Special report: Far-right sheriff crusades to prove Trump’s bogus voter-fraud claims

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Special Report: Far-Right Sheriff Crusades To Prove Trump’s Bogus Voter-Fraud Claims Special Report: Far-Right Sheriff Crusades To Prove Trump’s Bogus Voter-Fraud Claims
Working with key figures in the former president’s failed effort to overturn the election, the Republican sheriff has petitioned courts seeking to seize election equipment, assigned investigators to grill local clerks about balloting processes and made sweeping requests for their records.
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By Peter Eisler and Nathan Layne

Donald Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was rigged has been decisively debunked by local election officials, state and federal courts, and the former president’s own attorney general. All deemed his case bogus.

Here in Michigan’s rural Barry County, Sheriff Dar Leaf rejects all that.

Since late 2020, Mr Leaf has been investigating one of Mr Trump’s most fantastical false assertions – that vote-counting machines somehow flipped votes from Trump to Democrat Joe Biden.

Working with key figures in the former president’s failed effort to overturn the election, the Republican sheriff has petitioned courts seeking to seize election equipment, assigned investigators to grill local clerks about balloting processes and made sweeping requests for their records.

The sheriff is barrelling ahead despite the conclusions of judges and the county’s Republican prosecutor that he lacked probable cause.

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In the process, Mr Leaf is roiling conservative Barry County, where Mr Trump won decisively, and testing a legal theory with revolutionary implications for American democracy.

Mr Leaf is in the vanguard of the so-called “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which asserts that sheriffs, typically elected in counties, possess supreme law-enforcement power in their jurisdictions – exceeding that of state police, federal agencies and any other official, including the US president.

The movement’s most prominent group, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, takes the extreme position that sheriffs can and should ignore any law they deem unconstitutional.

Richard Mack, the association’s founder, called federal and state bureaucracies “the Gestapo of America” that routinely adopt unconstitutional policies.

“The sheriffs are going to have to stop it,” said Mr Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, at the association’s conference in Las Vegas earlier this month.

The association claims sheriffs derive extraordinary powers from the oath they take to defend the constitution and its principle of separation of powers between local, state and federal agencies. Two constitutional scholars interviewed by Reuters dismissed that theory, saying it has no basis in the founding document or in US history.

In May, the association announced that it’s encouraging sheriffs to mount their own investigations into Mr Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims. So far, Mr Leaf is one of four known to have launched such probes. But the movement appears to be growing; the association says more than 300 of the nation’s 3,000 elected sheriffs have gone through its training programs since 2020.

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In Michigan, Colorado, Arizona and other states, officials have blasted the constitutional sheriffs for undermining public faith in the integrity of elections and the local officials who run them.

Now, Mr Leaf himself is under scrutiny in a probe by state Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, into whether Trump backers illegally accessed voting equipment seeking fraud evidence in several jurisdictions in Michigan, a pivotal 2020 election battleground.

The state’s top election official, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, initially requested that the attorney general investigate. She told Reuters that the probe is expansive. “We want to see if there’s coordination” among those seeking illegal access to election equipment and whether that coordination reaches “up to a national level,” said Ms Benson, a Democrat.

Reuters reporting reveals that it does. The news organisation conducted dozens of interviews, reviewed video from public meetings and examined scores of documents obtained through public records requests to explore Leaf’s investigation and the misinformation driving it.

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Among the findings: People spearheading Mr Trump’s rigged-election claims in Michigan were deeply involved with Sheriff Leaf early on, making Barry County a pillar of their efforts to overturn the presidential vote in a fiercely contested state that Mr Biden won by 154,000 votes of 5.5 million cast.

In April, Michigan State Police raided the clerk’s office in Barry County’s Irving Township, a locus of Leaf’s probe. The officers confiscated a vote tabulator suspected of being taken and examined without proper authorization – a felony in Michigan. The Irving Township clerk, Sharon Olson, told police that an investigator working with Leaf’s department had taken the tabulator to “forensically” examine it, according to a state police report reviewed by Reuters. Olson, a Republican, told state police that the sheriff’s office asked her to give the investigator the equipment and that Leaf told her it was “fine,” according to the report.

