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Ex-Macomb prosecutor Smith to plead guilty to obstructing justice

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith has agreed to plead guilty to obstructing a federal investigation into whether he stole campaign funds, capping a steep fall for one of the region's top law enforcement officials.

Smith revealed the tentative agreement Wednesday after federal prosecutors charged him with one count of obstruction of justice, a 20-year felony. The criminal charge followed a prolonged period of turmoil for Smith that included a raid at his home, his resignation six months ago and questions about whether he illegally spent campaign money.

Smith tried to get a friend and two unidentified assistant county prosecutors to lie to a federal grand jury and FBI investigators who concluded he orchestrated two fraud schemes to steal $75,000 from his political campaign fund, prosecutors said. Smith used the money for personal expenses from 2012 to this year, authorities allege.

Macomb County prosecutor Eric Smith

The 53-year-old Democratfrom 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. Former county Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges.

The case against Smith focuses on lies and campaign cash. Smith controlled the campaign fund, telling donors the money would be used for his re-election, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said.

"Sometimes that was true," Schneider said, "but sometimes that was a lie. It was a fraud. That is because Mr. Smith stole money from his campaign account and used it for his own personal whims.

"No one is above the law in Michigan and that includes those who enforce the law," Schneider added.

Smith will plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice, his lawyers, Martin Crandall and John Dakmak, said in a statement Wednesday.

The Michigan State Police officers search the garage of Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith's Macomb Township home on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

“Never did I trade justice for money or any other benefit,” Smith said in a statement Wednesday. “Let me be absolutely clear: The Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office was never for sale under my watch. I acted irresponsibly and recklessly, and I will be held accountable for my actions. However, I never compromised when it came to protecting the citizens of Macomb County and prosecuting criminals.”

Prosecutors want Smith to serve a prison sentence. Advisory guidelines call for 15-21 months in federal prison, Schneider said.

The criminal charge was announced six months after The Detroit News exclusively reported that Smith had resigned while pursuing a deal to plead guilty to forthcoming federal corruption charges.

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

Smith had approximately $55,000 in checks written from his campaign account that was purportedly for renting a campaign office, the U.S. Attorney said Wednesday.

"But that was a sham," Schneider said.

An unidentified associate cashed the checks and gave Smith the money "for Smith's own enjoyment," Schneider said.

In 2016, Smith gave a $20,000 check to an unidentified assistant prosecutor. That person gave $15,000 to Smith "for his own personal expenses" and kept the rest, Schneider said.

Smith also tried to cover up the crimes, the U.S. Attorney said.

In September 2019, Smith learned a grand jury was investigating the use of his campaign account and that FBI agents were planning to interview his associates, Schneider said.

"Smith tried to convince his associate to falsely tell the FBI that the $55,000 kicked back to Smith was simply a loan that Smith would repay."