July 24, 2024

The Michigan lawyer pushing Trump’s voter-fraud fictions in U.S. court

The Michigan lawyer pushing Trump’s voter-fraud fictions in U.S. court

Stefanie Lambert was a Detroit defense lawyer working on a succession of routine criminal cases – theft, drug possession and firearms charges. Then Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss transformed her life.

As Trump started falsely alleging voter fraud that November, Lambert began reinventing herself as a key player in his campaign to overturn the election results. She pushed conspiracy theories in court, joined efforts to break into voting machines seeking evidence of fraud and organized a nonprofit that has raised at least a half million dollars to finance election challenges.

Lambert advanced quickly to the vanguard of a campaign by pro-Trump lawyers to perpetuate the election-denial movement through the nation’s courts. That movement endures despite the wholesale rejection of its baseless claims by judges across America, and despite the poor showing in last month’s midterm elections by Trump-backed candidates who embraced his stolen-election falsehoods. In Arizona, election conspiracists Kari Lake and Mark Finchem, who ran as Republicans for governor and secretary of state in the midterms, have claimed they were cheated and challenged their losses in court. Neither Finchem nor Lake responded to requests for comment.

Lambert started in her home state of Michigan, joining four lawsuits on behalf of Trump supporters. They included two within weeks of the 2020 election that challenged Democrat Joe Biden’s victory based on debunked fraud allegations and sought to impound voting machines across Michigan to inspect for evidence.

She has worked with a lawyer pursuing another four lawsuits in Pennsylvania, three targeting state and local officials and one against Dominion Voting Systems, according to court records and Lambert’s social media posts. The suits relied on similarly debunked fraud claims.

“She is an important figure in the dangerous election denial movement.”

A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

Lambert has also been involved in unauthorized breaches of sensitive election equipment in three states, according to a review of legal filings, police records and people familiar with the matter. Such violations can expose confidential voter information, enable election-tampering by revealing security protocols and raise questions about the vulnerability of voting systems to manipulation.

Michigan’s attorney general accused Lambert in August of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to seize vote tabulators. Lambert denies any wrongdoing and remains defiant.

“I am not intimidated!” Lambert said in a statement posted to social media after being named as a target of the state probe. She called herself “a voice for the American people” in a July 2021 interview with two right-wing websites, the Gateway Pundit and 100 Percent Fed Up.

Lambert, 41, declined requests to be interviewed for this article. In response to detailed written questions from Reuters, a lawyer representing Lambert sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the news organization halt publication of this story, saying its inquiries included “fraudulent misrepresentations.”

This account is based on interviews with more than a dozen people who have worked with or know Lambert, as well as hundreds of pages of court documents, previously undisclosed emails from her associates, and police reports related to the alleged conspiracy to access voting equipment and data in Michigan.

The reporting reveals that Lambert, sometimes working with influential Trump allies, played a larger than previously known role as a coordinator and defender of voting-system breaches being investigated as possible violations of state law. It documents how the former prosecutor, facing financial and personal struggles, emerged as a central figure in a movement of lawyers that is sowing distrust in American voting systems and administrators.

Lambert and other election-denying attorneys say they are strengthening American democracy by pointing out its vulnerabilities to fraud or manipulation. Legal experts say they are exploiting the courts to undermine voters’ confidence in election results.

Michigan’s governor, attorney general and secretary of state called for Lambert’s disbarment in this complaint to the state’s Attorney Grievance Commision. The filing refers to Lambert by her previous married name, Stefanie Junttila.

Within weeks of the 2020 election, Trump and his allies filed 64 lawsuits in six battleground states seeking to overturn the results. They lost all but one, a procedural victory involving a small number of Pennsylvania ballots that were irrelevant to the outcome of the presidential election. And yet the avalanche of litigation has drawn lawyers such as Lambert, who were inexperienced in voting law, into a potentially lucrative new business of challenging elections and representing those seeking to disrupt them.

Norm Eisen, a longtime election lawyer and former ethics counsel to Democratic President Barack Obama, sees Lambert as part of an ongoing threat to democracy. “She is an important figure in the dangerous election-denial movement,” Eisen said in an interview. “Lambert is still extremely active. The movement is not vanquished.”

