A fighter or a threat? Matt DePerno could be Michigan's next attorney general

Republican Matt DePerno's embrace of former President Donald Trump's unproven election fraud claims moved the Kalamazoo trial lawyer from political obscurity to the front lines. On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether to put him in the attorney general's office.

For the 53-year-old attorney's detractors, he's a threat to democracy with a questionable professional record that includes an ongoing state criminal investigation into a scheme to access voting tabulators. But his supporters see him as a tenacious champion who's willing to take up causes others have declined.

A year ago this month, DePerno stood on the steps of the state Capitol in front of a banner that told people to "demand a forensic audit" of the November 2020 election. He argued Michigan needed "the guidance of a fighter."

“I have been told … by our elected officials to stop talking about this issue," DePerno said of the last presidential election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in Michigan by 3 percentage points or 154,000 votes. "I have been told to stop talking about America first values. I … have fought to try to vindicate President Trump when no one else would.”

“Doing the right thing doesn’t always make you popular," DePerno added moments later. "And yet, here I am running for attorney general to restore integrity, justice and morality in Michigan.”

Some Republicans,including political strategist John Yob, now view DePerno as their best hope to win one of Michigan's top three offices on Election Day. He's challenging Democrat Attorney General Dana Nessel, a lawyer from Plymouth, who has under-performed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in public polling and in the last election. An incumbent attorney general hasn't lost reelection in Michigan since 1954.

"The tremendous GOP grassroots enthusiasm for DePerno combined with Nessel trying to shut down Line 5 and talking about a drag queen in every classroom gives DePerno the best chance to win of any Republican on the statewide ticket," said Yob, who previously advised the lawyer's campaign.

Nessel joked about a "drag queen for every school" during an event in June. She was speaking out against "fake issues" that she said were dividing people.

Whitmer won her first term by 9 points over Republican Bill Schuette in 2018. Nessel defeated Republican former House Speaker Tom Leonard that year by 3 points. While Nessel might be vulnerable, there remain questions two weeks before Election Day over whether DePerno was the right person to beat her and become the state's top law enforcement official.

Bob LaBrant, a longtime Republican lawyer who previously worked for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said he cast his absentee ballot for Nessel this fall. LaBrant labeled DePerno a "fool" with a "checkered past."

“I just think this guy is going to be looking for election fraud under rocks," LaBrant said.

DePerno's background

DePerno got his law degree at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 1994. He went on to earn a graduate qualification at the New York University School of Law.

Beginning in June 1995, he practiced at Kreis, Enderle, Callander & Hudgins, but he had a falling out with the firm, which accused him of "acts of fraud and dishonesty" and alleged he "padded" his billable hours. DePerno later sued the law firm, claiming breach of contract and oppression of a minority shareholder.

In his suit, DePerno said he had explained "the background of every issue identified" and "rebutted any reasonable notion of improper conduct."

DePerno and the firm eventually reached a settlement — the terms of which were not available in court documents. But the litigation created four volumes of records at the Kalamazoo County clerk's office.

The situation also became a focus of attacks this year against DePerno. The Protect the People political action committee called him a "corrupt lawyer" in one of its ads in recent days. And in early 2022, state Rep. Ryan Berman of Commerce Township, who previously ran for attorney general as a Republican against DePerno, said DePerno's "skeletons have skeletons."

In 2005, DePerno launched his own law firm in Kalamazoo County, where he's practiced tax and real estate law. His clients included former state Rep. Todd Courser, a Lapeer area Republican who was accused of misusing taxpayer dollars to cover up an affair, and Tim Rugg, an Ann Arbor firefighter who challenged the city's COVID-19 vaccine policy.

DePerno has also represented George Dernis, an Illinois businessman who's been in a years-long legal battle involving property in Michigan. Dernis labeled DePerno a person of integrity.

“I try not to get emotional when I talk about the guy," Dernis said. “Not too many people would have stuck by my family and myself like Matt has."

'Where did that money go?'

At the end of 2020, DePerno began gaining national attention for challenging the election results in northern Michigan's Antrim County.

The initial tallies in the Republican stronghold had Democrat Joe Biden winning by 3,260 votes with 62% of the overall total to Trump's 36%. After realizing there were problems with the numbers, Antrim County Clerk Sheryl Guy's office canvassed the election results and reported official numbers.

Guy's office sent the official numbers to the Bureau of Elections at 6:35 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2020. Trump had actually won the county by 3,788 votes, 61%-37%, a 7,048-vote swing from the unofficial results.

