Lansing — Attorney General Bill Schuette apologized Thursday to two journalists who were slapped with subpoenas by his office for news gathering on allegations of juvenile prisoner abuse in state prisons.
Sounding embarrassed, Schuette said he called Huffington Post reporter Dana Liebelson and Michigan Radio host Cynthia Canty to apologize for subpoenas sent to them by staff attorneys for information they obtained from plaintiffs and an attorney suing the Department of Corrections.
"I said I was sorry and there's no excuse for that," Schuette said in a conference call Thursday evening with reporters. "It should not have happened. It will not happen again."
The Republican attorney general said he did not learn about the subpoenas until Monday while he was on a family skiing vacation in Colorado, when Liebelson disclosed the two subpoenas she was served during interviews with inmates last Thursday and Friday at state prisons in Ionia and Lapeer.
Schuette ordered the subpoenas immediately withdrawn Monday — the day the third subpoena arrived at Michigan Radio's office seeking "complete and unedited" audio and video recordings of a March 3 interview of an Ann Arbor attorney representing inmates who are suing the state for alleged sexual and physical abuse sustained as juveniles.
"He did apologize," said Canty, host of Michigan Radio's "Stateside" program. "And I am certainly accepting the apology."
Liebelson could not be reached Thursday for comment. But on Monday, she told The Detroit News she was served the first subpoena March 5 during the middle of an interview with one of the inmates suing the state at the Michigan Reformatory Prison in Ionia.
She identified the Attorney General's Office employee as David Dwyre, a special agent in the criminal division.
The next day, Liebelson said Dwyre was waiting for her at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, the site of a third scheduled interview with a juvenile prisoner who is suing the state.
Liebelson said it was "intimidating" to be followed across the state from one prison to another.
Schuette would not disclose Thursday whether disciplinary action was taken against any of the attorneys involved in the subpoenas or the process that was followed in authorizing the subpoenas.
"I'm not going to go back into it," Schuette told reporters.
Deborah LaBelle, the Ann Arbor attorney whose radio interview with Canty was subpoenaed, said the Attorney General's Office has deployed "scorched earth" legal tactics in trying to get her class-action lawsuit dismissed. The lawsuit alleges that officials in the Michigan Department of Corrections failed to prevent abuse of juvenile inmates at the hands of adult prisoners and guards.
LaBelle said she hoped Schuette's apology to the journalists would signal the end of "abusive tactics" by state attorneys in the case.
"Hopefully this is a new day in the case and the direction of the attorneys involved in the case," she said.
Schuette, who just began his second four-year term as attorney general, said very few of the evidence-seeking subpoenas pursued by the state's 275 attorneys rise to his desk for approval.
"If I reviewed every subpoena the Department of Attorney General issued, everything would grind to a halt," Schuette said.
He said he bears responsibility for the mistake.
"I'm not throwing nobody under the bus, that's not what I do," Schuette told reporters.
In the future, though, Schuette said if state attorneys believe they need to compel journalists to disclose their notes or unpublished work product, the subpoena request will have to go through him.
The attorney general said the future use of subpoena power against journalists would remain "very infrequent, if at all."
Asked how many other times journalists have been subpoenaed under his watch since 2011, Schuette replied: "To the best of my knowledge, none."