Macomb County commissioners plan meeting to discuss prosecutor Eric Smith

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

The Macomb County commissioners informally agreed Thursday to conduct a special meeting to discuss the future of embattled Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith and what could be the first step in possible restitution of $600,000 in taxpayer funds.

Commissioner Leon Drolet, R-Macomb Township, sought the special meeting, tentatively set for next week. Smith wasn't discussed during a virtual meeting in which officials met remotely by phone and computer over county business.

Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith

At the end of Thursday's meeting, Commissioner Veronica Klinefelt, D-Eastpointe, told her fellow commissioners she had talked with Drolet and said she would permit her Finance, Audit and Budget Committee “to create a forum” for issues raised by Drolet.

A few other commissioners had some reservations about such a meeting and asked that an attorney be present.

“Before we get too deep in meetings and discussions, we need to keep in mind due process,” said Commissioner Harold Haugh, D-Roseville. “There’s an arraignment (of Smith) coming up Friday. There are ramifications in everything we do and say. And I’m a big believer in due process.”

Drolet said some commissioners privately confided to him it might be best to let the matter be decided by the courts in the ongoing criminal case. He disagreed.

“To say this is someone else’s problem to deal with — by the courts, another agency — is to abandon our duties as elected commissioners,” he said after the meeting. “This is not the time to hope someone else is doing something. We have to do our jobs, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us.”

Smith, 53, of Macomb Township and a co-defendant, Benjamin Liston of Warren are to be arraigned Friday on charges that carry penalties ranging from five years to 20 years in prison and fines.

The pair and two co-defendants are accused in court documents and by State Attorney General Dana Nessel of conducting a conspiracy to misappropriate $600,000 from asset forfeiture funds collected from defendants in drunken driving and drug cases.

Smith supervised special asset forfeiture funds that are to be used for law enforcement purposes. An investigation by the Michigan State Police found funds were allegedly used for other purposes, including charities, holiday parties, office equipment and high-end surveillance equipment for Smith’s home.

In announcing charges this week, Nessel said Smith; Derek Miller, his chief of operations; Benjamin Liston, a former chief assistant prosecutor, and businessman William Weber were involved in a conspiracy to commit forgery, embezzlement, tampering with evidence and criminal enterprise.

Smith and Liston are scheduled to surrender to authorities Friday and be formally arraigned. Miller is expected to follow at a date to be determined.

Weber was arraigned Tuesday and is free on a personal recognizance bond pending a May probable cause conference.

Smith and Miller remain in their jobs in the prosecutor’s office.

Under state law, a Board of Commissioners can summon an employee, including an elected official, to respond to questions in person or file a report in reference to questions. The Board also has the power to require a cash bond from the same employee for possible damages, to be paid in the event they are found guilty of a crime. Drolet believes Smith should be required to post such a bond.

A person refusing to comply with either part of the law can be terminated.

The obscure law was last used in 2006 after Alcona County Treasurer Thomas Katona embezzled $1.3 million from taxpayers and plowed it into a Nigerian-type scam. Katona, the county’s treasurer for 13 years, was duped into emailing large sums, including his own savings, outside the country. He pleaded guilty to several felonies and was imprisoned until September 2017.

It would ultimately take a two-thirds majority vote of the board to remove Smith from office. The actual firing would come from Macomb Chief Circuit Judge James Biernat Jr., who would name a temporary replacement to fill out the remainder of Smith’s current term.

Biernat was called on for similar duty in March 2018 when the former Macomb County Clerk Karen Spranger was removed from her job after it was determined she had falsified her residence on an election affidavit.

In a video-taped statement Tuesday, Nessel said Smith, Miller, Liston and Weber collectively stole about $600,000 “in an elaborate scheme of public profiteering motivated by what appears to be unfettered self-interest.”

Smith has repeatedly insisted all of his expenditures were legal under asset forfeiture laws. His defense attorney, Martin Crandall, said in a statement “…we will vigorously defend Mr. Smith against these baseless allegations. We look forward to Mr. Smith’s day in open court, whenever that may be."

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