Suit: MSP brass retaliated against whistleblower
A veteran Michigan State Police officer who headed a statewide auto theft prevention task force has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against two top MSP officials, claiming they retaliated against him after he reported unauthorized spending of task force funds on state police expenses.
Scott Woodard was executive director of the Auto Theft Prevention Authority in November 2017 when he told two members of the board of directors he believed special license fees – obtained from motorists across Michigan – were being misappropriated to pay for a state police computer server and salaries.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Ingham County Circuit Court, and a letter of intent filed with the state Court of Claims in Lansing name state police director Col. Kriste Etue and Inspector Michael Johnson as defendants in the complaint, which seeks in excess of $25,000 in damages.
“It’s tragic, but my client, who had an impeccable record with the state police, was at one point told someone was ‘leaking’ information to the board and soon found an inspector (Johnson) at his door telling him his services as a state police officer were no longer required and demanding his uniforms, gun, badge and credentials,” said Woodard’s attorney, Steven M. Potter.
State police spokeswoman Shanon Banner said Thursday that the agency had not been served with the suit but that she was familiar with some of its allegations, which she described as "half-truths, exaggerations and distortions of fact."
Banner said when the state police became aware of the allegations raised by Woodard, Etue “immediately initiated” a review that “proved no wrongdoing on behalf of any MSP employees.”
Banner said findings of the internal review include:
--A $14,631.83 Department of Technology, Management and Budget charge for storage space on an existing server was an accounting discrepancy, which is being reconciled.
--The ATPA, by state statute, is required to pay salaries and fringe benefits for MSP employees who provide services to ATPA.
-- A portion of salaries attributable to ATPA functions has been charged to the authority's fund balance since 2013 – all with board approval.
-- Woodard is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation regarding an off-duty personal matter. Banner did not elaborate.
“My client wants to be made whole and he would like to be returned to his former status,” said Potter, noting Woodard is less than two years from retirement.
The lawsuit alleges in November of 2017, Woodard became aware that authority funds were being illegally expended by Nancy Becker Bennett, an employee of the State of Michigan/Michigan State Police, without the knowledge or authorization of the ATPA or its board of directors. The same month, Woodard disclosed his concerns to two ATPA members, Livonia Police Chief Curtis Caid and Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe, according to the suit.
The fees in question, which come from $1 of each new license plate purchase, are earmarked for authority efforts designed to decrease auto theft in communities and generate more than $6 million annually.
In December, McCabe asked Etue for a breakdown of expenditures of ATPA funds, the complaint says.
It says that in March 2018, Etue advised the ATPA board that an increase in computer server expenses – about $16,000 – resulted from a general rise in costs and not from additional equipment purchases.
After McCabe asked for an explanation of salary reimbursement being paid to Michigan State employees, Johnson and Bennett, a civilian employee, told Woodard that someone was “leaking information to the Board,” and he was ostracized by state police, the complaint alleges.
Woodard – whose state police duties were to act as executive director on the ATPA board – wrote to the board in May that a full investigation should be done by the state police and state auditor general for alleged illegal usage of authority monies by the Michigan State Police.
McCabe said Wednesday he was “not ready to comment at this time but was aware of the allegations being made.”
Concerns will be discussed at a special ATPA Board of Directors meeting on July 17, he said.
Woodard requested that the Auditor General’s Office do a financial review of the ATPA funds, McCabe said. The Oakland County undersheriff said he also requested a financial review, something that was last done in 2000.
Woodard eventually took a medical leave because of stress he suffered from colleagues, Potter said. Johnson, at Etue's direction, showed up at Woodard's home, told him he was being relieved of duties as a state police officer and to turn over state police property in his possession, the suit claims.
Woodard remains on medical leave, Potter said.
“His status is really unclear to me although he believes he has been informed he is no longer a state police officer,” Potter said.
Under the State Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, an employee shall not be discharged, threatened or otherwise discriminated against because he or she reports suspected violations of law.