Lambert has mostly operated out of the spotlight. She has worked with small-town officials to access the election equipment and data used to advance baseless claims in the media and the courts, according to the attorney general’s investigation and a review of court documents and right-wing websites. While she has aligned herself with Trump-supporting Republicans, Lambert has described her work as nonpartisan and revealed little in public about her political beliefs. Reuters was unable to determine her party affiliation, if she has one.

Michigan’s criminal probe into the alleged roles of Lambert and others in gaining unauthorized access to vote tabulators is ongoing. And last year a federal judge sanctioned and referred her for possible disbarment for joining a lawsuit aimed at reversing Biden’s win in Michigan based on a string of false statements – including that China and Iran accessed voting software to manipulate the results.

David Fink, a lawyer for the City of Detroit, is leading a campaign to sanction and disbar Lambert and eight other attorneys who joined that Michigan lawsuit. Lambert, Fink said, is a leading architect of a strategy that jeopardizes future elections: using courts to promote and lend credibility to bogus voter-fraud claims. He called her the “queen of alternative facts” in an interview.

“Because of the success they have had in creating a false narrative,” Fink said, “election deniers will pursue this strategy again and again, until the courts slap them down and levy appropriate sanctions.”

Marriage and money problems

Lambert was struggling financially in the years before she jumped into the election-denial movement, according to a review of court records from her three divorces.

In 2017, she resigned as a prosecutor in Wayne County, where she had been on a solid career path, litigating hundreds of cases, ranging from low-level drug crimes to bank fraud and homicide, according to interviews with four former co-workers in the prosecutor’s office and personnel files obtained in a public records request. She’d been full-time with the office since 2009, two years after graduating as class president from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

By May 2018, Lambert wasn’t working and had “no access to money,” according to court records from the divorce of her third husband, Nicholas Junttila. She was caring for five children, the records show, including three of her own and two from Junttila’s previous marriage. She said she was forced to “borrow money from family and friends for necessities.”

In a December 2018 divorce filing, Lambert accused Junttila of draining her assets, worth more than $200,000, by tapping her retirement account and other methods. In the filings, Junttila said the couple had lived beyond their means, racking up $70,000 in credit card debt.

Junttila did not respond to requests for comment. His divorce lawyer, Connor Ferrick, called Lambert a “predator” in a written response to Reuters, saying she “siphoned and spent every financial benefit possible from her husband” before filing for divorce. Ferrick said Lambert then “feigned herself his victim through whole cloth misrepresentations.”

Neither Lambert nor her attorney responded to a request for comment on Ferrick’s statement.

In June 2019, Lambert set up her own firm, according to a state filing, and started her criminal defense work.

During an April 2020 hearing related to her divorce from Junttila, Lambert broke down while telling the judge she couldn’t afford to replace furniture, clothing and other items she alleged had been removed from her home during the breakup. “I’m sorry for crying,” she said, according to a transcript.

Lambert appears on an April 2022 podcast with far-right host Joe Oltmann. She alleges without evidence that there was election fraud “on every level and in every fashion” in 2020.

Lambert’s big break

Lambert owes her entry into the realm of election-denial to one of Trump’s most outspoken allies: Sidney Powell, a former federal prosecutor and white-collar crime attorney who made headlines seeking to overturn Trump’s loss in the chaotic aftermath of the 2020 election.

As Trump zeroed in on vote-rigging allegations in Michigan, Lambert emailed the White House, according to her July 2021 video interview with two right-wing websites. She attached an affidavit showing evidence of voter fraud, Lambert said, without specifying who alleged what in the document.

The email bounced back, she said. She then reached out to Powell and to Rudy Giuliani, who led Trump’s legal team, and sent them the affidavit. Powell brought her on as a local attorney to handle the appeal of a federal lawsuit filed in November 2020 against Michigan’s governor. The suit sought to overturn Trump’s loss in the battleground state.

The suit made a host of fantastical claims. It alleged that corrupt election officials or foreign actors had rigged equipment made by Dominion Voting Systems to produce 289,866 “illegal votes” in Michigan, nearly double Biden’s margin of victory there. It claimed Dominion software had been hacked by “agents acting on behalf of China and Iran.”