The problematic initial numbers were caused by human errors: Election workers' failure to update equipment after additions to the ballot. The numbers became jumbled during the communication of the unofficial results to the county's election management system.

But the changing tallies led to a wave of concerns and conspiracy theories about what had happened. DePerno filed a lawsuit on behalf of Antrim County resident Bill Bailey, and he and his supporters claimed, without evidence, the problems were because of the technology itself. They've suggested fraud and hacking. They've raised concerns about Dominion Voting Systems, the equipment used in Antrim County.

Some of DePerno's arguments became the basis for election deniers across the country, LaBrant said.

In May 2021, a local judge blocked DePerno's push for an "independent and nonpartisan forensic audit" in Antrim County. And the GOP-controlled Michigan Senate Oversight Committee accused DePerno of spreading "misleading information and illogical conclusions."

As DePerno worked on the 2020 election, his law office's website linked to a fundraising page that brought in nearly $400,000. One of DePerno's Republican convention opponents in the spring, Leonard, called on DePerno to detail what happened with the money in March. DePerno refused.

"Matthew DePerno showed up the day after the election, using our president's name, taking nearly $400,000 from every one of you," Leonard said during a debate in Oakland County. "And I have had people approach me across the state, and they've asked me, 'Where did that money go?'"

In an August interview, DePerno declined to say whether the money helped fund a group of "expert witnesses" who pushed to obtain and analyze voting tabulators in Michigan.

"I can't answer that question," the lawyer said. "That would be a privileged question."

In early August, Nessel sought a special prosecutor to consider potential charges against DePerno and eight others because of an alleged "conspiracy" to gain improper access to voting machines in Michigan.

DePerno has called Nessel's allegations garbage and said she's using the investigatory powers of her office for political purposes.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson, a Democrat who was named the special prosecutor in September, continues to review the case.

The Trump factor

Trump, who has touted DePerno's legal efforts, endorsed him to be Michigan's attorney general on Sept. 16, 2021.

"Dana Nessel, the Radical Left, and the RINOs (Republicans in name only) are targeting Matt because he gets results and has exposed so much voter fraud in Antrim County, and many more places, in the 2020 election," Trump said at the time. "He will never give up, and that’s why they absolutely cannot stand him."

Trump's backing helped DePerno win a three-way race at an April convention for the party's attorney general nomination. Since then, he's become a favorite among Michigan Republican delegates, and he helped negotiate a deal to delay feuding between party factions at an August convention.

"I've been doing this for 25 years," DePerno said of his legal background. "Someone had to step up and take charge of what was happening."

Eric Castiglia, chairman of the Republican Party of Macomb County, said DePerno is gaining steam politically because of his focus on the "rule of law."

But Democrats have slammed his continued unproven claims about fraud in the 2020 election.

“Repeating the Big Lie is dangerous and presents a very serious threat to our democracy," said Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democrat Party, in April.

Asked about that, Castiglia countered that people "are getting sick of the doomsday Dem approach."

Policy priorities

In an Oct. 1 interview, DePerno said if he's elected, he'll work to lower Michigan's crime rate and combat sex trafficking. His campaign website says he will "restore law and order" and "uphold the Constitution."

In recent weeks, DePerno has campaigned on strengthening parents' rights and showed up at a contentious Dearborn school board meeting over books in a school library with sexual or violent content to speak on the issue.

As he's campaigned for attorney general, DePerno vowed to "investigate and prosecute Gov. Whitmer" for her nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic, called for increased transparency standards for state government and voiced opposition to abortion.

Tyson Shepard, DePerno's campaign manager, said the candidate would enforce the state's 1931 abortion ban, which prohibits the termination of any pregnancy except if necessary to preserve the life of the mother because it's the policy on the books. However, Shepard said DePerno wants to fix "the outdated and confusing" law, which dates to the 1840s.

Jimmy Greene, president of Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan, is among the state Republicans who have warmed to DePerno as the general election neared. Greene once tweeted that DePerno would be an "unmitigated disaster." But Greene's organization changed course and endorsed DePerno earlier this month.

"We’ve watched the Attorney General’s office and some of the positions they’ve taken, and they’ve been more political than legal," Greene said of Nessel's office.

Asked if he has concerns about how DePerno would handle a future election that's challenged, Greene said yes, but he added there will be "checks and balances," including from the Legislature.

"That’s what I am counting on,” Greene said.

State Rep. Steve Carra, R-Three Rivers, has been an outspoken DePerno supporter.

DePerno is willing to take on "the status quo of corruption," Carra said.

"We need somebody who will go in there and stand up for the little guy," Carra said.