Ms Olson declined to comment on the incident.

Mr Leaf denied any wrongdoing in an interview and said that no one from his department “touched any tabulators in my county.”

Mr Leaf’s office worked closely with a private investigator, Michael Lynch, on its election-fraud probe, but the sheriff told Reuters he did not know if Mr Lynch took the Irving Township tabulator. Mr Leaf told investigators he did not authorise anyone to take the device, according to the state police report.

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Mr Lynch did not respond to requests for comment.

That case is among at least 17 incidents identified by Reuters nationwide, including 11 in Michigan, in which Trump supporters are alleged to have gained or attempted to gain unauthorized access to voting equipment.

Mr Leaf said he’s concerned that tabulators nationwide were rigged to throw Trump votes to Mr Biden and that it may have happened in Barry County.

State and federal courts have cited insufficient evidence in rejecting Mr Leaf’s requests for orders authorizing him to seize voting equipment in his county and statewide. The sheriff remains undeterred: “We’re going to keep going,” he said. “We get new information almost daily.”

Mr Leaf said the state investigation has “kind of interfered with what we are doing.” Last month, he sued the attorney general and other Michigan officials, arguing that the state’s investigation has usurped his power as a “constitutional sheriff” to probe election fraud allegations in his county.

The attorney general and state police declined to comment on their investigation into Mr Leaf and others chasing baseless voter-fraud claims in Michigan.

Mr Leaf’s investigation was guided from the start by Stefanie Lambert, a Detroit attorney who was part of a legal team, led by prominent pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, that filed a federal suit immediately after the election seeking to overturn Michigan’s results. The judge found the suit’s claims of “massive voter fraud” so baseless that she sanctioned Ms Lambert, Ms Powell and other lawyers on the case for misconduct.

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Ms Lambert is now representing Mr Leaf in his lawsuit against Michigan officials. Ms Powell did not respond to requests for comment. Lambert now faces an effort by the attorney general, governor and Secretary of State to have her disbarred. She did not comment in response to inquiries.

Mr Leaf and his fellow constitutional sheriffs are part of a much broader effort within the pro-Trump right to gain control over the US election system.

In at least 15 states, candidates who embrace the false stolen-election narrative are campaigning for secretary of state, the top voting-administration office, in November’s elections, according to the States United Action, a non-partisan election integrity group. In Florida, the Republican governor has set up an election-police squad meant to ensure voting “integrity.”

In Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, who backs Mr Trump’s voter-fraud claims, is running on a platform that includes compelling all voters to re-register; making it easier for poll-watchers to challenge voters; and appointing a like-minded secretary of state to investigate and overturn elections.

“I could decertify every election machine in the state with the stroke of my pen, via my secretary of state,” Mr Mastriano told an interviewer in March.

The upheaval in Barry County shows how the right’s misinformation-fuelled efforts to control elections have spread to even the smallest towns. Here and in some other conservative communities, Mr Trump-aligned activists have sown doubt and discord that is putting long-serving election clerks on the defensive, forcing them to fight off specious claims that are often embraced by their constituents.

Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes said such efforts are an attempt to make election extremism palatable to mainstream American conservatives, a phenomenon he said could fester quickly. He pointed to the Capitol riots as a harbinger of the potentially frightening “speed of radicalisation” of anti-democratic efforts on the political right.

The involvement of “people with guns and badges” to intimidate voters, and attempts to access voting equipment, could become “go-to tactics,” said Mr Sykes, the editor of the Bulwark website and the author of How the Right Lost its Mind. “It doesn’t feel hyperbolic to say this is extremely dangerous,” Sykes said.

'Speculative leaps'

Mr Leaf has been the sheriff for 18 years in Barry County, a largely agricultural patch of southwest Michigan with about 63,000 residents, 96 per cent of them white. Mr Trump won the election here by a margin of two-to-one. Mr Leaf oversees about 65 people, including about 30 deputies and detectives, from a squat, concrete building with a sticker on the front door announcing that lawful carrying of handguns is “welcome and encouraged” on the premises.

