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Criminal charges filed over fake signatures that spoiled Michigan GOP gubernatorial bids

Three of the "principal actors" in the scheme were charged, Attorney General Dana Nessel said.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks speaks on Feb. 21, 2019, in Lansing, Mich.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced charges against three people for their alleged involvement in the signature forgery scheme.Jake May / The Flint Journal via AP file

Three people have been criminally charged with involvement in a signature forgery scheme that spoiled five Republican gubernatorial bids in Michigan last year, state authorities said Thursday.

Michigan candidates for statewide office need to gather thousands of signatures to qualify for the ballot in state elections, and many campaigns hire paid canvassers to collect those signatures. The defendants allegedly ran three business entities that were used to defraud nine campaigns out of hundreds of thousands of dollars; after having been paid top dollar to gather thousands of signature petitions, they allegedly returned thousands of obviously forged signatures to their clients. Democrats challenged the petitions of top candidates, and the scheme was quickly uncovered.

Two of the people, Shawn Wilmoth and Jamie Lynn Wilmoth, have been arrested; a third, Willie Reed, is at large, with U.S. marshals seeking to find and arrest him, state Attorney General Dana Nessel said at a news conference Thursday.

“These are the three principal actors. These are the folks that got paid the big bucks. These are the ones that orchestrated everything,” she said, noting that the investigation is ongoing and saying more people could be charged.

NBC News published an investigation early this month in which more than a dozen insiders with experience in GOP-aligned field operations, in addition to internal data NBC News obtained, detailed how large-scale conservative canvassing efforts have been plagued with issues, including fraudulent and untrustworthy data entries, allegations of lax hiring practices and a lack of accountability.

The crowded 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary was upended when leading Republican candidates — including James Craig, who was leading in the polls at the time, and four others — failed to qualify for the ballot because of forged signatures. Three judicial candidates were also victims of the scheme, Nessel said, though one candidate did not submit the fraudulent signatures after having noticed they were forged.

She urged campaigns to be mindful of whom they hire to gather signatures and suggested the state might want to tighten up its laws around the process.

“Many of these are financial crimes we’re talking about today, but they’re also crimes against our democracy and against the integrity of our system of elections and against those voters who may have wanted to support these prospective candidates,” she said.

Perry Johnson, one of the Republican candidates whose gubernatorial bids were spoiled by the scheme, applauded the charges Thursday.

"It is highly likely that either [Craig] 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," he said on Twitter.

Johnson, a businessman who calls himself a "quality guru," is running for president.