Several weeks after the 2020 election, as Donald J. Trump worked to overturn his defeat, he called a Republican lawmaker in Michigan with an urgent request. Mr. Trump had seen a report that made wild claims about rigged voting machines in a rural northern county within the state. He wanted his allies to look into it.
The president told the lawmaker that a Michigan lawyer, Matthew DePerno, had already filed a lawsuit and that it looked promising, based on the lawmaker and two others conversant in the decision.
For that lawmaker, the lawyer’s name set off alarms. Mr. DePerno, a trial attorney from Kalamazoo, was well-known within the Legislature for representing a former legislator embroiled in a sex scandal. Mr. DePerno had spent years unsuccessfully accusing lawmakers and aides of devising a posh plot to bring down his client, complete with accusations of collusion, stalking, extortion, doctored recordings and secretive phone tapping. Federal judges dismissed the cases, with one calling a conspiracy claim “patently absurd.”
Mr. DePerno’s involvement will only undermine your cause, the lawmaker, who together with the others asked for anonymity to debate the private conversation, told the president. Mr. Trump appeared to dig in: If everyone hates Mr. DePerno, he must be on my team, Mr. Trump responded, based on two of the people.
Bolstered by his association with the previous president, Mr. DePerno is poised to be nominated because the G.O.P. candidate for attorney general, the highest legal official within the state, at a state party convention on Saturday. He’s amongst a coterie of election deniers running for offices which have significant authority over elections, worrying some election experts, Democrats and a few Republicans across the country.
This month, the Michigan attorney general’s office released documents that suggest Mr. DePerno was a key orchestrator of a separate plot to realize improper access to voting machines in three other Michigan counties. The attorney general, Dana Nessel, the Democrat Mr. DePerno is difficult for the office, requested that a special prosecutor be appointed to pursue the investigation into the scheme and weigh criminal charges. Mr. DePerno denies the allegations and called them politically motivated.
Mr. DePerno played a critical role within the report mentioned by Mr. Trump about that rural county, Antrim. The report turned a minor clerical error into a significant conspiracy theory, and was later dismissed as “idiotic” by William P. Barr, an attorney general under Mr. Trump, and “demonstrably false” by Republicans within the Michigan Senate.
For some who’ve watched his profession, there are parallels between Mr. DePerno’s dive into election conspiracies and his recent legal record. He has at times used the legal system to advance specious claims and unfounded allegations detailed in a blizzard of lengthy filings, based on an examination of court records in a few of his cases and interviews with attorneys and judges.
“The playbook is similar,” said Joshua Cline, a former Republican legislative aide whom Mr. DePerno sued as a part of the conspiracy allegations involving the legislature. The case was dismissed in court. “It’s attempting to play to a base of individuals and attempting to get them to purchase into something that if you put the magnifying glass to it, it falls apart,” Mr. Cline said. “It’s greater than terrifying.”
More Coverage of the 2022 Midterm Elections
Mr. DePerno declined to be interviewed. In response to written questions, he stood by his claims and defended his legal tactics.
“Should you are criticizing me on being a bulldog of a lawyer who’s well-versed within the law and procedure and who defends his client to the very best of his ability, I take that criticism with pride,” he said in an announcement.
At the least five times, Mr. DePerno’s clients or legal colleagues have asked Michigan’s Attorney Grievance Commission to analyze his conduct, based on records reviewed by The Recent York Times. Three requests haven’t been previously reported: The commission keeps the filings and investigations private unless they end in formal disciplinary complaints.
Three of the five investigations were closed without disciplinary actions, the records showed. In a minimum of one among those closed cases, nevertheless, the commission did find Mr. DePerno’s conduct — accusing a judge of taking a bribe — worthy of a non-public “admonishment,” based on a 2021 letter viewed by The Times. Mr. DePerno said a fourth inquiry, regarding the Michigan Legislature cases, also closed privately, and one other, related to the Antrim County case, remains to be open. Mr. DePerno didn’t reply to a request for records confirming his account.
Asked in regards to the grievances, Mr. DePerno said: “I even have never been disciplined. The fact is that any person at any time can file any garbage they need” with the commission.
One in all the finished investigations involved former clients who sued Mr. DePerno over malpractice, claiming he had taken actions without their consent, overcharged them and tried to foreclose on their home as payment. A federal magistrate judge also expressed concerns about Mr. DePerno’s conduct within the case, at one point sanctioning him for obstructing a deposition and training a witness. In the identical hearing, the judge also said Mr. DePerno had “arrogantly tried to justify the unjustifiable” in a transient, and falsely and unethically accused one other lawyer of being unprofessional.
“Mr. DePerno, you get an F,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph G. Scoville said, based on a transcript.
Mr. DePerno called the federal magistrate’s comments “overly harsh and unwarranted.” The malpractice lawsuit, which was first reported by Bridge Michigan, was later settled.
