SUBSCRIBE NOW
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.
SUBSCRIBE NOW
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.

Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith resigns to pursue plea deal

Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith resigned Monday while pursuing a deal to plead guilty to forthcoming federal corruption charges, sources told The Detroit News.

Smith continues to negotiate with federal prosecutors to resolve a corruption investigation that coincides with a separate state probe that last week led to the Michigan Attorney General's Office filing racketeering charges against the county's top law enforcement officer. Smith and three others are accused of participating in a scheme to embezzle $600,000 in county forfeiture funds.

Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith stands in the lobby as he prepares to be fingerprinted.

Plea negotiations with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit are ongoing while Smith awaits trial on the state racketeering charges, said three sources who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Smith could not be reached for comment Monday, and his lawyers declined to comment.

Smith, 53, of Macomb Township is the highest-ranking public official ensnared in a years-long federal crackdown on corruption in Macomb County. Since 2016, federal prosecutors have secured the convictions of 22 contractors and public officials, including former Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds, trash mogul Chuck Rizzo and towing titan Gasper Fiore, and FBI agents continue to investigate bribery allegations involving former county Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco.

“You can’t be the chief law enforcement officer in the county and still have that position. It undermines the public’s trust,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “If the government was saying ‘you better quit,’ they’re likely going to recommend a lighter prison sentence.”

Smith, who was first elected prosecutor in November 2004, announced his resignation in a statement.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel

"It is with heavy heart that today I am announcing my immediate resignation from the Office of the Macomb County Prosecutor," Smith said. "After much reflection, I know that for the betterment of my family, my health, and the citizens of Macomb County it is time for me to step aside so that the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office can continue its great tradition of serving and protecting the county. 

"There have been several allegations leveled against me by the Michigan Department of Attorney General in the past few days," he said. "I intend to whole-heartedly defend myself against those allegations. I have been part of the criminal justice system for close to thirty years. Know that I have absolute confidence that our cherished justice system will bring forth the truth and exonerate me."

Just a few days ago, one of Smith's criminal lawyers, Martin Crandall, called the case against Smith “a piece of crap” and vowed he would eventually be acquitted of what Crandall said were politically motivated charges.

Derek Miller

Smith, who had worked for the prosecutor's office since 1993, is charged with 10 counts, including conspiracy to commit forgery, embezzlement, tampering with evidence and criminal enterprise, according to court records. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of conducting a criminal enterprise, which would be one of the longest sentences ever given to a Metro Detroit public official.

"It was no surprise, and I think resigning was the right thing for him to do," said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who sought an investigation of the prosecutor's forfeiture fund spending last year. "He has to still face all the charges against him, and I don't think anyone is going to go easy on him. This also paves the way for the office and county to move forward."

On Monday, Smith quietly notified Chief Judge James Biernat Jr. of Macomb County Circuit Court of his resignation. By an office succession process determined by Smith, Jean Cloud, Smith's chief trial lawyer, was designated as the next ranking prosecuting attorney and will assume the prosecutor's job.

The county's circuit court judges could leave Cloud to serve the rest of Smith's term, which expires this year or appoint someone else within the next 30 days. 

While no one has filed to run for the job this November, several names have been speculated as potential candidates, including former judge Mary Chrzanowski; state Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township; Commissioner Rob Leonetti, R-Harrison Township; and even Smith's co-defendant, Derek Miller, his chief assistant prosecutor, who remains on the staff.

Macomb Commissioner Leon Drolet, R-Macomb Township, said it was clear Smith needed to go and added others should follow.

"I just hope whomever takes over that office has the same courage as Candice Miller did when she took over as public works commissioner and immediately showed Marrocco's right-hand man Dino Bucci the door. She wanted to clean up the office and that's what we need here."

Bucci, who was Marrocco's chief deputy and also a Macomb Township trustee, was ultimately indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple counts in a pay-to-play scheme for public contracts over nine years and is awaiting trial. Marrocco, the longtime public works commissioner, moved to Florida and has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Smith, meanwhile, concluded his resignation statement by thanking Macomb County voters for “allowing me to be your prosecutor for so many years."

“I remain humbled by your trust and confidence in me,” Smith wrote. “The Office of the Macomb County Prosecutor is bigger than any one person. I know that the office will continue to serve the county with distinction. God bless you all.”

Smith prosecuted one of the most infamous murder trials in Michigan history, in which Stephen Grant was convicted of strangling and dismembering his wife, Tara, in February 2007.

Smith won a second-degree murder conviction against Grant, who is serving a 50- to 80-year prison sentence. The case was a highlight of his career, but he also ran afoul of the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission by referring to Grant as a "sociopath" during a 2007 press conference.

The commission ruled in 2012 that Smith "committed professional misconduct by failing to treat a person involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect" and censured him.

Smith, who is free on a $100,000 personal recognizance bond, has a probable cause conference scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Friday and an April 9 preliminary examination, both in Mount Clemens' 41-B District Court.

More:Macomb prosecutor Eric Smith gets $100K bond, attorney calls charges 'crap'

Smith was ordered to surrender his passport, not leave the state and to have no contact with his co-defendants.

Benjamin Liston is arraigned.

Also facing charges are Miller; a former chief of operations, Benjamin Liston, who retired three years ago; and William Weber, owner-operator of Mount Clemens-based Weber Security Co.

More:Macomb County prosecutor, others charged with scheme to embezzle $600K

Liston, 58, faces four counts, including conducting a criminal enterprise and embezzlement. Miller, 36, is charged with conspiracy, while Weber, 38, is charged with crimes ranging from forgery to aiding and abetting. 

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office, along with multiple agencies and the Michigan State Police, began an investigation after Hackel filed a complaint with the office. In the complaint, Hackel called for an investigation into inappropriate use of forfeiture accounts, which contain public money to be used for improving prosecution efforts and supporting victims, among other things. 

More:Criminal charges against Macomb Prosecutor Smith imminent, AG's office says

Investigators estimate the total amount of money embezzled as part of the alleged scheme to be around $600,000. Among other things, investigators found that defendants allegedly used the money to buy flowers and make-up for select secretaries, a security system for Smith’s residence, garden benches for staffers’ homes, country club catering for parties and campaign expenditures. 

"This has been very troubling and consumed many of us for over a year," Hackel said. "That was one of the reasons I sent it over to the AG (Attorney General). There was no question in my mind that there was criminal activity, and it had to be addressed.

"There has been a general distrust of the office over this, and you can't have that and do a job as the county's top law enforcement officer. We need a new person in there, and this is a new day."

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319