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Lawsuit targets Grant County elections clerk
Grant County Courthouse

GRANT COUNTY - Grant County Clerk Tonya White is the subject of a lawsuit filed in her county’s court that alleges she violated open record laws. 

The case, filed in December 2021, is one of a half-dozen filed in Wisconsin by Peter Bernegger, who is acting as his own attorney, or “pro se.” He belongs to a group of private citizens who claim to be searching for election fraud in the 2020 vote. Then-President Donald Trump carried the Grant County vote by 55 percent.

Bernegger came to prominence after he testified before a Wisconsin Assembly committee in February 2022 about alleged voter fraud. He was convicted of mail and bank fraud in 2009, according to court records, and in 2015 he was sanctioned by a Mississippi court for filing frivolous lawsuits. 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.

In court documents, Bernegger alleges that White failed to respond to open records requests he made in 2021. Bernegger requested scanned images of Grant County ballots, correspondence to the county from a Dominion Voting Systems email address, and router logs that he claims would show unauthorized access to the county’s voting system. He also claims that voting machines were illegally removed from the county after the election.

The scanned images were held by a third-party source, according to the court record, and the fee to retrieve them would have cost Bernegger $500.

White’s response denies that she violated open records law. It also denies that the voting machines left the county or were breached by unauthorized personnel. 

White and county attorney Ben Wood declined to comment on a pending court matter. Bernegger, whose phone on record has been disconnected, did not respond to several email requests for an interview.

Election divisions

The lawsuit puts Grant County in the spotlight as we approach elections in August and November—during a fraught period of partisan distrust of American elections. The nonpartisan notion that every eligible voter should easily cast a vote in a free and honest` election has given way to deeply partisan battles over election integrity and voter suppression.

A June poll found that 44 percent of Wisconsin’s republican voters are “not at all confident” in the accuracy of the state’s presidential vote of 2020. (Overall, 67% of voters in the state reported that they are “very or somewhat confident that votes were accurately cast and counted.” The poll was conducted by Marquette University Law School and released on June 22.)

Back in 2016, the tables were turned. Three years after she lost the popular vote in Wisconsin, a state she never campaigned in, Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on the fact that 20,000 to 40,000 voters were disenfranchised by repeal of the Voting Rights Act and Wisconsin’s voter ID law—a claim debunked by the non-profit, non-partisan Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The Voting Rights Act never applied to Wisconsin, and research on the relationship between voter IDs and turnout is inconclusive, according to Poynter.

Drowned in the din are more moderate voices like Howard Marklein, the republican senator who represents Grant County in Madison.  Free and fair elections, he told the Dial, “should be a nonpartisan initiative. I would think it doesn't matter what political stripe you are. We should all believe that the election is accurate and trustworthy.”

Wisconsin’s 2020 vote has been scrutinized by several recounts, lawsuits, and investigations, including one ordered by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which Marklein sits on. While a few irregularities and suggestions for improvement emerged from these various audits, nothing has indicated widespread fraud—such as a particular group trying to change the election outcome through fraudulent means. 

A history of litigation

Since the election, Bernegger has filed at least six lawsuits in Wisconsin, including one against Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Three have been dismissed, and he has appealed two to Wisconsin’s appellate court.

But Bernegger’s history as a pro-se litigator spans more than 13 years, beginning after he was convicted in a jury trial in Mississippi in 2009. 

According to court documents, Bernegger and a partner lied to investors about two companies, one that purported to make gelatin out of catfish waste, and another that made a usable product from lemon seeds. The pair were “never able to manufacture a sellable product,” the record reads, yet they raised millions from private investors and public grants. Bernegger was sentenced to 70 months in prison and ordered to pay $2.1 million in restitution.

Shortly afterward, he began to appeal his conviction. In 2011, an appeals court upheld his sentence, but reduced his restitution to $1.725 million. By 2015, according to court records, he had filed at least 30 pleadings and motions and was sanctioned by the District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. 

“Peter Bernegger has submitted countless pleadings, motions, emails, and other papers to the court—none of which have merit—and each of which is filled with venomous and unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct directed at prosecutors, judges, court staff, witnesses, and others,” wrote Michael Mills, the judge that issued the sanction. 

Mills cited several examples of the “unrestrained diatribe Peter Bernegger has directed at anyone and everyone involved in his criminal conviction,” according the court order. “According to Mr. Bernegger, more than 20 virtually unconnected people entered into a vast conspiracy to ensure he was convicted—and that any challenges to that conviction failed. This is an absurd contention, to say the least.”

The sanction limited his communications on any pending court business and required him to screen any new pleadings with the Chief Judge. 

As recently as February 2022, a court in the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit filed by Bernegger eerily similar to the Grant County case. According to court records, he had submitted a Freedom of Information Act records request to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys for “‘the complete and total file’ related to his prosecution and conviction,” but balked at the $442.50 fee for nearly 9,000 pages of records. 

Next steps

Bernegger is scheduled on July 21 to depose Larry Swift, who is alleged in court papers to work for Dominion Voting Systems, but the presiding judge, Robert VanDeHey, denied a motion to force Swift to testify in court. 

Bernegger “seeks Mr. Swift’s testimony concerning alleged shenanigans with the Dominion voting machines used in Grant County,” VanDeHey wrote in his order. “While the information Mr. Swift could provide might raise anxieties, or calm fears, concerning future elections, it would appear to have little or no relevance on whether [White] met her obligations under the open records law.”

VanDeHey added that White “testified credibly that she provided all of the requested information in her possession.”