By Adam Rawnsley, Roger Sollenberger, William Bredderman | Daily Beast, July 27, 2021
Sidney Powell’s absurdist election lawsuits are dead, and the lawyers behind them are facing potential sanctions, but election fraud grifters are still raking it in—one online donation at a time.
Chief among this crew is Matthew DePerno, the Michigan attorney whose November 2020 lawsuit kicked off MAGA-world’s Dominion voting-machine audit craze.
DePerno’s claims in that lawsuit spawned numerous copycats, and they caught the attention of the Trump campaign. But the premier standard-bearers of those claims—such as Powell, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, and the right-wing website Newsmax—soon found themselves in the middle of billion-dollar defamation suits.
DePerno, however, forged ahead with his lawsuit against Antrim County, MI, where it dragged on for six months until a Michigan judge tossed it in May. Around that same time, DePerno also met the deadline for a $20,000 fine from a previous failed defamation case for which he had been sanctioned by a county circuit judge.
But money doesn’t appear to be a problem for DePerno at the moment.
Since that $20,000 sanction, DePerno has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from unknown donors through multiple fundraising mechanisms, including a fund that bankrolled Powell’s so-called “Kraken” lawsuits. And while DePerno claims the money will support new litigation aimed at decertifying the 2020 election results, he’s currently under scrutiny for allegedly profiteering off of his baseless election fraud claims.
Last month, the Michigan Senate asked the state’s attorney general to investigate. In response, DePerno doubled down and announced he would run for attorney general.
(The Michigan attorney general’s office told The Daily Beast that “we can’t comment on any of our investigations.”)
Stephen Gillers, a specialist in legal ethics at the New York University School of Law, said that while he could not speak directly about DePerno’s conduct, such public fundraising efforts may actually serve as a hedge against possible sanctions.
“In the age of social media and GoFundMe campaigns, we should expect efforts to use flashy lawsuits with political goals to raise money,” Gillers told The Daily Beast. “That’s fine if the lawsuits have merit. But if the sums are high enough, lawyers may be encouraged to file frivolous claims and not worry about the monetary sanctions.”
For DePerno, who was recently hit with sanctions, the fundraising appears to have continued apace.
The Daily Beast has identified at least three separate DePerno-related efforts that are raising buckets of cash. And while the full scope of his fundraising isn’t clear, the funds have raised at least hundreds of thousands of dollars since May.
Take DePerno’s personal “Election Defense Fund.” In early July, the fund claimed to have raised $384,000 of its $1 million goal. But all donations appear to go straight to DePerno, raising tax issues. (The page was recently deactivated.) In an email to The Daily Beast, the attorney said he “raised close to $276,000 for the [Arizona] audit in just a couple of days,” but didn’t respond to questions about how much money he’d taken in overall. Cyber Ninjas, the conspiracy-addled firm running the Arizona audit, pegged the DePerno team's gift to its efforts at $280,000.
Supporters of DePerno also set up a since-suspended GoFundMe page to underwrite his election fraud conspiracy theories. The site claimed the attorney “cannot take on many new clients while facing the daunting task” of continually investigating these conspiracies. “In short, he and his team are losing money.”
Still, DePerno pressed ahead. In recent talk radio interviews with former Trump aide Steve Bannon and others, DePerno called on listeners to support his quest with their wallets. And he directed them to The Legal Defense Fund for the American Republic—Powell’s old fund.
The LDFFTAR was originally set up by Robert Matheson—a descendant of legendary industrialist Herbert Henry Dow—to pay for Powell’s lawsuits. But it appears to be raising money with a questionable legal footing.
The group has operated for months as a supposed nonprofit based out of a mailbox in Palm Beach. But it never registered with the state of Florida, meaning any fundraising would violate nonprofit laws. Florida government authorities told The Daily Beast they would demand key financial disclosures from the organization within the next two weeks.
“Our Division of Consumer Services is sending correspondence to Matheson directing these entities to come into compliance with the state charity registration requirements,” said Franco Ripple, the communications director for Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s office, which oversees such entities. “Which includes providing a full financial statement and/or IRS Form 990 and related schedules. Matheson will have fifteen days to respond.”
Caleb Burns, a partner at Wiley Rein who specializes in campaign finance and nonprofit law, explained that these state regulations are intended as “anti-fraud measures” to protect citizens from solicitations by illegitimate organizations.
A scan of fundraising sites, however, reveals a bumper crop of new projects. A number of them have pages on the Christian fundraising site GiveSendGo, such as an audit effort focused on Pennsylvania and a page soliciting donations to a defense fund for Michigan election crusader Patrick Colbeck. (His page admits he has not been sued.)
Even Sidney Powell is preparing to give the election fraud circuit another shot.
And this month, DePerno teamed up with yet another new nonprofit, the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom. The group featured DePerno as keynote speaker at a Los Angeles-area fundraising dinner the day he announced his attorney general bid, charging $100-$250 a head.
Chris Marston, chair of AFCLF, told The Daily Beast that while DePerno isn’t a member, the group is “working closely” with him and other legal teams around the country.
“Our center of gravity is at key states where forensics cyber experts discovered so much massive fraud that it would have changed the outcome, and where it has been censored by the mainstream media. That’s the focus of our resources,” Marston said. He walked this back in a later conversation, saying he was not aware of fraud on a scale that would have changed the outcome.
Marston described his group as “trans-partisan,” and claims to be more interested in election issues specifically than former President Trump in general.
“Fuck him,” Marston said of Trump. “I fucking hate that guy. But this is America, and this is a competition. We like competitions, and we want to know the true winners.”
Those “trans-partisan” claims, however, strain belief. In addition to election litigation, AFCLF’s website almost exclusively addresses other right-wing causes, such as critical race theory, “cancel culture,” and “forced vaccinations.”
Still, it’s not clear whether these collective efforts are designed for profit, for litigation, or for getting “evidence” into the hands of right-wing media, election officials, and state legislators.
DePerno claims to have multiple targets in mind.
“My team has a bigger footprint than just Michigan,” he said in a recent talk radio interview, promising forthcoming action in Pennsylvania. The website for the Legal Defense Fund for the American Republic encourages donors to earmark their money for audit efforts in other states.
Jon Sherman, litigation director and senior counsel for the Fair Elections Center, told The Daily Beast that, with the trail of court losses behind and the threat of sanctions ahead, these groups appear to have pivoted to a long-term goal.
“2024 is on the ballot in 2022,” Sherman said. “The way the next presidential election will be conducted is at stake next year. We have governors’ races in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, three swing states where voter suppression has largely been kept at bay by their governors.” (Those governors are all Democrats.)
Sherman continued that it seems like these election fraud conspiracy theorists are trying to “institutionalize the Big Lie” by trying to take this audit show on the road, and hunt for “narratives about voter fraud.”
But media coverage, he said, gives those narratives “way too much oxygen,” allowing people like DePerno to fundraise off their claims, file more cases, and “portray themselves as at war with our institutions.”
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