Dominion has repeatedly denied its machines were involved in voter fraud.

Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment. Powell declined to comment, saying only that Reuters inquiries were “wrong on so many points,” without detailing any inaccuracies.

“I don’t have time to correct you,” Powell wrote in an email response.

The idea that China hacked America’s election systems was one variation on the “Hammer and Scorecard” conspiracy theory, which posits that votes were manipulated with a supercomputer originally built for U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on foreign adversaries. As previously reported by Reuters, the theory became a central tenet of the rigged-election movement.

On Dec. 6, 2020, Lambert filed another federal suit against Michigan officials, also challenging the election results. This time, she sought a court order “to impound all voting machines and software in Michigan for expert inspection.” The suit asserted without evidence that there had been “systematic attempts at mass fraud throughout the State of Michigan and United States of America” involving rigged voting machines.

Lambert’s client was Dar Leaf, sheriff of Michigan’s rural Barry County. Leaf is a leading figure among far-right “constitutional sheriffs,” many of whom have backed Trump’s stolen-election claims. The sheriffs’ movement promotes the fringe legal theory that local sheriffs are more powerful in their jurisdictions than state or federal authorities, even the U.S. president.

The day after Lambert filed the suit, the Republican-appointed federal judge skewered its “speculative leaps” and “hazy and nebulous” allegations. Leaf and Lambert withdrew the suit in February after the judge ordered them to justify their claims.

Lambert’s federal suit with Powell also was fizzling out. They voluntarily withdrew the case on January 14, 2021, after the state and the City of Detroit debunked the litigation’s claims and called for sanctions against Powell, Lambert, and other lawyers for promoting the falsehoods in court.

A conspiracy of conspiracy theorists

Despite the losses, Lambert’s career was up and running as a legal warrior for the election-denial movement.

Lambert has played a central role in the national effort by a loose network of pro-Trump lawyers and activists to gain unauthorized access to voting systems, according to police and court records of the alleged breaches.

Reuters has documented 26 incidents nationally, half of them in Michigan, in which unauthorized parties are accused of breaching or attempting to breach voting systems, often with the help of sympathetic local officials. Lambert was allegedly involved in seven of those incidents in three states.

In Michigan, starting in early 2021, Lambert helped organize “a coordinated plan to gain access to voting tabulators” in three counties to seek evidence of fraud, according to an investigation by the Michigan State Police and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Nessel, a Democrat, said in a legal filing that Lambert orchestrated the alleged conspiracy with two other Michigan figures in the election-denial movement.

One of them, Matthew DePerno, had led a failed lawsuit challenging the 2020 voting results in Antrim County, where an incorrect election night tally, stemming from a swiftly corrected human error, featured heavily in pro-Trump narratives about vote-rigging. The other was a Republican state lawmaker, Daire Rendon, who has embraced Trump’s stolen-election claims. Rendon has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, according to media reports and messages she sent to a township clerk, which Reuters obtained in a public records request.

Rendon and DePerno didn’t comment in response to inquiries about their alleged involvement in voting-system breaches.

Lambert was part of DePerno’s “Antrim election team,” she said at an April 14, 2021, meeting with the commissioners of Michigan’s Cheboygan County, according to a video of the meeting reviewed by Reuters. She was seeking access to the county’s voting equipment, an effort later shut down by the secretary of state.

Ultimately, Lambert and DePerno coordinated the effort to gain illegal access to five vote tabulators in other jurisdictions across Michigan, Nessel’s office alleged. State laws prohibit all but a handful of authorized individuals from handling the machines.

One tabulator was taken in the spring of 2021 from a township in rural Barry County, a Trump stronghold where Dar Leaf, one of Lambert’s clients, is sheriff.

The township clerk told state police she gave the tabulator to an outside investigator working with the sheriff’s office so it could be “forensically” examined, according to a state police report reviewed by Reuters. The clerk, according to the report, said the sheriff’s office had asked her to give the machine to the investigator.

