ALLEGAN, Mich. (WOOD) - The Michigan Attorney General's Office accuses two Saugatuck clerks of tampering with election ballots from a controversial election last year.
Jane Wright and Lori Babinski, the township's clerk and deputy clerk, respectively, were formally charged Thursday morning with willfully failing to perform duty by state law. The misdemeanor carries up to 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine.
The two pleaded not guilty at Allegan County District Court.
The election, held in May 2010, involves the township's effort to stop development on sand dune land by billionaire Aubrey McClendon on what is known as the Dennison property, located on both sides of the Kalamazoo River along the Lake Michigan shoreline.
The township asked for a rise in taxes to pay for ongoing legal fees. The issue only passed by two votes, which automatically triggered a recount.
That recount never happened because Wright and Babinski broke the original ballot box seals, officials said.
At the arraignment, Wright and Babinski's attorney, Brad Springer, requested a jury trial.
Springer also asked Judge William Baillargeon to throw out the charges, citing no probable cause against the two township clerks. He argued the state's Bureau of Elections vindicated Wright and Babinski last year of any wrongdoing.
Judge Baillargeon decided to move on with the arraignments as a matter of process, but he said Springer could bring the motion at a later date.
Before the arraignments ended, the judge also offered both defendants the opportunity to get another judge if their case goes to trial. He said he would be able to preside over a trial fairly, but he wanted to give both defendants that choice.
Judge Baillargeon was elected as a district judge last year. In 2008, he ran for a circuit court seat and lost by a close margin to Judge Kevin Cronin. That recount was unable to go forward because of issues with seals being tampered with in half of the ballot boxes.
In 2010, Judge Cronin heard a case seeking to overturn the results of the Saugatuck legal fee vote because of the actions by Wright and Babinski. Judge Cronin sided in favor of the clerks and the township. That ruling will likely come into play in this case.
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