James Penrose, according to the petition for special prosecutor. 

DePerno's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson previously said DePerno "categorically denies" the allegations and called Nessel's request for a special prosecutor a "liberal fever dream of lies" based on “political prosecution.”

Rendon's office declined comment on Hilson's appointment and the ongoing tabulator tampering case. 

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson requested the vote machine probe in February. A Republican-led state Senate committee had earlier alluded to DePerno in asking Nessel to investigate “those who have been utilizing misleading and false information about Antrim County to raise money or publicity for their own ends.”

DePerno represented a local activist in a lawsuit seeking a "forensic audit" of 2020 election results in Antrim County, where an error by the clerk initially skewed unofficial results. DePerno has appealed lower court losses to the Michigan Supreme Court, where justices have not yet decided to hear the case.

The Antrim County lawsuit, and a report prepared by a team DePerno allowed to examine a Dominion machine there, spawned global conspiracy theories about voting tabulators and fueled Trump's efforts to overturn Michigan's 2020 election despite his 154,188-vote loss to Democrat Joe Biden. 

Those conspiracies spread to Muskegon County, where Hilson works: Trump loyalists falsely claimed 781 percent voter turnout in a North Muskegon precinct. Citywide turnout was actually 78.1 percent, with turnout of 74 percent in one precinct and 82 percent in another. 

In Barry County, Sheriff Leaf has been investigating the election for nearly two years. He contemplated seizing voting machines in late 2020, a plan an attorney working for him discussed with key Trump allies, including attorney Sidney Powell and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. 

The Republican and self-described "constitutional sheriff" recently lost a lawsuit alleging the state had interfered in his probe. A local prosecutor last month declined to sign off on search warrants that Leaf had sought to seize voting equipment in three local jurisdictions.

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