American Oversight Settles Barry County Lawsuit After Obtaining Records from Sheriff Dar Leaf

On Thursday, American Oversight announced that it had reached a settlement agreement with Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf in a lawsuit that successfully forced the sheriff’s office to release numerous records of its communications with prominent election deniers and to abandon its claim to a “law enforcement” exemption. 

In November 2022, American Oversight sued Leaf, the sheriff’s office, and Barry County, Mich., for their refusal to disclose key records in response to a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request seeking communications between the office and a number of individuals and entities associated with the election denial movement, including True the Vote, an organization founded by voter fraud alarmist Catherine Engelbrecht.

Leaf had initially claimed that releasing certain records would interfere with law enforcement proceedings. American Oversight argued in its suit that Leaf’s baseless review of the 2020 election in Barry County did not constitute legitimate law enforcement work, given the lack of any credible evidence of widespread fraud and the propagation of misinformation from the groups named in the records request. That lawsuit ultimately led the sheriff’s office to release three batches of records, abandoning its earlier withholdings under the law enforcement exemption.

“The claim that communications with election-denial activists were related to law enforcement proceedings never held up under scrutiny as anything other than an illegitimate attempt to shield records from the public,” said American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer. “The release of these records was a win for transparency and provided the public with valuable information about Sheriff Leaf’s close working relationship with well-known voter-fraud activists.”

The records included copies of communications between Leaf and Engelbrecht, as well as an August 2022 email in which Leaf shared information with four other county sheriffs about a joint meeting with Engelbrecht and “Greg” from True the Vote, likely referring to director Gregg Phillips. For years, Engelbrecht and True the Vote have spread lies about widespread voter fraud, trained poll watchers to intimidate voters at the polls, and pushed for restrictive voter-ID laws. 

Barry County also released correspondence with members of the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, of which Leaf has been at the forefront. A growing arm of the election denial movement, constitutional sheriffs assert — without legal basis — that law enforcement leaders have ultimate authority in their localities to police elections. The documents also include communications with Seth Keshel, a former Army intelligence officer who has claimed that the 2020 election was illegitimate at dozens of election denial events across the country. 

Last year, the attorney general of Michigan announced an investigation of Leaf and others for allegedly participating in a plot with other election deniers to tamper with vote tabulators from local counties, print fake ballots, and run tests on the machines. Prosecutors announced on Tuesday that two of those individuals (Matthew DePerno and Daire Rendon) had been charged in connection with the alleged scheme. 

Read more about American Oversight’s investigation into the nationwide network of election deniers and the role of constitutional sheriffs in undermining democracy.