Mr Leaf was re-elected in 2020 without opposition despite widespread criticism for appearing earlier that year at a right-wing militia group’s rally. He later suggested that a plot by some militia members to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor may have been a lawful attempt to make a citizen’s arrest. He remains popular in the county despite the growing number of officials, mostly Republicans, who have publicly condemned his election-fraud investigation.

Mr Leaf declined to detail any election-fraud evidence his investigators have found, saying it could compromise his probe. He said, however, that his suspicions are based in part on a data analysis provided by Seth Keshel, a Trump ally and national leader in the election-overturn movement. Mr Leaf said Mr Keshel gave him an analysis specifically for Barry County that suggested fraud, which the sheriff said should help provide “probable cause” for his investigation.

Mr Keshel’s analysis, based on historical voting and registration patterns, has been widely discredited by experts in elections and statistics. Reached by Reuters, Mr Keshel acknowledged his model cannot definitely prove fraud but maintained it can spotlight where results should be investigated.

Mr Leaf told Reuters he first became concerned about election-rigging four months before the 2020 vote, when two lawyers, who he did not identify, visited him at his office with an alarming claim: That vote tabulators used in his county, supplied by Dominion Voting Systems of Colorado, could be hacked and reprogrammed to flip votes.

After Mr Biden won, Mr Trump and his top lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, championed the voting-machine conspiracy theory. Mr Trump’s supporters pressured Mr Leaf to seize voting equipment in his county and seek evidence for the aggrieved president’s claims, Leaf told Reuters. He quickly launched an effort to gain access to voting machines, teaming up with Ms Lambert, the lawyer seeking to overturn Michigan’s election results.

Ms Lambert represented Mr Leaf as he filed suit in federal court on December 7th, 2020, seeking an order “to impound all voting machines and software in Michigan for expert inspection.” A Republican-appointed federal judge dismissed it a day later as based on “speculative leaps.” That same month, Mr Leaf also petitioned a state judge for a warrant to seize voting equipment in Barry County; that bid was rejected, too, for lack of probable cause.

Mr Leaf’s demand was radical. Vote-counting equipment is highly secure and subject to stringent chain-of-custody requirements to protect against tampering that could compromise accuracy or enable fraud. Access to tabulators generally is restricted to certified election officials and authorised technicians. Any machine accessed by an unauthorized person is taken out of commission.

Despite legal setbacks, Mr Leaf pressed on with his investigation after Biden’s inauguration in January 2021. He had theories about rigged voting machines but lacked a formal criminal complaint of wrongdoing to give his probe a firm legal footing. He soon got one – from one of his former deputy sheriffs.

That spring, Julie Jones, who had retired two years earlier from Mr Leaf’s office, filed a complaint saying she had obtained information that voting results in Barry County were “intentionally manipulated to favor one candidate.” The complaint names no suspects; it lists the victim as “Society.”

Ms Jones could not be reached for comment.

Her complaint was based almost entirely on claims made by Matthew DePerno, a Michigan lawyer and Trump supporter who is now running for state attorney general. Mr DePerno had filed a suit alleging that vote tabulators could be rigged to flip votes from Mr Trump to Mr Biden.

Mr DePerno brought the suit on behalf of a voter in Antrim County, about 200 miles from Mr Leaf’s turf. Antrim, like Barry, uses Dominion ballot-counting machines.

The Antrim suit, filed against the county and state, ultimately was dismissed, a decision affirmed this year by the Michigan Court of Appeals. Its three judges, including two Republican appointees, said the suit “merely raised a series of questions about the election without making any specific factual allegations.”

The Trump camp nevertheless used the Antrim suit as fodder for its legal assault on the election. A debunked report commissioned by Mr DePerno’s team was cited in a draft presidential order dated December 16th, 2020, that would have ordered the US secretary of defence to seize voting machines. Mr Trump never issued the order.

