LANSING – A company collecting signatures to strip Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of her emergency powers coached paid petition circulators on giving voters false information, illegally collecting signatures without witnessing them, trespassing on private property, and even lying under oath, a secretly recorded videotape shows.
The video showing Erik Tisinger, a trainer for the California signature company In the Field, Inc., was secretly recorded Sept. 4 by a representative of Keep Michigan Safe — the group opposing the Unlock Michigan effort — and made available to the Free Press.
The profanity-peppered training session provides an inside look at the world of paid signature gatherers and could potentially pose problems for Unlock Michigan’s attempts to certify the close to 500,000 signatures the group hopes to collect. It is the second example of irregularities in the Unlock Michigan signature collection process the Free Press has highlighted.
“This can be a real shady job,” Tisinger tells the trainees. “And when I say shady, I mean, people do all sorts of illegal s— all the time and never get caught. It’s really hard to get caught doing s— except for, like, forgeries.”
Tisinger then tells the trainees, who are paid $3.50 per signature, that he does not want them to do illegal things, but “you can.” He then, in some cases, proceeds to tell them how to do illegal things, while explicitly warning them to avoid only forging signatures, as that’s too time-consuming and easy to detect.
Unlock Michigan is trying to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945, which Whitmer is using to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
In August, the Free Press reported that another company involved in collecting signatures, Let the People Decide, has a history of alleged “bait and switch” tactics in paid petition drives around the U.S., in which people were allegedly given inaccurate descriptions of what the initiatives would do, and the company is headed by a man who has a criminal record for falsifying his voter registration.
Fred Wszolek, a spokesman for Unlock Michigan, said In the Field, which hired Tisinger, will not get paid for the signatures it collects,based on the contents of the video.
In the Field and Tisinger could not be reached for comment Monday.
In the video, Tisinger, who describes himself as a manager from California, tells prospective signature gatherers:
- To tell voters who are “on the fence” that signing the petition will only have the effect of putting the repeal of the emergency law on the ballot, so that all voters can decide its fate. “Don’t you think that everybody should get the chance to vote on this?” Tisinger does not tell the trainees that the plan is to bypass voters by having the GOP-controlled Legislature approve the initiative and thereby repeal the law, in a move that Whitmer would be unable to veto, under Michigan law.
- That they can leave copies of their petitions with store clerks to collect signatures from customers, although Tisinger tells them it is illegal for them to collect signatures without witnessing them being signed.
- That the Unlock Michigan petition drive is so contentious that they might end up being deposed in a courtroom over the signatures they collect, and whether they properly witnessed them, but that it is “super easy” to give misleading testimony about such questions.
- That it is illegal to collect signatures on private property such as store parking lots without permission, but that they should avoid store managers and “act stupid” if approached by police about trespassing. “Act like you don’t know anything,” Tisinger said. “I had no idea I couldn’t do that here, man.”
After the training, the Keep Michigan Safe representative collected and turned in a few signatures and was issued an In the Field check for $17.50. A copy of the check, dated Thursday, was also made available to the Free Press.
Wszolek confirmed Monday that In the Field “has some crews working on the west side of the state” on the campaign to repeal the 1945 law. He said In the Field is a subcontractor to the main firm Unlock Michigan has hired, National Petition Management, which did not respond to a phone message.
After he was told about the contents of the training session, Wszolek said he is suspicious that it “could be a setup” because he said Tisinger normally works on progressive campaigns, not conservative ones, such as Unlock Michigan. But in any case, he said In the Field will not get paid for the signatures it collects.
Whitmer said the revelations from the recording are “deeply disturbing and raise very serious concerns” amid a virus that has killed 200,000 Americans and more than 6,600 Michiganders.
Mark Fisk, a spokesman for Keep Michigan Safe, said any suggestion of a setup is absurd and completely false.
“They got caught red-handed again, and they’re trying to weasel out of it,” Fisk said.
“Unscrupulous and illegal tactics have become standard operating procedure for Unlock Michigan and this video showing a trainer encouraging people to break the law and lie under oath fits into a disturbing pattern.”
Wszolek said Unlock Michigan has mostly relied on volunteer signature gatherers and has now collected more than 400,000 valid signatures. Fewer than 350,000 valid signatures are required under state law, but Wszolek said the campaign wants a significant cushion to allow for challenges.
Republicans in the Legislature say it is time for Whitmer to end the state of emergency that has been in place since March. It’s the underpinning for emergency orders that require face coverings and limit the capacity of various businesses, but GOP lawmakers say Whitmer should be working with them on any restrictions, rather than acting unilaterally.
Under Michigan law, it is not illegal for signature gatherers to inaccurately describe the purpose of an initiative they are working on. But it is illegal for signature gatherers to submit signatures they did not witness. It is also illegal to testify falsely in a court proceeding, and to lie under oath.
At the Sept. 4 training session for petition circulators in Grand Rapids, Tisinger said he had held 12 small training sessions in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing over the previous three weeks, and those sessions had produced only five signature gatherers who were steady earners.
Asked whether signature gatherer could leave a petition with a friend who owns a store so customers can sign it, Tisinger, said: “Technically, no.” He then asked whether any of the trainees were recording the session and was told no.
“You guys never heard this conversation,” he said. “You can.”
However, “the thing is, is that legally speaking, you’re supposed to witness everybody who gets, who signs.”
Tisinger then raised the possibility of signature gatherers being subpoenaed to testify about their work at a court hearing.
“You might get deposed,” he said. “You might have to go and do a deposition where, you know, you’re in court and you’re getting grilled by people.”
He then demonstrated how lawyers might direct pointed questions about someone saying they signed the petition at a store and the signature gatherer who signed for the sheet was not present.
“I’ve been deposed and it’s super easy,” Tisinger said. “I’m just like, ‘yeah, I got all the signatures.’ ” If the attorney then said one of those who signed said she signed the petition in the presence of a man, not a woman, Tisinger said he would reply: “Well, I had my hair down that day and was just freshly shaved.”
Though Wszolek said he is suspicious Tisinger might have been an opposition plant, Tisinger told the trainees he is in the business of collecting signatures and signature gatherers are paid not to have opinions. He is careful in the video to tell signature gatherers to make sure everyone legibly records their name, street address, their city or township, ZIP code and the date they signed. He also stressed the importance of making sure anyone who signs is a registered voter and of only having signatures from a single county on any given sheet.
“When you’re not thorough, it shows when you get paid,” Tisinger told the trainees. “Because we have this thing called validity. We go through and check these things against the voter logs. When you go to register to vote, you sign your name in a box. You print your name and everything and all your information. And then that goes into a computer system and it’s logged.”
He encouraged signature gatherers to find a spot where they can legally stay all day, such as on public property like a freeway rest stop or outside a public library, and set up a table with a sign and remain in place for the full day.
“I don’t really want you guys doing it the way that I do it, only because it’s kind of like guerrilla political tactics where you’re running in and out of parking lots getting people to sign,” he said. “Managers are looking for you and trying to kick you out, calling the cops on you. That’s how I do it.”
He added that if the signature gatherers wanted to, “you can work the parking lots. I don’t care if you do that.”