The attorney general alleges the tabulator was removed illegally on March 9, 2021, and taken to the Detroit area, where it was examined by computer technicians working with Lambert and DePerno and not returned for three months.

Leaf told Reuters earlier this year that his office was cooperating that spring with an outside investigator who was working with Lambert on an election-fraud probe. But he denies his office was involved in taking the township tabulator.

In August 2022, the attorney general’s office recommended that criminal charges be considered against Lambert, DePerno, Leaf and others the office alleged were involved in the scheme. Nessel asked that a special prosecutor take over the case and handle charging decisions because DePerno had launched a campaign to unseat her as attorney general. DePerno lost in November; the special prosecutor’s investigation continues.

Lambert, Leaf and DePerno have denied wrongdoing.

At the time the tabulators were breached, DePerno had been eager to get access to voting equipment from around the state to strengthen his case in Antrim, court records show.

A court had allowed DePerno to examine Antrim County’s Dominion voting equipment in response to his lawsuit. In a court filing, DePerno said his team also needed to examine machines in other counties to prove that an algorithm was used statewide to manipulate the results. DePerno’s Antrim suit was later dismissed, in May 2021, a decision affirmed on appeal.

A $500,000 gift

As Lambert’s profile in the election-denier movement grew, she helped create an organization called United States Election Investigation and Lawsuits, Inc, according to attorney and accountant Jason Rybak, the entity’s authorized agent and a former law school classmate of Lambert’s.

Rybak told Reuters that Lambert had asked him to handle the paperwork, accounting and other affairs. “Someone donated a half a million dollars” to hire lawyers, he said, declining to elaborate.

United States Election Investigation and Lawsuits, Inc was registered with state authorities as a nonprofit entity at the address of Rybak’s business north of Detroit. It listed assets of $500,000 in cash as of May 2021, according to a corporate filing. Its first and only annual report in August did not disclose any financial information. Nonprofits are exempt from federal taxes.

Rybak promised to provide Reuters with copies of the nonprofit’s annual tax filing. “I know where every last penny is,” he said.

Rybak never shared the documents, however, and didn’t respond to subsequent inquiries. His accounting firm partner, Richard Lehr, said in a later interview that the nonprofit was now “for profit.” When pressed on the phone about the apparent change in status, Lehr shouted: “I’m not going to argue with your ass!” and hung up.

Reuters was unable to find any documentation filed with the state to corroborate a change in status. The Internal Revenue Service said it had no record of a tax-exempt organization with that name.

In media interviews and social media posts, Lambert directed supporters to a website that included highlights of the cases she was pursuing and a solicitation for donations to the organization, according to archived versions of the now-defunct website seen by Reuters. Reuters could not determine whether Lambert was paid by the organization or how much.

DePerno, in a brief interview, told Reuters that Lambert was “raising money through several different organizations and entities,” without naming them.

‘A conduit’ for breached election data

In the spring of 2021, Lambert was entangled in another alleged voting-system breach, this time in Georgia. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, at the request of the secretary of state, is probing the incident for possible violations of state laws restricting access to voting equipment.

The breach is detailed in documents produced in a civil lawsuit seeking to force Georgia to abandon its electronic touch-screen voting machines. The suit, brought by a group of Georgia voters and the Coalition for Good Governance, cites the breach by Trump allies as an example of why the system is insecure and vulnerable to hacking by partisans.

On April 27, a team of computer experts hired by Powell sent Lambert a package containing a hard drive loaded with data they’d copied from the election system of Coffee County, Georgia, according to emails and a FedEx receipt produced as evidence in the civil lawsuit.

In the days after the 2020 election, Trump’s allies focused on Coffee County, in southeastern Georgia. The politically conservative county offered an attractive spot to gather evidence for the former president’s baseless allegation that voting machines had switched hundreds of thousands of votes nationwide from Trump to Biden. Trump won Coffee County by 40 percentage points. Shortly after the election, the county’s elections supervisor, Misty Hampton, said at a meeting with local officials that voting results from the county’s Dominion machines could be manipulated, according to a video of the meeting reviewed by Reuters.

