Nessel brings charges in 2022 signature fraud scandal, says investigation continues

By: - June 22, 2023 2:41 pm

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced criminal enterprise charges against three individuals in connection with a fraudulent signature scandal which left eight candidates off the ballot for the August 2022 primary. | Kyle Davidson

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced felony charges against three campaign circulators Thursday morning in connection with a scandal that upended the 2022 gubernatorial race, leaving five Republican candidates off the August primary ballot.

Shawn Wilmoth, Jamie Wilmoth-Goodin, and Willie Reed are accused of conducting a criminal enterprise to defraud eight political campaigns, including five GOP gubernatorial candidates: Perry Johnson, James Craig, Donna Brandenburg, Michael Brown and Michael Markey. The other campaigns were for judicial candidates Tricia Dare, John Cahalan and John Michael Malone.

5 Michigan GOP gov. candidates kicked off ballot amid signature fraud scandal

Wilmoth and Reed were also charged with theft from the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley, who did make the August 2022 primary ballot, but lost to Tudor Dixon. Dixon went on to be defeated in the November general election by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Wilmoth and Wilmoth-Goodin, who reside in Michigan, were apprehended by the Warren Police Department and were set to be arraigned at 1 p.m. Thursday, Nessel said. United States marshals are currently working to locate Reed, who will be extradited to Michigan when he is apprehended.

“We believe that these defendants absolutely knew that they were submitting forgeries to these campaigns,” Nessel said at a press conference Thursday morning in her Lansing office.

Nessel identified the three defendants as the principal actors who allegedly organized the fraud. However the investigation is ongoing and there are certainly lesser offenders who may be charged or serve as witnesses in the case, she said. 

The Department of the Attorney General will also ask for financial restitution for the victims if the defendants are found guilty and sentenced, Nessel said.

Wilmoth, Wilmoth-Goodin and Reed will each face eight counts of false pretenses, eight counts of election law forgery, and one count of conducting a a criminal enterprise.Wilmoth-Goodin will also face eight counts of use of a computer to commit a crime while Wilmoth and Reed will each face nine counts of use of a computer to commit a crime and one count of larceny by conversion. 

Nessel said Wilmoth will also be charged as a third habitual offender.

“We believe these defendants conducted criminal enterprise via three business entities First Choice LLC, Mack Douglas LLC and Petitions Reed LLC, which defendants either owned or worked for,” Nessel said. 

“The defendants presented these businesses as providing legitimate signature gathering services for political campaigns. In reality, the defendants through their companies knowingly and falsely misrepresented their ability and ultimately their efforts to deliver nominating petition signatures, for nine Michigan campaigns who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for petitions with guaranteed valid voter signatures,” Nessel said.

Last year the state Bureau of Elections recommended that Johnson, Craig, Brandenburg, Brown and Markey be removed from the ballot for submitting invalid signatures. Upon discovering the fraud, Brown withdrew from the race. 

GOP gubernatorial candidates the Bureau of Elections recommended to remove from the ballot (clockwise): James Craig, Michael Brown, Donna Brandenburg, Perry Johnson and Michael Markey

Dare, Cahalan and Malone were also disqualified from the ballot due to a lack of valid signatures.

Alongside these eight campaigns, Nessel said Kelley’s campaign allegedly paid the defendants $15,000 and received no signatures in return. 

In its investigation, the Department of Attorney General identified over $700,000 in payments from nine campaigns for signature collection and verification. It alleges the three defendants knowingly and intentionally deceived their clients, took their money, and provided them with fabricated petition signatures.

“The evidence very clearly demonstrates that defendants Wilmoth, Wilmoth-Goodin, and Reed were all aware of and directly responsible for the forged work-product provided to the campaigns which they knew would ultimately be filed with the Michigan Department of State Bureau of elections,” Nessel said. 

The Advance reported in May 2022 that elections staff found 36 individual petition circulators had submitted fraudulent petition sheets with at least 68,000 invalid signatures across at least 10 petition drives, including candidates for governor, circuit judge and district judge. These incidents of fraud were reported to law enforcement for investigation. 

Elections staff began reviewing nominating petitions for the August 2022 primary at the end of March 2022 ahead of the April 19 filing deadline and found that a large number of petition sheets submitted by certain circulators appeared to be fraudulent, prompting a more intensive review process.

Nessel shared an example of the fraudulent signatures discovered by the State Bureau of Elections through handwriting samples. Other fraudulent signatures included misspelled names and cities, similar ink patterns, repeated scribbled signatures, address errors, and signatures of voters who had moved or were deceased. | Kyle Davidson

In a supplemental report on the fraudulent activity released in May 2022, the bureau wrote it was “unaware of another election cycle in which this many circulators submitted such a substantial volume of fraudulent petition sheets consisting of invalid signatures, nor an instance in which it affected as many candidate petitions.”

The Department of State referred the matter to the Attorney General’s Office, which began its investigation in June 2022. 

Nessel said the signatures delivered to the nine impacted campaigns were “obvious forgeries.”

“The methods used to disguise their con were sophomoric and transparent,” Nessel said. “Still, we can take comfort and have faith in the security and integrity of our elections knowing that the Bureau of Elections so quickly and easily detected the fraud.”

While many of these charges are financial crimes, Nessel said these are also crimes against democracy, the integrity of our elections and against voters who wanted to support the disqualified candidates.

Nessel advocated for stronger regulation of signature collectors, highlighting laws in other states that require signature gatherers to be registered to vote in the state where they are gathering signatures, and which prevent individuals with previous convictions from acting as canvassers.

She said the state could also consider registration and licensing requirements for signature collection firms, and that she had shared these concerns with Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Senate Elections and Ethics Committee Chair Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), and state Reps. Erin Byrnes (D-Dearborn) and Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing). Tsernoglou chairs the House Elections Committee where Byrnes also serves as a member. 

“We should be making every effort to learn from this investigation in order to ensure this never happens again, or at least to make it much more difficult for bad actors to operate in our state,” Nessel said.

Nessel shared an example of the fraudulent signatures discovered by the State Bureau of Elections through handwriting samples. Other fraudulent signatures included misspelled names and cities, similar ink patterns, repeated scribbled signatures, address errors, and signatures of voters who had moved or were deceased. | Kyle Davidson

Johnson, who has launched a 2024 GOP presidential bid, wrote on Twitter on Thursday, “It is highly likely that either @chiefjamescraig or myself would be Governor today if it weren’t for the crimes these two allegedly committed. I am thrilled to see they are being held accountable and I thank the professionalism of the AG’s office.”

Brandenburg attended the Thursday press conference. The former Republican governor candidate, who then unsuccessfully ran on the U.S. Taxpayers Party ticket, said she had not been in contact with any of the circulators charged in the case, and that they were hired by a campaign staffer. She also said the charges were a step in the right direction.

“This was such a big deal today to move things in the right direction to guarantee that every single Michigan citizen has their questions answered and feels that their vote counted,” Brandenburg said. 

Brandenburg also said she would not support the additional regulations proposed by Nessel. 

“They can’t make it work right now even with the things on the books. So what’s further regulation going to do,” Brandenburg said. “Further regulation does nothing. It does nothing for this country, except for as a barrier for entry.”


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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson covers state government alongside health care, business and the environment. A graduate of Michigan State University, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He previously covered community events, breaking news, state policy and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.