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Clerk cleared in open records handling case
Grant County
Grant County Courthouse

GRANT COUNTY - Grant County election clerk Tonya White followed the law in handling open records requests. So ruled Judge Robert VanDeHey August 24, who dismissed a civil lawsuit against White and awarded her legal costs be paid by petitioner Peter Bernegger. 

Bernegger, a private citizen on the hunt for fraud in the 2020 election, filed the suit last year, claiming he’d been denied access to electronic images of the county ballots, which are kept offsite at the vendor Command Central, and can be retrieved for a fee of $500. Paper ballots are stored with the clerk, as required by law, and used to conduct recounts, when necessary. 

The dismissal is the latest in a string of losses for Bernegger, a convicted felon who served time for mail and bank fraud in 2009. 

Bernegger filed a total of seven lawsuits against different election officials since the 2020 election. VanDeHey is the fifth judge to dismiss. Two lawsuits remain open. Bernegger has appealed three of the dismissed suits to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. 

This spring, the Wisconsin Elections Commission levied a $2,400 fine against the New London, Wisconsin resident for filing frivolous election fraud claims, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which first reported the story.

Election on trial

Although the lawsuit focused narrowly on whether White had followed the open records law, the clear subtext to the entire proceeding was the claim of election fraud in the 2020 presidential election, which was run by former clerk Linda Gebhard.

Judge VanDeHey addressed the subject directly, calling Bernegger’s allegations of vote tampering in Grant County “a theory that appears to be as baseless as it is offensive to election officials.”

In his order for dismissal, VanDeHey pointed out that former President Donald Trump actually improved his local vote count by nearly four percentage points when he earned 55.2 percent of the 2020 Grant County vote.

“Both County Clerks involved, like every other holder of a countywide partisan office in Grant County, were elected as Republicans,” wrote the judge. “The petitioner seeks to impugn the credibility of these officials but offers no motive why either of these County Clerks would conspire to rig an election to favor a democrat. The results of the 2020 election, where President Biden received only 43 percent of the vote in Grant County, demonstrate the sheer folly of the suggestion.”

Open records battles

Since his conviction in 2009, Bernegger, who acts as his own attorney, has filed some three-dozen motions and lawsuits, according to court records. Nearly all of them have been dismissed. 

In 2015, he was sanctioned by the District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi because of his “countless pleadings… none of which have merit—and each of which is filled with venomous and unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct,” according to the court record.

Many of Bernegger’s civil actions are virtually identical to the Grant County lawsuit: He alleges that he is denied access to open records and sues the record holder. 

In February 2018, for instance, a state trooper pulled Bernegger over and wrote him a $200 ticket for going 12 miles per hour over the speed limit on Wisconsin Highway 41. 

In March, Bernegger filed an open records request at the Wisconsin State Patrol (WSP) headquarters in De Forest seeking copies of radar operating manuals, training manuals, manufacturer’s manuals, certification and invoices, and FCC licenses, as well as the training records, audio recordings, video, photos, notes, written documents, and correspondences of the officer who pulled him over. 

When the WSP responded that some of these records either did not exist or were not in their possession, Bernegger filed a civil lawsuit against the agency. That suit was dismissed in July of 2018.