LANSING, Mich. - Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is launching a criminal investigation into Unlock Michigan, the committee collecting signatures to repeal an emergency powers law Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is using to address the coronavirus pandemic, Nessel said Monday.
Nessel's announcement follows a series of Detroit Free Press articles about questionable tactics employed by paid signature collectors working on the Unlock Michigan campaign.
"Our ballot initiative process allows efforts with strong public support to be presented to the Legislature," Nessel said in a news release. "But that process becomes tainted when petition circulators manipulate and cheat to serve their own agendas. My office will investigate these allegations, and if there is a violation of law, we will prosecute those responsible."
The Free Press reported Sept. 22 on a Sept. 4 Unlock Michigan training session for signature collectors that was secretly recorded by a representative of Keep Michigan Safe, the group opposing efforts to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945, which Whitmer is using as the legal underpinning for emergency orders related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The video showed Erik Tisinger, who was working for a California-based signature collection and processing company called In the Field Inc., advising trainees about giving potential signers inaccurate information about the purpose of the petition, trespassing on private property, unlawfully leaving petitions in someone else's possession to collect signatures, and giving misleading testimony in a court deposition.
In August, the Free Press reported that another company involved in collecting signatures, Let the People Decide, has a history of alleged "bait and switch" tactics in paid petition drives around the U.S., in which people were allegedly given inaccurate descriptions of what the initiatives would do, and the company is headed by a man who has a criminal record for falsifying his voter registration.
It was not immediately clear whether the Michigan State Police would be involved in the investigation.
In opening an investigation, Nessel cited the Free Press reports, plus "complaints from residents who report they were deceived by petition circulators," working on the Unlock Michigan campaign. Nessel said residents complained they were told "the petitions were to support LGBTQ rights, for medical marijuana initiatives or to help small businesses, among other things."
Nessel's announcement follows calls for an investigation Friday from the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Michigan and Thursday from John Pirich, a top Michigan election attorney who endorsed Whitmer in the 2018 election.
Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek has said he suspects the trainer caught on camera giving advice on unlawful tactics was an opposition plant, though he has provided no evidence in support of that, other than his contention that the trainer had worked on more progressive petition campaigns in the past.
Someone "should investigate the conspiracy among Gov. Whitmer's political operatives to stage this sham video," Wszolek said.
Keep Michigan Safe spokesman Mark Fisk has said Wszolek's allegations are false and absurd and an attempt to shift attention away from Unlock Michigan's conduct.
Tisinger and In the Field have been unavailable for comment.
Whitmer, who like Nessel is a Democrat, is this week expected to extend Michigan's state of emergency under the Emergency Powers of Governor Act. The current state of emergency is set to expire at the end of the day Thursday, and Whitmer's extension will be the latest in a series of extensions she has made unilaterally since May, when the Republican-controlled Legislature declined to grant an extension under the Emergency Management Act of 1976.
That refusal left Whitmer with only one major legislative tool in her toolbox - the 1945 law, which does not require the Legislature to sign off on a state of emergency.
Unlock Michigan, a group with strong ties to the Republican Party, says it has exceeded its goal of collecting more than 500,000 signatures to repeal the 1945 law. It is expected to submit those signatures Friday to the Michigan Secretary of State's Office for verification.
If the required signatures are submitted to the Republican-controlled Legislature, it can then repeal the law without that action being subject to a Whitmer veto. Only if the Legislature does not act on the petition would the question of repealing the emergency law go to voters.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has said it could take until early next year for her office to finish reviewing the signatures. Unlock Michigan has called for the review to take place much more quickly.
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