A Scandal within the State House
Mr. DePerno also faced criticism in a way more distinguished case. In 2015, he was hired by Todd Courser, a freshman state House member and Tea Party activist who was accused of attempting to cover up an extramarital affair with a fellow legislator by producing a “false-flag” email, based on court filings and articles in The Detroit News.
Mr. DePerno called in forensic experts to argue that audio recordings utilized by local media in reporting on the scandal had been doctored. He claimed that legislative leaders and aides had conspired to wiretap Mr. Courser and fabricate and destroy evidence. He lodged accusations of lying and bias against the lawyers and judges. He sued aides, lawmakers, The Detroit News, the Michigan State Police, the attorney general and even the hotel chain where Mr. Courser and the opposite lawmaker met.
The legal blitz was not successful. Some claims were dismissed for procedural reasons; others were found to don’t have any merit. One federal district judge, Gordon Quist, called the conspiracy claim “not only implausible, but absurd on its face.” Judge Quist did reject a request to sanction Mr. Courser and Mr. DePerno for filing claims with no basis in reality. An appeals court ruling also noted that one among his theories was “not entirely implausible,” but still found there was no merit to that claim.
One other federal appeals court panel wrote that Mr. Courser spent “more time enumerating claims than developing arguments.”
A state circuit court judge imposed a virtually $80,000 sanction against Mr. DePerno and Mr. Courser in a defamation lawsuit against The Detroit News, finding Mr. DePerno “doesn’t have an affordable basis that the underlying facts are true as represented,” based on a transcript of a state court hearing in 2019. Mr. DePerno later sued that judge in federal court, accusing him of bias. He eventually dropped the case against the judge and agreed to a settlement with the news organization that cut the payment to $20,000.
The Courser cases became a legal morass, with criminal charges filed against Mr. Courser and a barrage of civil suits. The cases dragged on for years, exasperating lawyers and clients. Michael Nichols, a Michigan lawyer who represented a co-defendant in a related criminal case, said Mr. DePerno often appeared to be more fascinated by pushing his theory about political bias against Tea Party-aligned Republicans than defending his client against the criminal charges.
“I feel he desired to make this all about getting attention because the doll of the Tea Party movement,” Mr. Nichols said.
In August 2019, Mr. Courser pleaded no contest to willful neglect of duty by a public officer, a misdemeanor.
Mr. Courser in a recent interview stood by his longtime contention that he’s the victim of a conspiracy by the legislative aides, legislators and others.
He said Mr. DePerno “did all the things he needed to do to defend his client against the tyranny and unjust prosecution.”
“I even have nothing but great praise and admiration,” Mr. Courser said. “He’s going to be an ideal attorney general.”
2020 Election Claims
Shortly after Mr. Trump lost the presidential election in Michigan, Bill Bailey, an actual estate agent within the state’s lower peninsula, noticed some anomalies within the initial vote count from his local county, Antrim.
The ends in the conservative county had suddenly, and briefly, been reported as a win for Joseph R. Biden Jr., owing to an error within the clerk’s office. Mr. Bailey connected with Mr. Trump’s legal team, which advised him to get a Michigan lawyer, based on an associate of the legal team.
He found Mr. DePerno, who got a court order granting him access to data from Antrim County’s voting machines. That information became the premise for the Antrim report and in addition gave Mr. DePerno a spot within the loose collection of Trump associates, self-proclaimed data gurus and lawyers who were trying to find evidence that would propel the fiction that Mr. Trump won the race. Mr. DePerno, together with the others, have continued that quest.
As his work in Antrim County gained national attention, he began raising money. By December 2020, Mr. DePerno had arrange multiple donation links on his website under the banner of “The 2020 Election Fraud Defense Fund.” One was hosted by a Michigan resident and has raised $62,000 to this point. One other was began by Mr. DePerno, and has raised greater than $400,000, based on a live tracker on the location.
Mr. DePerno eventually added a direct PayPal invoice button urging people to “Donate via PayPal.” The link went on to his law firm’s website. Asked in regards to the PayPal link, Mr. DePerno said it was meant for clients to pay their legal bills.
Mr. DePerno has refused to reply further questions on how he has used the cash. In June, Republicans within the State Senate asked the attorney general to analyze how people have used the Antrim County theory “to lift money or publicity for their very own ends,” though they didn’t single out Mr. DePerno.
By spring, because it became clear that Mr. DePerno was flirting with a run for attorney general, Republicans in Michigan grew fearful that his candidacy may very well be a drag on your entire ticket, based on multiple former members of the state party and others conversant in the state party discussions. They encouraged one other Republican to run and tried — and failed — to go off a possible endorsement from Mr. Trump.
In September, Mr. Trump issued an endorsement praising Mr. DePerno for being “on the front lines pursuing fair and accurate elections, as he relentlessly fights to disclose the reality.”