Mr DePerno did not answer specific questions from Reuters, but he disputed the contention that the voter-fraud allegations in Antrim county were baseless or unproven.

Theories from a failed lawsuit

As Ms Lambert was helping Mr Leaf, she was mounting a similar effort to get access to voting equipment 250 miles away in Cheboygan County, a conservative stronghold of 25,000 people on the state’s northern tip.

Ms Lambert’s story of her entry into Trump world’s orbit illustrates the haphazard way the legal team challenging his election defeat was assembled. A former prosecutor in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, Ms Lambert had started her own criminal defence practice, she told the right-wing websites Gateway Pundit and 100 Percent Fed Up in July 2021. She entered the voter-fraud fray, she said, when a person she did not identify asked her in November 2020 to deliver an affidavit about election fraud to the White House. She soon after contacted Powell and Giuliani directly, she said.

“From there, I was the local attorney on the Michigan Sidney Powell case,” she told the websites, which routinely promote pro-Trump, rigged-election conspiracy theories.

Ms Lambert introduced herself as part of Mr DePerno’s “Antrim election team” at an April 14th, 2021, meeting organised by Cheboygan County’s Board of Commissioners. She offered to conduct a “forensic analysis” to see if Cheboygan’s machines were rigged, according to video of the meeting obtained by Reuters through a public-records request.

As in Barry County, Lambert cited the Antrim suit in an effort to win over Cheboygan leaders. An affidavit by Benjamin Cotton, founder of the digital forensics firm CyFIR LLC, contained a potentially explosive claim: that a Dominion ballot-marking device had communicated with Internet-protocol addresses in Germany and Taiwan – purported evidence that it could have been hacked.

Mr Cotton did not respond to requests for comment.

In reality, the device was never connected to the Internet before, during or after the election, according to Dominion and Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy, a Republican. Dominion, in a statement, said the accuracy of the 2020 results has been confirmed in countless independent reviews. It called the Michigan hacking and vote-flipping allegations “yet another example of how lies about Dominion have damaged our company and diminished the public’s faith in elections.”

After Ms Lambert’s pitch, Cheboygan’s commissioners – all Republicans – requested that the state allow it to audit the county’s 2020 results. By this time, a judge had dismissed the Antrim case, ruling that the plaintiff had no right to a new review of the voting because statewide audits had already affirmed the results. Michigan’s Bureau of Elections denied Cheboygan’s request, and the effort to review the machines there fizzled.

I was panicked.

In Barry County, however, Sheriff Leaf pushed ahead, now armed with his former deputy’s complaint.

At Ms Lambert’s suggestion, in the spring of 2021 Mr Leaf brought in a private investigator: Michael Lynch, who worked with Ms Lambert and Mr DePerno on the Antrim suit, according to promotional material for a California event featuring Mr Lynch as a speaker.

Mr Leaf assigned one of his deputy sheriffs, Kevin Erb, to team up with Mr Lynch.

Mr Erb did not respond to requests for comment.

Soon, Mr Lynch and Mr Erb began making unannounced visits to the elected clerks who oversee voting in the county’s townships. The pair told the clerks they were being interviewed as part of a criminal investigation – and advised them to tell no one, two clerks who received the visits told Reuters.

On June 11th, the deputy left a message with Carlton Township Clerk Amanda Brown on her day off, asking her to meet them immediately at her office.

“His voicemail said there’s an ongoing criminal investigation of election fraud in Carlton Township, and they wanted to talk to me,” Ms Brown, a Republican, told Reuters. “I was panicked. I was upset.”

Ms Brown called Barry County Clerk Pamela Palmer, a Republican who took office in 2015. Ms Palmer, too, was stunned. She is responsible for training and overseeing local clerks on election operations, but she had heard nothing about the Leaf probe. Ms Palmer immediately drove to the Carlton Township office, where she buttonholed Mr Lynch and the deputy. They informed her that they had already questioned five clerks.

