Michigan AG to probe group seeking to repeal governor powers

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LANSING — Michigan’s attorney general 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 without legislative approval.

Dana Nessel, a Democrat, said her office will probe Unlock Michigan, a Republican-affiliated committee that plans to submit its signatures Friday. If the group turns in enough — it needs 340,000 valid signatures — the initiative will go to the Legislature.

Majority Republicans could enact the measure into law, unless they lose control of the House in November, and the measure could not be vetoed by the Democratic governor. Whitmer has used the 1945 law to continually extend a state of emergency, the underpinning of her sweeping COVID-19 orders that restrict business operations, limit gathering sizes and require masks in public.

The Detroit Free Press has reported on deceptive, potentially illegal tactics engaged by people who gathered signatures. The League of Women Voters and John Pirich, a retired election lawyer who supported Whitmer’s election, subsequently wrote letters seeking an investigation.

“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,” Nessel, who has supported Whitmer’s use of emergency powers, said in a statement. “My office will investigate these allegations, and if there is a violation of law, we will prosecute those responsible.”

Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Unlock Michigan, called the probe “a partisan political farce, which is to be expected from this partisan political attorney general.”

The Free Press, citing a secretly recorded video, reported last week that a company’s trainer coached paid petition circulators on giving voters false information, illegally collecting signatures without witnessing them, trespassing on private property and even lying under oath.

Wszolek said a “liberal operative” infiltrated a “subcontractor of a subcontractor, said crazy things, urged illegality and perjury, then disappeared.” His remarks were recorded and provided to the media, Wszolek said.

He said the attorney general’s office should investigate the trainer, but all the signatures collected by the subcontractor since the training in question will be excluded from what is submitted.

“Investigating this bad actor has nothing to do with more than 500,000 people exercising their constitutional right to initiate legislation for a prompt vote by the Legislature,” he said.

Keep Michigan Safe, a group opposing the initiative, applauded Nessel and urged her to seize all signatures, including those that the ballot drive plans to toss.

Unlock Michigan has said there is time for the state elections bureau to review and the bipartisan Board of State Canvassers to certify the petitions so the GOP-controlled Legislature can enact the bill into law by year’s end. But Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, has estimated that the average turnaround time is 105 days, which would fall in the new year.

The House majority is up for grabs in the fall election.

Benson’s office also has said that the deadline to review the signatures is not until 2022, when the legislation would appear on the statewide ballot if lawmakers did not adopt it.

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