Kari Lake accused of defamation in suit filed by Arizona election official

PHOENIX — A key Republican election official in Arizona’s most populous county filed a defamation lawsuit on Thursday against Republican Kari Lake, the former television newscaster who narrowly lost her 2022 race for governor and has falsely blamed widespread fraud and malfeasance in the months since.

The lawsuit by Stephen Richer, a Republican who has served as recorder of Maricopa County since 2021, marks the most aggressive attempt to hold Lake and her allies accountable for election-related misinformation. It comes amid other efforts to make right-wing figures and media answerable for spreading election fabrications.

In the complaint, Richer alleges that Lake, her campaign and a nonprofit organization tied to her repeatedly and falsely accused him of causing Lake’s 2022 defeat. Lake and the two organizations, the complaint alleges, falsely claimed that Richer “sabotaged the election to prevent Republican candidates, including Lake, from winning.”

Richer’s complaint focuses on accusations made by Lake at campaign rallies, in podcasts and on social media that Richer intentionally caused polling place printers to jam on Election Day. The glitches caused temporary disruptions in tabulating the votes, but an independent review has found the problems were not pervasive and did not prevent people from voting.

Richer’s complaint claims that, during a “Save Arizona” rally in January, Lake “falsely and with actual malice” accused Richer of sabotaging the election by misprinting ballots. Lake added that Richer and Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates, also a Republican, “intentionally printed the wrong image on the ballot on Election Day so that those ballots would intentionally be spit out of the tabulators.”

“Well these guys are really, really terrible at running elections, but I found out they’re really good at lying,” Lake said at the rally.

The combination of heavier paper and longer ballots was responsible for problems tabulating votes at dozens of polling places in Maricopa County, according to a report released in April by a former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. The same report found no evidence of malfeasance by county officials or contractors.

Richer also accused Lake of falsely claiming that he inserted 300,000 “phony” early-voting ballots into the Maricopa County system. In December, a judge ruled that there was no convincing evidence that ballots were mishandled in a way that would have affected the outcome of the Arizona election.

Richer’s complaint says that Lake continued making the false claims weeks after the Maricopa County Superior Court found that she provided “nothing more than ‘speculation’ and ‘conjecture’ to support her claims of intentional misconduct.”

Aides to Lake did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s requests for comment.

In Maricopa County, the recorder is responsible for voter registration and early voting. County supervisors are responsible for Election Day operations.

Since her loss, Lake has regularly criticized county officials while insisting she remains the rightful winner of the governor’s race. She has been a frequent visitor to Donald Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago, while weighing a bid for a Senate seat. Some Republicans view her as a possible contender to be Trump’s vice-presidential pick should he win the nomination for president.

After Trump lost Arizona in 2020, helping to doom his presidential reelection bid, he and his allies spread baseless claims that the election had been rigged, particularly in Maricopa County. Lake’s defeat in 2022 only deepened mistrust among conservative activists about the state’s voting systems and outcomes.

Richer, 37, said in an interview with The Post ahead of the complaint’s filing that misinformation spread about him by Lake and her affiliates has harmed his relationships with friends, family and past political supporters. He said he sees a direct link between rhetoric from Lake and her allies and threats against him.

At a rally of supporters in January, Lake displayed a photo of Richer for the crowd and accused him of lying about the 2022 election. Richer at times has been assigned a security detail by county law enforcement in response to threats and harassing communications, he said.

Richer said he now rarely attends political functions held by grass-roots GOP activists, many of whom remain convinced of malfeasance. At one point, he said, his wife was removed from a work event by law enforcement because of verbal attacks on him and her. He said the nonstop attacks have taken a mental and physical toll.

Richer said he has tried pushing back against the false claims on social media and through memos, press releases and news conferences. He said he worked with members of Lake’s team to answer questions they had during and after the 2022 election.

But none of that stopped the accusations from Lake and her supporters, he said, leading to his decision to sue.

“My name continues to be dragged through the mud in front of millions of her online viewers in various platforms,” he said. “And I felt that I needed to take the only recourse left.”

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Public officials generally face a steep challenge in trying to prove defamation cases. But Richer and an attorney representing him from Protect Democracy, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan, anti-authoritarianism group,” said reams of public information show a disregard for the truth and, in their view, malice.

“They have repeated false claims about Stephen over the last several months again and again and again,” said Ben Berwick, who co-leads Protect Democracy’s elections and voting rights team. “The claims that are the basis for our complaint are obviously and provably false and she has repeated them even though she should know they are not true or was sort of recklessly blind to the fact that they are not true.”

Richer was elected recorder of Maricopa County, one of the most populous voting jurisdictions in the nation, in 2020, unseating a Democrat who had held the seat. Richer splits election duties with the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which is controlled by Republicans. In 2021, Richer created a political action committee to support “pro-democracy” Republican candidates — a move that Lake has criticized.

Amy B Wang contributed to this report.

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