“Why didn’t I know about this?” Ms Palmer said she asked the investigators, who told her they were “working under the element of surprise.”

She recalled telling them: “There’s nothing to investigate. We ran a clean election.”

A few days later, still steaming, Ms Palmer called Barry County’s elected prosecutor, Julie Nakfoor Pratt, to protest that the clerks were unfairly being cast under suspicion. Ms Pratt told Reuters that she, too, was blindsided by Leaf’s investigation, though she had worked effectively with the sheriff, a fellow Republican, on hundreds of cases over a decade.

Ms Pratt said she went to see Mr Leaf at his office on July 13th. She found him flanked by Ms Lambert, Mr Lynch and a third out-of-towner from Trump world: James Penrose, a former analyst and manager for the National Security Agency. Mr Penrose had provided technical guidance to Ms Powell’s legal team on their failed federal suit to overturn Michigan’s election and to other Trump allies working nationally to reverse Mr Biden’s victory.

Ms Lambert pressed prosecutor Ms Pratt to seek warrants to seize vote tabulators and records from local clerks, Ms Pratt said.

“I heard them out, but I didn’t see evidence of a crime,” said Pratt, who told them there was no probable cause to raid clerks’ offices. Ms Lambert, Ms Pratt said, “was very insistent. She kept interrupting. But I held my ground.”

Mr Penrose did not respond to requests for comment.

Ms Lambert’s team left the prosecutor with three binders of material collected in the Leaf investigation. Ms Pratt studied the material for two days and concluded there was “nothing there.” It read like a rehash of conspiracy theories and misinformation that judges had already rejected in lawsuits from Trump lawyers and allies.

Ms Pratt called Sheriff Leaf and urged him to suspend his investigation because it was “putting our clerks under a cloud with no evidence.”

Mr Leaf disputed that Ms Pratt ever asked him to stop investigating or said that he was unfairly implicating clerks. “It’s not us versus the clerks,” he said.

More security breaches, and a State probe

Election-fraud allegations – and efforts by Trump supporters to get their hands on voting equipment – kept popping up around Michigan.

About 80 miles south of Barry County, the State Police in October launched an investigation into Adams Township’s clerk, Stephanie Scott, a Republican. The Secretary of State had reprimanded Ms Scott for refusing to allow routine maintenance on her voting equipment. Ms Scott, a Trump supporter, said in a township meeting that she resisted the procedures in the belief they could erase data from the 2020 election that she considered potential evidence. State officials have said the maintenance would have no effect on preservation of data from past elections.

At the Secretary of State’s orders, the clerk of Hillsdale county, which includes Adams Township, stepped in to take possession of the town’s voting equipment. The county clerk discovered that a key component had gone missing from one of the tabulators under Ms Scott’s control – the scan unit, which is the brains of the device. State police soon discovered the part in Ms Scott’s own office. The investigation continues. Ms Lambert is serving as Ms Scott’s lawyer.

She did not respond to requests for comment.

Roscommon County

In February of this year, the Secretary of State’s office got wind of a security breach of vote tabulators and data drives in Roscommon County, another conservative bastion in north-central Michigan.

Secretary of State Benson announced February 10th that she had asked the state attorney general to begin a criminal investigation into the election security breaches, citing the Roscommon case. That probe has since expanded to include at least five towns and three counties, all of them rural areas Mr Trump won easily in 2020, according to state police records obtained through records requests.

The voting-system breaches in at least two of the jurisdictions being scrutinised by state police – Roscommon and Missaukee counties – came after a Republican state lawmaker who champions Mrr Trump’s stolen-election claims pressured at least five clerks in the area to provide access to their voting equipment. The lawmaker, Daire Rendon, did not respond to interview requests but previously has denied direct involvement in any breaches.

Mr Leaf’s investigation had gone quiet for several months after last summer when Ms Pratt, the prosecutor, raised concerns to the sheriff about the lack of evidence to justify his probe. Then, early this year, he hired a new deputy on his staff, Mark Noteboom, to help push the investigation forward.

