Paul Seewald )
Two former staffers for U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter will be arraigned today on election fraud charges involving widespread petition abuses to try to get the congressman on this year's primary ballot.
They are among four charged Thursday by Attorney General Bill Schuette, who announced the results of a 10-week investigation into a signature scandal that ended McCotter's 10-year stint in Congress.
Schuette called the doctoring and forgery an "elaborate scheme to manufacture fraudulent petitions" that he believes was also done in 2008 with signatures collected in 2006. Had McCotter's staff put the same amount of energy into the routine political task of collecting at least 1,000 voter signatures to qualify for the ballot as they did the fraud, "the outcome would have been very different," Schuette said.
Though McCotter was not charged, Schuette said the investigation revealed the staffers were part of a culture of indifference and arrogance that started at the top with the Republican congressman from Livonia "asleep at the switch."
"The district got stiffed. People got stiffed. And public service is not a game," the attorney general said. "This is not frat boys go to Washington. This is not a garage band in D.C. Public service is about serving people and in the end Congressman McCotter is responsible for the conduct and the misconduct of those in his employ."
Charged were Paul Seewald, McCotter's district director, and Don Yowchuang, a deputy district director. Both are friends and longtime allies of McCotter, who was known for his guitar playing and penchant for quoting rock lyrics.
The most serious allegations center around Yowchuang (11 felonies and six misdemeanors), accused of forging signatures, duplicating petition sheets on a copying machine, cutting and pasting signatures from past election cycles onto blank petitions and signing petitions he didn't circulate.
Seewald faces 10 counts — one felony and nine misdemeanors.
Both are expected to appear in 16th District Court in Livonia this morning.
Mary Melissa Turnbull, 58, of Howell, a district representative, was charged with one felony and one misdemeanor; and Lorianne O'Brady, 52, of Livonia, a former scheduler, faces five misdemeanors. All four have resigned.
Neither McCotter nor his former staffers responded to requests for comment.
But in a statement, McCotter, who made a short-lived run for president last year, thanked the attorney general's office for its work. "For my family and I, this closure commences our embrace of the enduring blessings of private life," his statement said.
McCotter has denied any knowledge of the tampering.
Schuette's office questioned 75 witnesses, including the campaign of Kerry Bentivolio, the Milford Republican who launched a primary challenge against McCotter. Bentivolio became the sole GOP candidate on Tuesday's primary election ballot when McCotter was disqualified from the ballot. Schuette said there was no evidence of involvement by Bentivolio's campaign.
AG: Tampering obvious
Yowchuang turned in more than 1,830 signatures on 136 petitions by the May 15 filing deadline. However, all but 244 were tossed after a part-time staffer at the Secretary of State's Office noticed widespread photocopying of petition signature pages and copying and pasting of signatures collected in the past.
In some cases the tampering was brazen and obvious, such as "cut and paste jobs that would make an elementary school teacher cringe," Schuette said.
Yet the staffers felt they were above the law, he said. During interviews with staffers, there was an indication along the lines of "well, we've done this before," he added.
Seewald and Yowchuang worked with McCotter first in the state Senate, where McCotter served from 1998-2002, moving to in-state congressional jobs when McCotter was elected to the U.S. House in 2002. Seewald, 47, of Livonia, attended Detroit Catholic High School in Redford with McCotter.
"I was shocked. It just wasn't his character," said Val Tillstrom of Brighton, who worked with Seewald in McCotter's state Senate office.
Seewald earned about $97,000 annually as district director, according to congressional salary data.
Yowchuang, 33, was hired by McCotter as a graduate from Central Michigan University. He followed McCotter for an in-state congressional job in 2003, working his way up the ranks from $36,000-a-year aide to deputy district director last year, making $72,833 annually, according to public records.
There were some legitimate petition gathering efforts by volunteers. Dillon Breen, 19, a Schoolcraft College student who interned for McCotter's office, collected what he estimates as hundreds of signatures over several weeks for the man he idolized for his conservative views.
'It's complete disbelief'
Toward the filing deadline, Yowchuang said they needed 300 more signatures by May 14 — the day before the petitions were due. Breen headed to Livonia's library and recreation center and turned in the petitions that afternoon.
"When I gave them to Don Yowchuang, I specifically asked him, do we need more? I can get more if we need more," Breen recalled. He said Yowchuang told him: "No, we should be good."
"It's complete disbelief," Breen said. "I don't know what to think now."
Breen hasn't been back to his internship since the scandal broke, but he hasn't been turned off to politics. He's running for Livonia school board.
After failing to make the ballot, McCotter, an attorney, launched a brief write-in campaign, then shelved the idea to focus on finishing his term and helping the attorney general's investigation. McCotter resigned July 6, citing "nightmarish" circumstances.
Before his resignation, The Detroit News reported McCotter was working on a TV pilot that starred himself in a "Fernwood Tonight"-style comedic talk show. He said the pilot, "Bumper Sticker: Made on MoTown," was a cathartic exercise to get through his failed presidential bid.
A special primary election, estimated to cost taxpayers $650,000, is set for Sept. 5 to fill out the rest of his 2012 term.
Detroit News Staff Writer Karen Bouffard contributed.