Republican attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno wants GOP opponent and former House Speaker Tom Leonard fired from his private law job, suggesting Leonard accessed privileged information DePerno provided to the firm as a client and used it for political ammunition.
Leonard has denied the accusations, repeatedly calling them baseless and “a little pathetic.” A spokesman said he has never legally represented DePerno and has no access to information DePerno may have provided to other lawyers at his firm. A leader at the law firm echoed those comments in a statement issued Monday afternoon.
The Free Press obtained a copy of a letter DePerno sent April 7 to a partner at Plunkett Cooney, the law firm where Leonard works. In the letter, DePerno says he retained the firm in part to help him fight back against an investigation by the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission in connection to the election conspiracy lawsuit he filed in Antrim County.
The letter appears to confirm for the first time an investigation into DePerno related to Antrim County by the commission, an entity that has the power to initiate proceedings that can lead to a lawyer losing the capacity to practice in Michigan.
“Under no circumstance should one of my lawyers publicly attack me, regardless of whether the information is false,” DePerno wrote.
“Further, he knows that (as a client) I have no interest in making these investigations public; yet he has publicly called on me to release information, making them public. This is an egregious violation of the standard and duty of care.”
The allegations are the latest personal attacks in a GOP race for attorney general marked more by name-calling than nuanced policy debates.
Leonard has frequently criticized DePerno over his Antrim County lawsuit, suggesting he used Trump’s name to take nearly $400,000 from GOP grassroots advocates. Leonard has repeatedly called on DePerno to explain how he used the money, raised through online crowdsourcing in connection to the lawsuit.
Both candidates, along with state Rep. Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, are vying for the Republican Party’s endorsement at the April 23 state nominating convention.
DePerno, of Kalamazoo, first referenced hiring lawyers from Leonard’s firm at a debate in late March among GOP candidates for attorney general. At the time he cited comments from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who has repeatedly vowed to investigate attorneys tied to election misinformation lawsuits. But he made no mention of an investigation by the state grievance commission.
A Nessel spokeswoman said her office did not file a complaint against DePerno with the commission.
Leonard is one of approximately 140 attorneys who works for Plunkett Cooney, a firm with offices in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. In a statement, the DeWitt Republican said he has nothing to do with the case and knows nothing about it.
“Matt is like 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 in a statement.
“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?”
In a statement, firm President and CEO Thomas P. Vincent denied that Leonard has any access to information about Deperno’s case.
“Plunkett Cooney has in place a firewall to ensure that only the appropriate attorneys and staff have access to specific client information. Tom Leonard does not have access to any information regarding Matt DePerno, and neither do I,” Vincent said.
“As a candidate for statewide elective office, Tom Leonard can and will attest to the fact that all of the information he has obtained about Mr. DePerno has not come from Plunkett Cooney.”
In the letter, DePerno notes the firm represents him in a separate proceeding before the commission, tied to his work representing disgraced former state lawmaker Todd Courser.
DePerno suggests Leonard used information about both investigations in political attacks. He says that violates state legal ethics rules that ban a lawyer from publicly disclosing a client’s secrets without that person’s consent.
“A lawyer’s duty to maintain confidentiality is sacred in this profession. The duty extends to everyone in the law firm, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the representation. Essentially, one of Mr. DePerno’s lawyers set him up,” said John Yob, a Republican political consultant working for DePerno’s campaign.
Yob said DePerno is still waiting to hear back from Plunkett Cooney. If the firm does not indicate it is “holding Tom Leonard accountable” then DePerno will file his own complaint with the attorney grievance commission, Yob said.
President Joe Biden defeated Trump in Michigan by roughly 154,000 votes, but DePerno and many others pursued election fraud allegations that were ultimately debunked. Hundreds of audits and other reviews did not provide any evidence of widespread fraud.
The Antrim County lawsuit garnered national attention, serving as fodder for ex-President Donald Trump and supporters who incorrectly allege the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Many opponents, including Berman on Friday, have said DePerno’s allegations are inaccurate.
Investigations by the attorney grievance commission are generally private unless the entity determines professional misconduct occurred. If this happens, the commission files a formal complaint with the Attorney Discipline Board. The board reviews the complaint before determining whether punishment is needed.
Contact Dave Boucher at [email protected] or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.