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Trump allies sanctioned for ‘frivolous’ suit to overturn Michigan election

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Sidney Powell was among a slew of attorneys sanctioned by a federal judge Wednesday for pursuing a meritless lawsuit aimed at overturning the election defeat of President Trump last November. (Devi Bones / Shutterstock.com)

LANSING—Attorney Sidney Powell and colleagues who tried to overturn Michigan’s 2020 election must pay state and city legal bills, undergo professional training and be investigated for potential suspension or disbarment, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In a blistering 110-page opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker said the so-called “kraken” lawsuit that sought to declare former President Donald Trump the winner of an election he lost was a “historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.”

“Sanctions are required to deter the filing of future frivolous lawsuits designed primarily to spread the narrative that our election processes are rigged and our democratic institutions cannot be trusted,” Parker wrote.

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“The narrative may have originated or been repeated by Former President Trump and it may be one that ‘many Americans’ share; however, that neither renders it true nor justifies counsel’s exploitation of the courts to further spread it.”

Parker, a Democratic appointee, rejected the election lawsuit in December, calling it an “amalgamation of theories, conjecture, and speculation.” The suit urged her to de-certify Biden’s victory and name Trump the winner in Michigan, or void the entire election and order a new one. 

Biden won the state by more than 154,000 votes.

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the city of Detroit and serial litigant Robert Davis of Highland Park urged Parker to sanction the pro-Trump attorneys involved in the suit, arguing their false claims undermined democracy and their profession. 

In addition to Powell, Parker on Wednesday also sanctioned attorneys L. Lin Wood and Howard Kleinhendler, a Trump ally who said in court last month that he had personally spoken with witnesses before including their testimony in the Michigan lawsuit. 

Other lawyers sanctioned include Scott Hagerstrom, who ran Trump's Michigan campaign in 2016, former Trump administration official Julia Haller, Brandon Johnson of Washington D.C. and two Metro Detroit attorneys: Gregory Rohl and Stefanie Lambert Junttila. 

Parker ordered the attorneys to pay all fees and costs incurred by the state of Michigan and city of Detroit, both of whom vigorously fought the suit, and will require each to complete at least 12 hours of “continuing legal education” training. 

The size of those legal penalties will be determined at a later date: Parker ordered the state and city of Detroit to submit time and expense records related to their defense of the suit within 14 days, and then will give the sanctioned attorneys another 14 days to respond. 

The judge also directed the court clerk to send copies of her opinion to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission and the appropriate disciplinary authority for the jurisdiction where each attorney is admitted to practice law “for investigation and possible suspension and disbarment.”

Powell’s Florida-based law office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hagerstrom, a Michigan attorney sanctioned by Parker, called Wednesday's ruling “sad” and said he thinks it will have a “chilling effect” on attorneys who may "stay a mile away" from such cases in the future even if they believe there was "wrongdoing."

“It’s just another battle, I guess, in the political war that’s going on,” Hagerstrom said.

Defense attorneys for the Trump allies had argued that punishing lawyers for representing Michigan voters who questioned election integrity would set a "dangerous" precedent. 

Powell and colleagues believed the affidavits filed by GOP poll challengers were "evidence of serious fraud," and so did Trump and many of his followers, Southfield attorney Donald Campbell wrote in a July 26 brief arguing against sanctions. 

"When they filed this case, members of two of the federal government’s three branches — including the now former President of the United States — were insisting that there was massive voter fraud," Campbell wrote. 

"Many Americans instantly disregarded those claims. But millions of other Americans believed those claims — and believed that their president would not intentionally mislead them."

Parker handed down the sanctions more than seven months after Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block congressional certification of Biden’s win, including his 154,188 vote victory in Michigan. 

“That insurrection can be directly linked to the lies that were spread by the attorneys in this litigation, shielded by the sanctity of judicial proceedings,” David Fink, an attorney for the City of Detroit, argued last month in a sanctions hearing.

The Michigan sanctions are the latest in a series of setbacks for Trump's legal allies, including the former president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who had his law license suspended in New York and Washington D.C., in part because of false claims he made in a Michigan House Oversight Committee hearing, which was later parodied on Saturday Night Live. 

Earlier this month, a federal judge sanctioned two attorneys who had tried to sue Whitmer, Benson and other out-of-state officials in Colorado, calling their complaint "one enormous conspiracy theory."

In a scathing opinion, Colorado Magistrate Judge Reid Neureiter noted an investigation by Michigan's GOP-led Senate Oversight Committee found no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud in the 2020 contest. 

The Michigan Senate committee, in its June report, recommended that Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel investigate unnamed figures who continue to spread false information about the 2020 election "to raise money or publicity for their own ends."

Nessel granted that request and launched a criminal investigation on July 8 in cooperation with the Michigan State Police. 

The Michigan election lawsuit filed by Powell and her colleagues relied, in part, on testimony from “Spyder,” who the attorneys described anonymously as a former “Military Intelligence expert.” 

The Washington Post later revealed the witness as Joshua Merritt, a 43-year-old information technology consultant who had once enrolled in but never completed entry-level military intelligence training. 

The Michigan complaint also cited evidence from security analyst Russell Ramsland, who falsely claimed 781 percent voter turnout in North Muskegon (actual turnout was 78.1 percent) and referenced “hand counts” in Antrim County even though a hand recount was not conducted there until the following month.

That recount of paper ballots, when it did occur, showed the official results in Antrim County were accurate.

Wood, in a Zoom-based sanctions hearing last month, sought to distance himself from the Michigan lawsuit, telling Parker that he had offered to assist Powell but was unaware that his name would be put on initial filings. 

The Georgia-based attorney ran afoul of federal court rules when he shared a video clip of the sanctions hearing on a Telegram social media channel, which is not allowed, suggesting Parker ran the hearing like a proceeding in “Venezuela or Communist China.”

In the hearing, pro-Trump attorneys acknowledged they did not personally review every affidavit they submitted to the court because they had been prepared for a separate lawsuit (which was also rejected by another judge). 

But Powell argued the initial complaint, including more than 900 pages of affidavits, showed an “extraordinary due diligence” by the attorneys. “The only way to test (the claims) is in the crucible of a trial or an evidentiary hearing, which the court has denied at every stage.”

Parker, in her Wednesday ruling, accused Powell and her colleagues of intentionally failing to vet witnesses whose stories fall apart under scrutiny. 

“Once it appeared that their preferred political candidate’s grasp on the presidency was slipping away, plaintiffs’ counsel helped mold the predetermined narrative about election fraud by lodging this federal lawsuit based on evidence that they actively refused to investigate or question with the requisite level of professional skepticism — and this refusal was to ensure that the evidence conformed with the predetermined narrative (a narrative that has had dangerous and violent consequences),” she wrote.

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