In March, still lacking a warrant to compel cooperation, Mr Noteboom began sending the county’s clerks sweeping public-records requests for data and files from the 2020 election.

“This is a criminal investigation,” he wrote in one letter, “so no information shall be redacted from requested materials.” A backlash quickly followed. Some clerks denied the requests outright, arguing Mr Noteboom and Mr Leaf were seeking records that did not exist or could not be legally provided.

Mr Noteboom declined to comment.

A cooperative clerk

The following month, the attorney general’s investigation turned to Irving Township, where the clerk turned over her office’s Dominion vote tabulator to the investigator working with Sheriff Leaf’s office. State Police seized the equipment in a raid on the township offices the morning of April 29th.

Ms Olson, the township clerk, told police she had been working with Leaf’s office and that she let the investigator take the tabulator without a warrant, according to the state police report. The security seals on the device had been broken, the report said, when the police found it in a bag next to the clerk’s desk.

The report did not specify when the machine was taken or how long it was out of Ms Olson’s custody. Mr Leaf said the tabulator was taken in the spring of 2021. Ms Palmer, the county clerk, said a state police investigator told her the device was taken to Detroit and “torn apart” before being returned to the township. Ms Palmer did not know who took the machine.

QAnon

While many Barry county clerks had been outraged by Mr Leaf’s investigation, Ms Olson was receptive. In Facebook posts reviewed by Reuters, Ms Olson repeatedly embraced false stolen-election claims and shared a video promoting the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which casts Trump as a saviour figure battling a Democratic cabal of satanist paedophiles and cannibals.

The video was entitled: “Q – The Plan to Save The World.”

“I want to believe this will happen,” Ms Olson wrote when she shared it on November 25th, 2020, right after Mr Trump’s election loss.

The 2020 vote was the first presidential election clerked by Ms Olson, who also drives a school bus and served as a US Army logistics officer in Operation Desert Storm. She told the Barry County Commission at its October 2021 meeting that she first suspected voter fraud shortly before election day in 2020, when she noticed an unusual van parked outside the township hall, covered with antennas and obscured by trees, according to video of the commission meeting. She speculated that someone seeking to hack into her vote tabulator may have sent a technical team to access it wirelessly.

Dominion has repeatedly said the tabulators used in Irving Township are not connected to the Internet and can’t be remotely accessed.

Mr Leaf told Reuters that ms Olson brought her concerns to him, and they have become a focus of his investigation. Ms Olson told state police that she believed the investigator who took the tabulator was acting on Mr Leaf’s authority – and that, otherwise, she would not have given it to him, according to the police report.

It's the election that won't die.

A state investigator “asked if the Sheriff Department asked her to do this,” the report noted. “She said they did.”

State police redacted the names of Mr Leaf and Ms Olson from the report but the sheriff and the clerk both confirmed the report includes their interviews with state police. The name of the investigator was also redacted. When Reuters asked Mr Leaf whether Mr Lynch – the private investigator working with his deputies – took the tabulator, he said: “I don’t know about that.”

Ms Olson declined to comment on the state police raid but said: “I’m just trying to do what’s right.”

Soon after the raid, state investigators subpoenaed the two sheriff’s investigators Mr Leaf assigned to the voter-fraud probe, Noteboom and Erb, which Mr Leaf took as a direct threat. He told Reuters he looked at the subpoenas and concluded: “Those bastards are going after me!”

In early June, Mr Leaf filed his lawsuit asserting that the attorney general and other Michigan officials improperly undermined his authority over county investigations. The suit calls the state police “an unelected and unaccountable strong arm of the state” and accuses state leaders of a campaign to “bully” and “threaten” him.

The attorney general and state police declined to comment on Mr Leaf’s lawsuit.

Olson’s fellow clerks in Barry County say the turmoil stirred up by Sheriff Leaf shows no sign of ending. “It’s the election that won’t die,” Robin Hawthorne, the Republican clerk of Barry County’s Rutland Charter Township for 18 years, told Reuters. “And Dar Leaf won’t let it die.”

 

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