FBI refuses to release documents in probe into possible nationwide voter registration fraud
Bureau responds to Just the News FOIA request by suggesting the investigation is still ongoing.
The FBI took over a 2020 probe into voter registration fraud that began in Michigan but has denied a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the investigation, citing an exemption in that law regarding ongoing investigations.
According to the dozens of pages of police reports from the Muskegon Police Department and Michigan State Police, a firm called GBI Strategies was under scrutiny as an organization central to alleged voter registration fraud in the 2020 presidential election. The matter was initially investigated by city and state authorities before the FBI took over.
Contacts between local law enforcement and the FBI continued into 2022 but there is no evidence of what happened after that in the memos obtained by Just the News through requests made under Michigan's own Freedom of Information Act.
Last week, the FBI denied a Freedom of Information/Privacy Acts request from Just the News regarding records from the investigation into GBI Strategies.
The request sought “copies of all reports, documents, and records about GBI Strategies, including all communication and correspondence regarding investigations of GBI Strategies with Michigan government officials, city and state law enforcement agencies in Michigan, and all other state government officials and law enforcement agencies involved in investigations of GBI Strategies.”
The FBI’s response partially reads: “The material you requested is located in an investigative file which is exempt from disclosure.”
The FBI cited 5 U.S. Code § 552(b)(7)(A) for exempting disclosure of the records, specifically, "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information … could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."
The agency’s response continued: “The records responsive to your request are law enforcement records; there is a pending or prospective law enforcement proceeding relevant to these responsive records, and release of the information could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
Police from Michigan interviewed GBI Strategies employees in 2020 and cited specific instances of registrations that appeared suspicious or fraudulent, the previously obtained memos show. A Michigan State Police memo described the possible crime being investigated as "Election Fraud by Forgery."
The Michigan attorney general's office confirmed last month that there was a state investigation into thousands of suspected fraudulent voter registrations, which was referred to the FBI, the Bridge Michigan reported.
Danny Wimmer, press secretary for the State Attorney General, told Just the News in August that among 8,000 to 10,000 voter registration forms that were submitted to the Muskegon clerk before the 2020 general election, some were suspected to be fraudulent.
"An organization turned in some thousands of voter registrations throughout the fall of 2020, estimated on the high end to be cumulatively 8-10,000, and some within those batches were found to be suspicious or fraudulent," Wimmer said.
There were legitimate registrations within the batches. The city clerk receiving the batches alerted authorities when she began noticing irregularities.
"None of the fraudulent material was incorporated into the state’s qualified voter file, and this had no effect on any ballot requests or associated processes. This attempted fraud was detected because the system worked," Wimmer added.
Wimmer explained to The Detroit News last month that state officials referred the unresolved investigation to the FBI because it has national jurisdiction. He independently confirmed to Just the News that "The case was referred to the FBI in March of 2021."
When Just the News first asked about the investigation on Aug. 9, the FBI National Press Office said the following day that their “standard practice [is] to neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.” The Muskegon Police Department also declined to comment on the investigation “because this matter is possibly an active investigation by our law enforcement partners.”
According to a Michigan State Police report, in March 2021, "D/SGT. PONZETTI ... STATES FBI TASK FORCE SHE IS ASSIGNED TO HAS POSSIBLE INVESTIGATION REGARDING [redacted] IN OTHER STATES. REQUESTED MSP, AG AND MPD REPORTS FOR REVIEW."
On a supplemental police report dated May 28, 2021, it reads, “Case will remain open as FBI has opened an investigation on the nation wide organization.”
The latest dates on the report are Aug. 19, 2022, where it reads, “STILL MAINTAINING EVIDENCE FOR FBI,” and Sept. 20, 2022, which reads, “Six month supp.,” and that the status of the investigation is “open.”
According to the Muskegon police report, the FBI visited the Muskegon Police Department in May 2021 to examine the voter registration applications.
In March 2022, the Muskegon police department received a call from an FBI agent “request[ing] random copies of some of the voter applications,” according to the report. The agent also spoke with the Muskegon city clerk, who told him “there was another box of applications with thousands of applications that were turned in after the deadline thus never examined. He requested that these be retained by the police department pending further investigation.”
There is a business listing for GBI Strategies in Cordova, Tenn., but at least during the 2020 election, the company had a Philadelphia office, employees from Atlanta working in Michigan, and a supervisor in New York for Michigan workers, according to the memos.
Wimmer told The Detroit News that GBI Strategies conducts voter registration drives and is headquartered in Tennessee.
Just The News is weighing its legal options regarding a challenge to the FBI's denial of the FOIA request.