Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Monday that her office would be opening an investigation into Unlock Michigan, a state political action committee alleged to have criminally collected petition signatures to repeal a state law. The statute in question is a 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act being used by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the state. 

According to a press release from Nessel’s office, a number of residents complained that Unlock Michigan obtained their signatures illegally, telling them that the petition was for another cause.

“The Attorney General’s office has received complaints from residents who report they were deceived by petition circulators who were gathering signatures to support the efforts of Unlock Michigan, which is trying to repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act,” the release read. “Residents said they were told the petitions were to support LGBTQ rights, for medical marijuana initiatives or to help small businesses, among other things.”

Founded in the wake of Whitmer’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, Unlock Michigan’s goal has been to roll back the governor’s COVID-19 quarantine and social distancing policies. According to its website, the PAC sees Whitmer’s orders as unconstitutional and damaging to individual freedom. 

“Unlock Michigan is a coalition of concerned Michiganders who believe that Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s crushing lockdown of life and business across Michigan is a dangerous threat to our livelihoods and constitutional liberties,” the website reads.

Unlock Michigan spokesman Fred Wszolek told The Daily the investigation was politically motivated.

“It’s a partisan political farce, which is to be expected from this partisan political Attorney General,” Wszolek said. “This sham investigation is designed to deprive Michigan citizens of their constitutional right to initiate legislation, but we’re not going to allow that to happen.”

One financial supporter of the PAC is Ronald Weiser, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party and current member of the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents, who gave a direct contribution of $100,000 to the organization on July 27, according to documents filed with the Secretary of State.

In a message sent to The Michigan Daily, Weiser said that he was not familiar with Unlock Michigan or its activities at the time of his donation.

“I know nothing about the investigation. I (know) nothing about Unlock Michigan,” Weiser wrote. “I made the contribution because of who asked me.”

He declined to name the person who asked him to make the contribution.

Weiser was elected to the board, which serves as the University’s governing body, in 2016. He is currently the only Republican regent; two of the Democratic incumbents — Mark Bernstein and Shauna Ryder Diggs — are up for reelection in November. They will face Republican challengers Sarah Hubbard and Carl Meyers.

According to a Sept. 22 report from the Detroit Free Press, a secretly recorded video of an Unlock Michigan training session for signature collectors on Sept. 4 showed that a trainer for the group “coached paid petition circulators on giving voters false information, illegally collecting signatures without witnessing them, trespassing on private property, and even lying under oath.”

In a statement, Nessel said the group’s alleged practices represent a clear violation of the law, and as such fall under the purview of her office.

“Our democracy is firmly rooted in the principles of an informed electorate which makes decisions at the polls based on reason and beliefs over lies and deception,” Nessel said in the press release. “Our ballot initiative process allows efforts with strong public support to be presented to the Legislature. But that process becomes tainted when petition circulators manipulate and cheat to serve their own agendas.” 

Daily News Editor Ben Rosenfeld can be reached at bbrosenf@umich.edu.

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