Grand Haven Tribune: Jury finds Brandon Hall guilty of election fraud

Jury finds Brandon Hall guilty of election fraud

Becky Vargo • Nov 30, 2016 at 1:54 PM

It took less than an hour Wednesday for a jury to convict political activist Brandon Michael Hall on 10 counts of election law fraud, following a day-and-a-half trial in Ottawa County Circuit Court.

The 27-year-old Grand Haven resident, author of the West Michigan Politics blog and self-admitted political junkie, said the verdict wasn’t a surprise. Hall said that he had resigned himself to that possibility after the Michigan Supreme Court, during this past summer, determined his case should be tried as a felony.

Hall showed only a little emotion and quickly composed himself as the jury foreman announced the verdict.

Hall was charged with election law fraud after forging signatures on petitions in a 2012 effort to get judicial candidate Chris Houghtaling on the ballot.

Local courts initially agreed with Hall’s position that the case should be tried as a misdemeanor, based on a statement printed on the petitions, but the Attorney General’s Office appealed the case through the court system until the Michigan Supreme Court made the decision. That’s why it took so long for the case to come to trial.

Hall was formally charged with the felonies again in August. The case was eventually set for this week’s trial after he pleaded not guilty to the charges.

At one point, during the years of appeals, both the defense and the Attorney General’s Office agreed to a list of stipulated facts. Those facts included the following: that Hall was helping Houghtaling get signatures on petitions for a May 1, 2012, filing deadline; that Hall and a friend, Zachary Savage, filled in the petitions using different colored pens and different hands; that Houghtaling drove Hall and Savage to Lansing while they continued to fill in the signatures; and that Hall copied numerous names from a 2010 petition.

During the trial, Assistant Attorney General Greg Townsend emphasized those facts and questioned elections official Carol Pierce about the process her office went through in qualifying the petitions. Pierce noted the similarities in the signatures and said they were enough to cause officials to take a closer look at all of the petitions.

In testimony on Wednesday, Savage said that Hall came to his apartment the day before the signatures were due and asked for help filling out the forms. Savage agreed, noting that he was supposed to be paid for his help, and the two worked most of the night in what Townsend called “round tabling” to fill out the forms.

They continued the next day, eventually transferring their work to the back seat of Houghtaling’s car while he drove to Lansing, Savage testified.

“At one point, Mr. Houghtaling asked Brandon Hall to reach into a suitcase … to see if those would help,” Savage said.

These were the 2010 petition forms used to help fill out the 2012 forms, he added.

Savage was given immunity from charges by the Attorney General’s Office in exchange for his testimony in this case.

Hall also testified — via the police video shown in court on Tuesday — about writing signatures on the petitions while driving to Lansing. During that interview, Hall said that Houghtaling had indicated that he didn’t care how the young men obtained the signatures as long as they got enough prior to the deadline. Hall declined to talk about his activities the night before.

Hall did not take the stand during the trial.

His attorney, Anna White, said she did not call Houghtaling because “we didn’t feel his testimony contributed anything to our case.”

Both White and Townsend declined to comment after the trial. Townsend also would not comment on whether or not Houghtaling would be charged in the incident.

Michigan State Police Lt. Greg Poulson testified that nobody else was charged as a result of his investigation.

Judge Ed Post said the statute of limitations has not run out on the case.

Hall and Houghtaling crossed paths when they were both members of the Grand Haven school board. Hall resigned from the board in 2010 after being convicted of stealing from a school fundraiser — a misdemeanor.

For a 2013 story, Houghtaling was asked why he chose to work with Hall again. Houghtaling, an attorney, said that Hall approached him and offered to help with his judicial campaign as a chance to redeem himself and show that he could be trusted. Houghtaling said that was a mistake.

In 2014, Hall again ran for a seat on the Grand Haven school board as a write-in candidate, but was not elected.

Hall has stayed busy the past few years working on various political campaigns across the country and most recently ran for the state House 89th District seat, but he was defeated in the Republican primary in August. He also worked on President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Donald Trump has made claim after claim calling the integrity of the election into question, but his Michigan campaign had no problem hiring a staff member facing election law charges,” Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, said following Hall’s conviction on Wednesday. “The fact that the Trump campaign and the Michigan Republican Party embraced Brandon Hall is just one more reason to recount and audit the vote in Michigan.”

Hall’s sentencing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 27. He faces up to five years in prison.

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