On January 7, 2021, hours after Congress certified Biden’s win, Hampton allowed a team of outside forensic computer experts to access the county’s voting system, according to emails and other documents in the civil lawsuit. The team was paid by Defending the Republic, an organization Powell set up, and invoices for the work were sent directly to Powell, the records show. The computer experts copied the county’s election software, voting data and other materials.

In April, one of Powell’s associates weighed in: Former National Security Agency official Jim Penrose instructed the team’s leader to copy “all the forensics material” from Coffee County and send it to Lambert, according to an email from Penrose referenced in court filings. The information was sent to Lambert on a hard drive, court records show.

A copy of the Coffee County data ended up in the hands of computer analyst Ben Cotton, who had been hired by Lambert, according to an August deposition Cotton provided in the court case. Cotton also worked on a controversial audit, spearheaded by election skeptics, that sought unsuccessfully to identify fraud in the 2020 vote in Maricopa County, Arizona.

“Lambert looks to have been a conduit for getting the software and voting data taken from Coffee County, Georgia, to Ben Cotton and potentially others” in the election-denial movement, said David Cross, the lead attorney for some of the plaintiffs in the Georgia lawsuit that highlighted the voting-system breach.

Cotton and Penrose also were involved in examining breached voting machines in Michigan for DePerno and Lambert, according to the Michigan attorney general investigation.

In the wake of the Coffee County breach, Lambert also provided legal counsel to Hampton, the county elections supervisor, according to emails that Lambert sent in July to lawyers in the Georgia case.

Cotton, Penrose and Hampton didn’t respond to requests for comment.

‘Historic and profound’ abuse of the courts

Lambert has continued to take on election-related cases despite the efforts to disbar her and the criminal charges she could face in the Michigan investigation of voting-system breaches.

The day after the 2022 midterm elections, Lambert was in a Pennsylvania courtroom. She was assisting a local attorney representing two Republican commissioners from rural Fulton County who had sued state officials and Dominion, which provided the voting systems used by the county in 2020. In the process, the commissioners were accused of flouting a court order by allowing a forensics company to inspect county voting equipment.

The case didn’t go well: On Nov. 18, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer recommended civil contempt penalties against the county, finding it had engaged in “vexatious, obdurate, and bad-faith conduct” by allowing the machine inspection.

In August 2021, a federal judge reprimanded Lambert, Powell and seven other lawyers who joined the failed lawsuit seeking to overturn Michigan’s vote after Trump’s 2020 defeat. Calling the suit a “historic and profound abuse of the judicial process,” U.S. District Judge Linda Parker ordered Lambert and the other lawyers to enroll in continuing legal education and pay more than $175,000 to cover defense costs for the state and the City of Detroit, which had requested sanctions in the case.

Parker recommended that Lambert, Powell and the other lawyers be disbarred, a penalty also being sought by Michigan’s governor, attorney general and secretary of state, all Democrats. All the lawyers have appealed the sanctions and are contesting the disbarment efforts.

At a Dec. 8 hearing on their appeal of the sanctions, Lambert argued that she should be spared punishment because she was acting on the instructions of Powell and another lawyer.

“I was not the director of strategy,” Lambert told judges of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. “I reviewed pleadings and merely made sure that they complied with law.”

Lambert faces a recommendation for disbarment by Michigan state officials. This complaint, filed with the state’s Attorney Grievance Commission, refers to Lambert by her past married name.

In a July 2021 filing to Parker’s court, Lambert had argued that constitutional free-speech shielded attorneys from punishment, referencing Supreme Court cases “too numerous to mention.” When Parker ordered her to name two examples of such cases to support her argument, she submitted a brief without citing a single one, according to a Reuters review of the litigation.

Leslie Levin, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said Lambert didn’t provide any Supreme Court cases to back up her argument because there are none. She called her claims in the filing “false and misleading.”

“Making a patently false claim in a brief concerning the law is something that lawyers know not to do in any lawsuit,” said Levin, an expert in attorney ethics and regulation. “Especially when her conduct was already under scrutiny and she was responding to a sanctions motion, it was inexplicably bad judgment.”

Machine Politics

By Nathan Layne and Peter Eisler

Photo editing: Corinne Perkins

Art direction: John Emerson and Linda So

Edited by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot