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Investigation opened: Michigan AG looks into Unlock Michigan

David Eggert/AP Photo In this March 5, 2020, photo, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel addresses the media during a news conference in Lansing, Mich. Nessel opened an investigation Monday into allegations that a ballot group may have committed crimes while gathering signatures to repeal a law that gives Gov. Gretchen Whitmer broad powers to manage the coronavirus crisis.

HOUGHTON — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a Monday press release that she is opening an investigation into the group “Unlock Michigan,” following allegations that members associated with the group may have engaged in criminal activity in collecting petition signatures to repeal state law.

The AG’s’s office says it has received complaints from residents who report they were deceived by petition circulators who were gathering signatures to support the efforts of Unlock Michigan, which is trying to repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act. Residents said they were told the petitions were to support LGBTQ rights, for medical marijuana initiatives or to help small businesses, among other things.

The release also claims that recent media reports have also revealed what appears to be at least one official working for the Unlock Michigan campaign who was training petition circulators and suggested they use deceptive and potentially illegal tactics to gain signatures for the ballot initiative.

Nessel’s office further stated that it has also received a letter from the League of Women Voters and another from an experienced election law attorney, John Pirich, calling for an investigation into Unlock Michigan’s signature-collecting efforts.

Unlock Michigan is the most prominent of several anti-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigns that have popped up in the state since the COVID-19 outbreak began in March.

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The group, and its petition, has faced political challenges since mid-July, when patch.com (Michigan Advance/States Newsroom) reported that the “Keep Michigan Safe” committee, led by former Republican state Sen. and U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, filed a lawsuit on July 14 in the Court of Appeals, seeking to have Unlock Michigan’s petition withdrawn by the board. The suit, the first of its kind, alleges clear violations of both recently-adopted petition rules and long-held state standards for petition language.

Keep Michigan Safe also claims the Board of State Canvassers, which is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, did not follow proper public notice procedures in approving the petition wording.

The petition, which the Patch called a “right wing” effort, is aimed at permanently limiting Whitmer’s executive power and cleared the first hurdle with the Board of State Canvassers is being challenged in court, just 10 days after it received the go-ahead to collect signatures.”

“The lawsuit is a frivolous attempt to discourage our army of volunteers from circulating petitions. But a bogus lawsuit is not going to slow us down,” Unlock Michigan spokesperson Fred Wszolek said in an email, the Patch reported.

Wszolek is a consultant who is well-known in Michigan GOP politics, but he resides in, and is registered to vote in, South Carolina.

Unlock Michigan collected more than 500,000 signatures (340,047 were required) to advance the petition that seeks specifically to repeal one of the two long-established state laws Whitmer has used as the basis for her emergency orders to fight COVID-19. The petition will almost certainly be adopted by the GOP-led Legislature, bypassing Whitmer’s approval. In the off-chance that it is not adopted by the Legislature, it would go in front of voters on the 2022 general election ballot.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office said Wednesday it could take 105 days for the Bureau of Elections to review signatures and recommend whether to certify petitions, a timeline Unlock Michigan organizers blasted as “political spin” from a Democratic ally of the governor.

Bridge Michigan reported on Sept. 23 that Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek accused Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, of politicizing the petition review process. The group will likely submit its signatures next week, easily topping, and is hoping for speedy work by the state.

Wszolek stated Benson’s own elections director, Jonathan Brater, said in a sworn affidavit this May that it “takes approximately 60 days to complete the random sampling and challenge process.”

“We’re not asking for any sort of special treatment here,” Wszolek is quoted in the Bridge as saying. “The Michigan Constitution gives residents the right to initiate laws and present them to the Legislature for a prompt vote. You’re kind of watering down that right if you reserve the right to take an indeterminate amount of time.”

Ahmeek, Michigan, resident, Erik Killunen, organizer of the “All Business is Essential” campaign, issued a response on Tuesday, in which he slammed Whitmer and Nessel for opening a criminal investigation into the Unlock Michigan campaign. The move comes about a week after the petition reached 500,000 signatures, the release states. It is no coincidence that the Attorney General is acting now, only the latest step in an organized smear campaign by the Keep Michigan Safe committee and encouraged by the Governor, who called the campaign “unscrupulous” last month.

“It’s absolutely no coincidence the Attorney General decided to open this investigation now, after Unlock Michigan hit its 500,000-signature mark,” Killunen said. “Governor Whitmer and her people didn’t think this thing would go anywhere, and now that it has, they’re scrambling to put a stop to what the people clearly want.”

The release continues, saying: “Michiganders, don’t believe the lies! The signatures were gathered appropriately, but Whitmer is bent on using her illegitimate political power to stop to a legitimate petition. If we’re going to investigate anyone, then I’m calling today for Whitmer and Nessel to be investigated for corrupt abuse of their offices. It’s time to fight fire with fire and put the folks in Lansing on notice.”

Unlock Michigan is not the first petition seeking to limit Whitmer’s power. The “Restore Freedom Ballot Committee, began circulating petitions in May for a proposal to limit Whitmer’s power by amending the Michigan Constitution. Whitmer responded to news of the petitions, saying:

“I want to be very clear: Any attempt to strip away the powers of the governor during this crisis is irresponsible, dangerous and foolish.”

In her Monday release, Nessel declared:

“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. 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. My office will investigate these allegations, and if there is a violation of law, we will prosecute those responsible.”

The investigation comes on the heels of a release by Keep Michigan Safe, of a secretly recorded video that showed a person training petition circulators for the campaign and appearing to suggest they could use practices that violate state law.

The Bridge also reported the Detroit Free Press published a “secret recording” in which a petition firm working for Unlock Michigan coached paid circulators on giving false information to voters, illegally collecting signatures without witnessing them, trespassing and lying under oath. The Bridge went on to stated that in August the Free Press reported another company it had hired to circulate petitions has a history of giving inaccurate descriptions of petitions to secure signatures, which is not illegal under Michigan Law.

Wszolek suggested the secret audio recording obtained by the Free Press was a setup by Whitmer allies, a charge the Keep Michigan Safe Committee called “100 percent false.” The organizer in the recording is a “left-wing operative” who was subcontracting and may have intentionally tried to make Unlock Michigan look bad, Wszolek said, the Bridge reported.

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