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AG Nessel Announces Outcome of Unlock Michigan and Make Your Date Criminal Investigations
April 21, 2021
LANSING -- Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel today announced the findings of investigations into Unlock Michigan and the Make Your Date Detroit program.
The Department of Attorney General opened an investigation into the practices of paid petition circulators for Unlock Michigan in September 2020 after receiving a request from attorney John Pirich that highlighted media reports suggesting evidence of irregularities in the way petition circulators obtained signatures.
The investigation found clear evidence of misrepresentations by petition circulators and questionable training by persons who recruited and supervised paid circulators; however, these incidents were not in violation of any criminal statute.
"A well-informed public is essential to the health of our democracy, and as such, I hope the review of the circumstances in the Unlock Michigan case serves as a reminder to residents to be aware of the questionable practices utilized by those presenting themselves as agents of the democratic process," said Nessel. "It is clear from this investigation that some paid circulators may resort to unethical practices in order to fulfill the demands of their clients."
Unlock Michigan hired National Petition Management to lead the signature gathering process. National Petition Management in turn hired two companies: In the Field and Let the Voters Decide. These two companies were tasked with circulating petitions on the east side and west side of the state, respectively.
Media reports include a video that purported to show Erik Tisinger, an employee of In the Field, promoting unethical signature gathering tactics. A second media report revealed Mark Jacoby, owner of Let the Voters Decide, had a criminal record for falsifying his voter registration and a history of using unethical tactics in other petition drives around the country.
The Department of Attorney General reviewed video of a training conducted by Erik Tisinger that was recorded by Richard Williamson via a video recording device disguised as a pen. Williamson was hired by Farough and Associates, a firm that had been hired by Keep Michigan Safe, a group that opposed the efforts of Unlock Michigan.
Tisinger made multiple untrue statements in the video recording, including claiming that signing a petition would have the effect of placing onto the ballot the repeal of Michigan's Emergency Powers of the Governor Act of 1945, as opposed to the accurate process which was to place the issue before the state legislature for consideration.
Three additional videos, presumably recorded by another employee of Farough and Associates, licensed attorney Gretchen Hertz, were also investigated by the Department of Attorney General. The videos were recorded at the Brighton Farmer's Market, the Falcon's Nest Restaurant, and the Howell Western Wear Store and purportedly show Hertz engaging with petition circulators for approval to sign the name of her spouse to petitions at each location.
State law does not expressly prohibit a circulator from making false statements to a voter about the purpose of a petition in an attempt to obtain the voter's signature. There is no provision in law that imposes a criminal sanction for making misrepresentations to a voter to induce him or her to sign a ballot question petition. There is also no law that directly prohibits a circulator from simply advising a voter that he or she may sign their spouse's name, or the name of any other person, on a petition. State law does prohibit a voter from signing someone else's name to a ballot question petition.
Hertz crossed the line from simply recording questionable advice from circulators to engaging in criminal conduct when she signed someone else's name to petitions. Hertz's conduct created a significant hurdle to pursuing criminal charges in the Unlock Michigan case.
In total, the Department of Attorney General examined evidence and considered charges against nine individuals, including Erik Tisinger and Gretchen Hertz. Ultimately, the Department concluded there is a lack of sufficient admissible evidence to bring criminal charges against any individual.
The Department of Attorney General also concluded its investigation into the City of Detroit and its involvement with the Make Your Date Detroit program.
The investigation was opened in July 2019 following the receipt of letters by the Department from two City of Detroit employees. The purpose of the investigation was to determine whether there was criminal conduct associated with the Mayor's Office of the City of Detroit specifying Make Your Date Detroit as a priority and providing it with taxpayer funds.
Make Your Date Detroit is affiliated with Wayne State University and is a free maternal health program designed to prevent pre-term births for at-risk mothers in Detroit. It was alleged the deletion of emails by City employees was to hide a personal relationship between the Mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, and the director of the Make Your Date Detroit program, Dr. Sonia Hassan.
The Department of Attorney General conducted a comprehensive investigation, including:
- Interviewing and re-interviewing 21 witnesses;
- Executing and reviewing four search warrants;
- Reviewing over 1,500 pages of financial documents from the Detroit Health Department, Southeast Michigan Health Association and Wayne State University; and,
- Reviewing over 1 million documents seized with the assistance of Michigan State Police from the City of Detroit's I.T. department.
In addition, the Department reviewed documents from the Charitable Trust Section, Office of Inspector General report, and various additional documents from the City of Detroit including the City's procurement ordinances and policies, email use policy, records retention policies, Detroit City Charter, all FOIA requests from November 13, 2018 through June 15, 2019 related to Make Your Date Detroit, the City of Detroit Health Department Grant and Plan Submissions, as well as the known civil lawsuits against the City of Detroit related to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.
After a lengthy and thorough investigation, the Department of Attorney General concluded that no criminal charges will be filed.
"I would like to note that the absence of adequate evidence to charge individuals with crimes does not absolve the parties of their ethical obligation to meet the expectations of public trust inherent to their roles as employees and officials of the City of Detroit," said Nessel. "I believe there is ample opportunity to improve upon the operations of City government, especially with regard to transparency and accountability to the residents of Detroit."
Multiple media outlets and other organizations made requests to the City of Detroit under FOIA, from November of 2018 through June of 2019, for various forms of correspondence from City of Detroit personnel regarding the Make Your Date Detroit program.
It was reported that Alexis Wiley, then chief of staff to the mayor, ordered the destruction of emails by employees regarding their communications related to fundraising activities on behalf of the Make Your Date Detroit program.
The Department of Attorney General's investigation ultimately focused specifically on two conversations between Wiley and the Office of Development and Grants Director, Ryan Friedrichs, that occurred in December 2018 and February 2019 and the deletion of emails in December 2018 and February 2019.
The Department evaluated these instances for potential violations of FOIA, a civil offense. Criminal statutes that were considered as part of the investigation include: bribery of a public official, embezzlement by a public official, destruction of public records, and destruction of evidence in future proceedings.
After a careful review of the evidence and the law that applies to this case, no criminal charge could be sustained against any City of Detroit employee.
The Michigan State Police and its Digital Evidence Team assisted the Department of Attorney General in the investigation. A second allegation involving the misappropriation of funds regarding a federally funded program known as Motor City Match was investigated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Inspector General, for which charges were not initiated by the United States Attorney's Office.