Plaintiffs in Trump's lawsuits embrace conspiracy theories — one has even violated election laws

One of the plaintiffs was once accused of election fraud and fined for multiple violations of campaign laws

Published November 20, 2020 8:15PM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Plaintiffs in a number of the Trump campaign's lawsuits challenging the president's electoral defeat have peddled conspiracy theories and made racist comments. One of them, a plaintiff represented by Rudy Giuliani in federal court this week, was even implicated in an election fraud scheme of his own.

The new revelations, first reported by Salon, add another dimension of doubt to President Donald Trump's widely discredited, last-ditch legal challenges to President-elect Joe Biden's electoral victory.

"We are through the looking glass when Rudy Giuliani is appearing in court to allege voter fraud in the presidential race on behalf of a plaintiff who has previously been implicated in election fraud schemes himself," Kyle Herrig, president of government watchdog Accountable.US, told Salon in a statement. "The plaintiffs in these cases have long histories peddling conspiracy theories online. It is time for this legal freak-show to exit the courtroom and go back to the chat room where it belongs."

Among the more recent of the campaign's lawsuits is a complaint filed in Pennsylvania, which seeks a court order to block the certification of votes in the state. Giuliani took over that case on Tuesday, when he made his first arguments before a federal bench since 1992.

The amended complaint to that case includes allegations from a Uniontown resident named Larry Roberts, who claims the state did not notify him after his ballot was canceled.

Roberts is a former Pennsylvania Democratic state representative, who served from 1993-2006. During that time, he was accused of violating campaign laws multiple times, including election fraud.

In 2004, Roberts was accused of bribing a stalking-horse candidate to siphon primary votes from a Democratic challenger. That spoiler candidate, Michael Ciampanelli, at the time 20 years old, told the local board of elections that Roberts had paid him $200 to put his name on the ballot. A state grand jury investigated the claims, as did the attorney general, but what became of the probe is unclear.

That same year, the rival also accused Roberts of forging 33 signatures on his own nominating petition. The allegation was backed up by a woman who worked in one of Roberts' offices. The woman said Roberts staff told her to lie about the matter, warning her she could face jail time "if the real story came out," according to the Associated Press.

In 2007, the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission slapped Roberts with a $600 fine for violations in 2001 and 2004, including unlawfully using legislative staff to organize campaign events and co-opting his legislative office as a drop-off point for campaign materials.

A separate Pennsylvania lawsuit dropped on Thursday by the campaign featured Ted Dannerth as a plaintiff, a man who has repeatedly spread conspiracy theories online.

For instance, Dannerth has tweeted multiple times this year about "Project Blue Beam," an apparent reference to a fringe conspiracy theory falsely claiming that a NASA-Illuminati joint effort is engineering earthquakes in order to establish a new-age religion led by the antichrist. Dannerth has also called women a "weapon" against what he considers to be the "imminent threat" of sterility that would accompany a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Trump campaign plaintiff stitched a number of baseless fringe, QAnon-adjacent theories together in a lengthy Facebook post this April. Among other things, he claimed that Oprah Winfrey's house had been raided in a sex-trafficking sting and the media had brainwashed Americans against the president, who "is working from the bottom up, to remove the Democrat/Communist/Socialist Epstein/Deep State/CCP scourge from the planet."

Dannerth was also involved in a previous 2020 election lawsuit challenging public use of a private grant to fund election initiatives over his opposition to "the election of progressive candidates in local, state and federal elections." That suit was dismissed by District Judge Matthew Brann, who is presiding over the Trump campaign's current lawsuit.

Several plaintiffs in the campaign's challenge to block Michigan canvassers from certifying Detroit-area ballots present similar personal histories.

Eric Ostergen, a Republican poll challenger named in the suit, has repeatedly pushed misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. This April, he shared a Washington Times op-ed calling coronavirus "the biggest hoax in political history," on Facebook. In a separate post, he endorsed the since-discredited treatment hydroxychloroquine. 

Ostergen posted two times on Facebook about lawsuits he filed against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., over coronavirus measures, saying that "the tyrants will now be reeled in." He has also denied climate change science on Facebook, a platform where he has also posted baseless claims about Hunter Biden's laptop and voter fraud in Detroit's 2016 election.

The Trump campaign's Michigan case also features another coronavirus truther, Marian Sheridan, head of the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC), who in October led a "guard the vote" project after Trump's calls to recruit an "army" of poll-watchers.

In April, Sheridan's group staged "Operation Gridlock," where thousands of protesters jammed the streets of Lansing with their vehicles to express displeasure with Whitmer's stay-home orders. MCC also launched "Operation Haircut" in defense of a barber who opened his shop for illegal haircuts amid the state's lockdowns. And Sheridan hosted a Tea Party event to educate the public about "the common roots of COVID-19 hysteria and climate change."

A third plaintiff in the Michigan lawsuit, Grosse Pointe City Councilman Matt Seely, has mocked allegations of sexual assault in social media posts, including against Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

"I'M SORRY THAT BAD MAN TOUCHED YOU INAPPROPRIATELY," read one meme, featuring a crying woman, which Seely shared during the Kavanaugh hearings. "LET'S WAIT 30 OR 40 YEARS … UNTIL HE RUNS FOR OFFICE … AGAINST A DEMOCRAT."

Seely also drew criticism for a social media post in which he connected four Democratic Congresswomen of color, known collectively as "the Squad," to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the post — which was published on the 2019 anniversary of the attacks — Seely said the elevation of those women to Congress was "proof we have forgotten" about 9/11. The words accompanied a picture of the Twin Towers on fire.

Seely pushed back against criticism over the post, saying he could express political views on his private Facebook page. In doing so, he was backed by the mayor of Grosse Pointe Shores and other city council members.

In Nevada, former Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle — who already had a mail-in ballot case tossed in October — filed a lawsuit parallel to other GOP election challenges in the state, asking the court to stop the state from certifying its votes.

Angle is known for repeatedly pushing right-wing conspiracy theories, such as warning that American towns would fall to Sharia law and claiming fluoride in drinking water is a "communist plot to undermine Western democracy."

In a radio interview ahead of the 2010 midterms, Angle, who at the time was running against Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, alluded to armed insurrection as a remedy for a liberal Congress, saying — citing Thomas Jefferson — that "it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years."

"I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, 'My goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?" Angle said. "I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out."

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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