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Nessel investigates Unlock Michigan petition drive

Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday she’s opening an investigation into potentially unlawful practices by Unlock Michigan, the petition group seeking to rein in emergency powers Democratic Gov. Whitmer has relied on to issue COVID-19 orders.

Nessel’s office did not respond when asked if the probe could invalidate any of the 500,000 voter signatures the group says it has already collected, but one longtime elections attorney said it could result in misdemeanor criminal charges against circulators, petition firms or others involved in the effort.

Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek called Nessel’s investigation a “partisan political farce” by Democrats designed to undermine a speedy and successful petition drive. 

Detroit Free Press last week reported on secretly recorded footage that showed an Unlock Michigan subcontractor coaching petition circulators to give voters false information about the petitions and to collect signatures without witnessing them, among other things.  

Michigan does not have a law prohibiting circulators from lying about the contents of a petition, but there are misdemeanor laws against circulators collecting signatures without witnessing them, a crime that is punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a fine of $500.

It’s also illegal to aid or abet another person who violates the petition drive law, and that could open Unlock Michigan sponsors or their signature firms up to criminal liability, according to attorney John Pirich, a Michigan elections expert and Whitmer donor who wrote Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson last week to request an investigation. 

Nessel, a Democrat, said her office will probe the claims and prosecute if the evidence shows that crimes were committed. 

“Our democracy is firmly rooted in the principles of an informed electorate which makes decisions at the polls based on reason and beliefs over lies and deception,” she said in a statement. “Our ballot initiative process allows efforts with strong public support to be presented to the Legislature. But that process becomes tainted when petition circulators manipulate and cheat to serve their own agendas.”

Organizers for Unlock Michigan, who plan to turn their signatures into the state on Friday, have downplayed the Free Press report and suggested the subcontractor who was filmed, Eric Tisinger, may have been a Democratic plant attempting to make the group look bad.

“The person who was supposedly on camera saying these things, urging people to break the law, is a liberal Democratic activist from California,” said Wszolek. “I don’t know how he ended up in any way attached to what we’re doing, because he obviously doesn’t believe any of it.”

The petition seeks to repeal the 1945 law Whitmer has used to extend a state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s used the authority to continue issuing executive orders even though the GOP-led Legislature declined to extend the emergency beyond April 30.

Unlock Michigan organizers collected far more signatures than the 340,047 required to advance the initiative to the Legislature, where they hope Republican majorities in the House and Senate will take up and enact the initiative before the end of the year. 

The state review process could take months, however,  and Whitmer allies appear poised to try and slow the process in hopes that Democrats flip the state House this fall and block legislative action on the initiative next year, which would send it to the 2022 ballot for voters to decide.

Nessel spokesperson Ryan Jarvi told Bridge Michigan that the attorney general’s office “can’t speculate as to whether any potential charges will invalidate signatures” collected by Unlock Michigan, “as it may depend on evidence gathered in our investigation and the particular charge.”

Nessel’s wife, Alanna Maguire, is a lead organizer for a separate petition drive seeking a 2022 ballot proposal that would add anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents to Michigan law. One Unlock Michigan subcontractor claimed to be collecting signatures for that effort as well, creating a potential conflict for Nessel in the Unlock Michigan probe. 

But Nessel’s office had already established an “isolation wall” that screens her from viewing any department work pertaining to the LGBT rights proposal, Jarvi said.

“The office will conduct a fair and unbiased review of the evidence and follow the investigation,” he said of the Unlock Michigan probe.

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