Several weeks after the 2020 election, as Donald Trump worked to overturn his defeat, he called a Republican lawmaker in Michigan with an urgent request. Trump had seen a report that made wild claims about rigged voting machines in a rural northern county in 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, according to the lawmaker and two others familiar with the call.
For that lawmaker, the lawyer’s name set off alarms. DePerno, a trial attorney from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was well known in the Legislature for representing a former legislator embroiled in a sex scandal. DePerno had spent years unsuccessfully accusing lawmakers and aides of devising a complex 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.”
DePerno’s involvement will only undermine your cause, the lawmaker, who along with the others asked for anonymity to discuss the private conversation, told the president. Trump seemed to dig in: If everyone hates DePerno, he should be on my team, Trump responded, according to two of the people.
Bolstered by his association with the former president, DePerno is poised to be nominated as the GOP candidate for attorney general, the top legal official in the state, at a state party convention Saturday. He is among a coterie of election deniers running for offices that have significant authority over elections, worrying some election experts, Democrats and some Republicans across the country.
This month, the Michigan attorney general’s office released documents that suggest DePerno was a key orchestrator of a separate plot to gain improper access to voting machines in three other Michigan counties. The attorney general, Dana Nessel, the Democrat DePerno is challenging for the office, requested that a special prosecutor be appointed to pursue the investigation into the scheme and weigh criminal charges. DePerno denies the allegations and called them politically motivated.
DePerno played a critical role in the report mentioned by Trump about that rural county, Antrim. The report turned a minor clerical error into a major conspiracy theory, and was later dismissed as “idiotic” by William Barr, an attorney general under Trump, and “demonstrably false” by Republicans in the Michigan Senate.
DePerno declined to be interviewed. In response to written questions, he stood by his claims and defended his legal tactics.
“If you are criticizing me on being a bulldog of a lawyer who is well-versed in the law and procedure and who defends his client to the best of his ability, I take that criticism with pride,” he said in a statement.
At least five times, DePerno’s clients or legal colleagues have asked Michigan’s Attorney Grievance Commission to investigate his conduct, according to records reviewed by The New York Times. Three requests have not been previously reported: The commission keeps the filings and investigations private unless they result in formal disciplinary complaints.
Three of the five investigations were closed without disciplinary actions, the records showed. In at least one of those closed cases, however, the commission did find DePerno’s conduct — baselessly accusing a judge of taking a bribe — worthy of a private “admonishment,” according to a 2021 letter viewed by the Times. DePerno said a fourth inquiry, regarding the Michigan Legislature cases, also closed privately, and another, related to the Antrim County case, is still open. DePerno did not respond to a request for records confirming his account.
Asked about the grievances, DePerno said: “I have never been disciplined. The reality is that any person at any time can file any garbage they want” with the commission.
A scandal in the state House
DePerno also faced criticism in a far more prominent case. In 2015, he was hired by Todd Courser, a freshman state House member and tea party activist who was accused of trying to cover up an extramarital affair with a fellow legislator by producing a “false-flag” email, according to court filings and articles in The Detroit News.
DePerno called in forensic experts to argue that audio recordings used by local media in reporting on the scandal had been doctored. He said that legislative leaders and aides had conspired to wiretap 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 Courser and the other lawmaker met.
The legal blitz was not successful. Some claims were dismissed for procedural reasons; others were found to have no merit. One federal district judge, Gordon Quist, called the conspiracy claim “not only implausible, but absurd on its face.” Quist did reject a request to sanction Courser and DePerno for filing claims with no basis in fact. An appeals court ruling also noted that one of his theories was “not entirely implausible,” but still found there was no merit to that claim.
Another federal appeals court panel wrote that Courser spent “more time enumerating claims than developing arguments.”
A state circuit court judge imposed a nearly $80,000 sanction against DePerno and Courser in a defamation lawsuit against The Detroit News, finding DePerno “does not have a reasonable basis that the underlying facts are true as represented,” according to a transcript of a state court hearing in 2019. 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 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 DePerno often seemed to be more interested in pushing his theory about political bias against tea party-aligned Republicans than defending his client against the criminal charges.
“I think he wanted to make this all about getting attention as the doll of the tea party movement,” Nichols said.
In August 2019, Courser pleaded no contest to willful neglect of duty by a public officer, a misdemeanor.
Courser in a recent interview stood by his longtime contention that he is the victim of a conspiracy by the legislative aides, legislators and others.
He said DePerno “did everything he had to do to defend his client against the tyranny and unjust prosecution.”
“I have nothing but great praise and admiration,” Courser said. “He’s going to be a great attorney general.”
2020 election claims
Shortly after Trump lost the presidential election in Michigan, Bill Bailey, a real estate agent in the state’s Lower Peninsula, noticed some anomalies in the initial vote count from his local county, Antrim.
The results in the conservative county had suddenly, and briefly, been reported as a win for Joe Biden, owing to an error in the clerk’s office. Bailey connected with Trump’s legal team, which advised him to get a Michigan lawyer, according to an associate of the legal team.
He found DePerno, who got a court order granting him access to data from Antrim County’s voting machines. That information became the basis for the Antrim report and also gave DePerno a place in the loose collection of Trump associates, self-proclaimed data gurus and lawyers who were searching for evidence that could propel the fiction that Trump won the race. DePerno, along with the others, have continued that quest.
By spring 2021, as it became clear that DePerno was flirting with a run for attorney general, Republicans in Michigan grew fearful that his candidacy could be a drag on the entire ticket, according to multiple former members of the state party and others familiar with the state party discussions. They encouraged another Republican to run and tried — and failed — to head off a potential endorsement from Trump.
In September, Trump issued an endorsement praising DePerno for being “on the front lines pursuing fair and accurate elections, as he relentlessly fights to reveal the truth.”