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Former Macomb County assistant prosecutor pleads guilty to neglect of duty

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

A former Macomb County official pleaded guilty to neglect of duty Thursday in exchange for the dismissal of felony charges levelled against him, including embezzlement by a public official.

Benjamin Liston, a former Macomb County chief assistant prosecutor, pleaded guilty to three counts of willful neglect of duty by a public officer holding public trust, a misdemeanor, according to the Michigan Attorney General's Office.

Benjamin Liston

Liston was charged in March with official misconduct in office, a five-year felony; conducting a criminal enterprise, a 20-year felony; and two counts of embezzlement by a public official, a 10-year felony (one count each for 2016 and 2017). Those charges will be dropped for his cooperation in the ongoing prosecution.

Liston entered the plea Thursday during a remote hearing before Judge Cynthia M. Arvan of the 46th District Court after 41-B District Court judges recused themselves.

As part of the plea agreement, Liston will be sentenced to 60 days in the Macomb County Jail, surrender his license to practice law and pay restitution of roughly $16,000, officials said.

Liston’s plea requires that he cooperate in the ongoing prosecution and any further investigation of former Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith and other remaining defendants in the case, including information related to a county-ordered audit of the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office forfeiture accounts.

Charges were filed in March against Liston along with Smith, then-Macomb County assistant prosecutor Derek Miller and businessman William Weber.

Smith 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.

“Never did I trade justice for money or any other benefit,” Smith said in a statement on Sept. 9. “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.”

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.

Prosecutors said 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. Smith used the money for personal expenses from 2012 to this year, authorities allege.

“We must demand a standard of integrity from our public servants, and those who break the trust placed in them by the people will answer for those actions,” Attorney General Dana Nessel said. “My Public Integrity Unit remains on watch for any other situations where the officials serving our communities might have broken the law and we will act swiftly to pursue justice for those crimes.”  

The Attorney General’s Public Integrity Unit, Michigan State Police and other agencies conducted a year-long investigation into allegations that Liston and the other defendants had embezzled around $600,000 since 2012 from the county.   

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office calling for an investigation into inappropriate use of forfeiture accounts, which are not for personal use, but for enhancements to public safety and security. They're typically used for victim restitution for check forgeries, prosecutor training or equipment to support prosecution efforts, officials said.

Liston worked as chief assistant prosecutor for Macomb County between January 2005 and February 2018. His sentencing date is not yet scheduled.

The attorney general’s prosecution of the remaining individuals in the case is ongoing, her office said.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_