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Mount Clemens — Controversy heated up Monday over a proposed audit of Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith's asset forfeiture funds, with Smith and county Executive Mark Hackel trading conflict-of-interest accusations.

At a news conference, Hackel displayed a photo of Eric Smith, his brother Bob Smith and two businessmen at a 2017 golf outing that the county executive said was paid for out of asset forfeiture funds.

Bob Smith is chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, leading Hackel to say he and the rest of the board should recuse themselves from choosing a firm to audit the funds and let the state Department of Treasury make the selection instead. 

“There have been a lot of things said since last week regarding possible conflict of interest, so as along as we are on the subject I think we should discuss Smith’s brother,” said Hackel. “If he won’t recuse himself regarding making any decision on the company to get the forensic audit, I want the State Attorney General to remove him from making such actions. This photo shows he is a part of any investigation.”

The 13-member board is poised Wednesday to consider three potential auditors during its regular meeting.

Commissioners agreed Wednesday to authorize spending up to $100,000 for an audit to be done by UHY Associates, a certified public accounting firm, only to drop UHY from a resolution that came up for final approval on Thursday.

In a statement issued through a spokesperson, Bob Smith rejected Hackel's call for him to step aside from matters involving the audit.

"I have no plans on recusing myself from any vote," Bob Smith said. "I do not take direction from the county executive."

Eric Smith defended his office's spending and said the initial plan to hire UHY indicated a conflict of interest on Hackel's part: Harold Burns, a managing partner with UHY, is campaign treasurer for Hackel, he said.

"Mark Hackel got caught with his pants down," Eric Smith said Monday. "The Board of Commissioners discovered a glaring conflict of interest."

The prosecutor said he will write to the Board of Commissioners requesting forensic audits of Hackel, the county executive's office, and contracts that have not had county board oversight. 

“It does not matter who the board chooses to do the forensic audit,” Eric Smith told The Detroit News. “Like we have said from Day One, we are open to the audit and all the money spent was spent on legitimate law enforcement purposes and in accordance with the law."

Questions over the prosecutor office's spending practices were raised by Jared Maynard, the former chairman of the Macomb County Republican party, who sued the county to obtain bank records for accounts Smith’s office set up for funds from forfeitures and bad checks.

A Detroit News review of hundreds of checks that have passed through the account in the past two years indicates that many sizable amounts were made out to various police agencies in Macomb County that are supposed to share in forfeiture funds related to arrests in their communities.

During his news conference, Hackel produced a copy of a check dated Aug. 4, 2017, from Smith’s office to Care House for $600 for “Foursome - Golf.” One of the photos displayed in a gallery on the organization’s webpage shows Eric Smith and his brother posing during the Golf Classic outing on Aug. 7, 2017.

“I don’t need an audit to know things have not been done properly,” said Hackel. “We know enough already about questionable checks that should never have written. Like Macomb Care House, a fine organization for providing shelter and counseling for abused youth. But neither it, nor a golf outing has anything to do with law enforcement or forfeiture funds.”

In a statement Monday, Dorie Vazquez-Nolan, executive director of Care House of Macomb County, said donations from public officials help the nonprofit carry out its mission of serving child victims of sexual and physical abuse and their families.

"Prosecutor Smith has not only supported Care House program services with regular donations, but he has provided guidance and oversight as a Care House Board member," Vazquez-Nolan said. " Most importantly, as the top law enforcement officer in Macomb County, Prosecutor Smith’s support gives credibility and inclusion to Care House to play a vital role in the multidisciplinary team response to child abuse cases in our county."

She added: "Having the elected officials on our board (including our county executive, prosecutor, sheriff and judges) in attendance at our galas and golf outings lends prestige to our events and respect to our agency."

Meanwhile, one of Smith's assistant prosecuting attorneys, Joshua R. Van Laan offered explanations for some forfeiture account expenditures, such as $160,000 over several months to Weber Security Co. 

“They specialize in law enforcement security and they have done all the electronics, the key fobs, etc. on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors,” said Van Laan. “It had all been done once and the county decided it wanted to remodel in 2017 and it was taken down to the studs and Weber came in and installed the system for key fobs and a camera system – which was very important because Eric had threats made against him by stalkers.”

Regarding checks of various amounts made out for unspecified purposes to Visa and American Express, Van Laan said, “We have 62 prosecuting attorneys and 10 investigators. They have to go to training sessions and one card has been used by a staffer who has paid for travel while another card has been used to book those trips.

“Training is routine but there are zero dollars for it,” Van Laan said. “Eric repeatedly said he could use forfeiture funds for these purposes and people in the county took him at his word. He was never budgeted for any of that.”

Commissioner Leon Drolet said expenditures made without explanation or to nonprofit groups need to be scrutinized.

“Many of these are fine organizations but without documentation, it's impossible to know if these donations are appropriate or lawful,” Drolet said. “We need more information. That’s why this audit is so important.”

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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