GOP attorney general candidate debate, Feb. 18, 2022 in Alpena. From L-R: Former Speaker Tom Lenard, Rep. Ryan Berman and attorney Matthew DePerno | Screenshot
Updated, 10:29 a.m., 4/11/22 with new comments from Leonard
Allegations of Republican attorney general candidate Matt DePerno fraudulently billing previous clients at his old law firm made headlines last month.
During a GOP attorney general debate in March at the North Oakland Republican Club in Waterford Township, fellow candidate and former House Speaker Tom Leonard blasted DePerno over these allegations, as well as spreading false 2020 voter fraud conspiracies.
Now DePerno is claiming Leonard took client information to use against him during that debate, which would be a violation of legal ethics and attorney-client privilege.
Leonard is a partner with Plunkett Cooney, the Lansing-based firm that represented DePerno after Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel said she would investigate DePerno and others for spreading false information about 2020 election fraud in Antrim County and profiting or gaining publicity from it.
However, Leonard denies that is how he learned of the allegations against DePerno, but didn’t explain where he got the information.
This is just the latest battle in a heated GOP attorney general race. Leonard has earned endorsements from establishment groups like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and Right to Life of Michigan, while DePerno has been endorsed by both former President Donald Trump and Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock. Both also are facing state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.). The nominee will be chosen at the state convention April 23 in Grand Rapids and will then face off against Nessel in November.
Trump held a rally in Washington Township last week to support DePerno and Secretary of State candidate Kristina Karamo ahead of the convention. Trump said he “heard horrible things” about Leonard and claimed to not know who he is, despite the fact that Trump nominated Leonard for U.S. attorney in 2019. His nomination ended up dying in the U.S. Senate.
2020 election looms large in race
DePerno rose to prominence after the 2020 election, becoming involved in GOP efforts claiming Trump won, even though he lost to President Joe Biden by more than 154,000 votes in Michigan.
The Kalamazoo attorney raised $400,000 through the “Election Fraud Defense Fund” he created to look into election results in Antrim County, a GOP stronghold that briefly showed Biden defeating former President Donald Trump in unofficial election returns and was quickly corrected.
The mistake, which was caused by human error, was the focus of a court case DePerno filed, seeking a so-called “forensic audit” into Antrim County, but a 13th Circuit Court judge dismissed the case.
Across Michigan, more than 250 state and local audits have confirmed the accuracy and integrity of Michigan’s election, and none have revealed any evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Nessel agreed to investigate “those who have been utilizing misleading and false information about Antrim County to raise money or publicity for their own ends.” State Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who authored a 2021 Senate Oversight Committee report which also found no evidence of voter fraud, said he supported the investigation and likened lying about election results to fraud.
DePerno said Nessel’s statement prompted him to retain legal counsel.
“Dana Nessel declared early on after the election that she was going to investigate me. When she said that, I went out and hired a law firm. It was Tom Leonard’s law firm. I think Tom Leonard needs to take a good look at his ethics, calling out one of his clients in a forum,” DePerno said during the March debate. “I think he and I are going to have a bit of discussion after this. I think the Michigan Bar might be interested in this.”
During the debate, Leonard and Berman criticized DePerno for allegations, first reported by Bridge Michigan, that he committed fraud when billing clients at a law firm DePerno worked at years ago. They also were critical of DePerno for his disproven allegations of election fraud, although all three candidates support a so-called “forensic audit” of the 2020 election results.
“For Tom to come out and make allegations about me, which he knows are false because his firm has collectively agreed that I did nothing wrong, would be a breach of confidentiality,” DePerno told the Advance during a phone interview.
DePerno also said Leonard was “pulling from privileged information” during the debate.
“At the very least, he knew that his statements were false and he was attacking the client of his own firm,” DePerno said.
DePerno told the Advance that he hasn’t spoken with Leonard since the March debate, but has started discussions with the Michigan Bar Association about concerns over the ethical issues if Leonard did use confidential information.
Leonard denies that he got the information from his firm, but wouldn’t specify how he learned of the allegations against DePerno. He declined a phone interview with the Advance, although a spokesperson issued a statement.
“Tom Leonard always follows the highest ethical and professional standards as an attorney,” said Leonard spokesperson Jeremiah Ward in an email. “Tom has no attorney-client relationship with Matt DePerno. He knows absolutely nothing about the nature of Mr. DePerno’s representation, and he has no access to any information related to Mr. DePerno’s representation. Mr. DePerno’s allegations are baseless. Period.”
After this story’s publication, Leonard released a statement on Monday criticizing DePerno for the allegations of breaching confidentiality, calling DePerno a “boxer agreeing to get in the ring, taking a hit, and then running to the cops to file assault charges.”
“It’s politically motivated and, honestly, a little pathetic,” Leonard said. “If he can’t handle a little criticism after dishing all sorts of ridiculous attacks against me, how does he expect to go up against Dana Nessel?”
Leonard also denied in his statement that he had any involvement in DePerno’s representation at Plunkett Cooney.
“Matt DePerno admitted at the last debate that he hired my law firm. Whatever legal help and guidance Matt DePerno needs from my coworkers is between him and them,” Leonard said. “I have nothing to do with his case, and I know nothing about it. I am just going to continue telling the truth and calling it as I see it in this race.”
The Advance also reached out to Plunkett Cooney over DePerno’s claims.
“Tom Leonard’s candidacy for Michigan attorney general has nothing to do with Plunkett Cooney. All inquiries related to this matter should be directed to his campaign,” said Plunkett Cooney President and CEO Tom Vincent.
The firm would not confirm if it had previously represented DePerno in the past or if DePerno had reached out to the firm after the allegations made during the debate.
Ken Mogill, a Wayne State University Law School adjunct professor and legal ethics expert, explained how the attorney-client relationship works.
“The obligation continues indefinitely, indefinitely beyond the termination of the relationship, the attorney-client relationship and beyond the death of the client,” said Mogill. “There are narrow exceptions, like generally known information.”
“A lawyer’s duty is to maintain confidentiality of information learned during the course of a representation and it extends to almost everything learned during the course of representation by anyone in the law firm,” Mogill added. “And that obligation to maintain confidentiality applies to all the lawyers in the firm, regardless whether they had anything to do with the representation.”
Attorney Mark Brewer, who’s also a former Michigan Democratic Party chair, said that whether this is an ethical issue that could result in consequences from the Michigan Bar all depends on where Leonard got the information.
“This is true of every law firm, that every lawyer in every law firm represents every client of that law firm, and they all have a duty of confidentiality,” Brewer said.
But if Leonard learned of the allegations from another source outside of Plunkett Cooney, he didn’t breach any ethical duty he had to DePerno, Brewer said.
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