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Ex-Macomb prosecutor Smith arraigned in obstruction case

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith was arraigned on an obstruction of justice charge Friday in federal court, the first step toward pleading guilty in a corruption scheme that forced him from office earlier this year.

Smith participated in a videoconference nine days after federal prosecutors accused him of obstructing an investigation into whether he stole campaign funds, a charge punishable by up to 20-years in prison.

Eric Smith

The hearing lasted 10 minutes and featured Smith making a surreal appearance during a live-streamed arraignment because federal court is closed during the pandemic. Instead of representing the government, the former top law enforcement official in Macomb County sat at a virtual defense table, flanked by his white-collar attorneys.

Smith received little deference during his brief appearance in front of U.S. District Magistrate Judge Anthony Patti. He had to wait more than 35 minutes to be arraigned and was second in line behind an accused bankruptcy cheat. 

Patti entered a not-guilty plea on Smith's behalf and released him on a $10,000 unsecured bond. Smith is prohibited from traveling outside Michigan without permission, was ordered to remove firearms from his home and barred from having any contact with government witnesses.

“Do you promise me you will abide by all of those conditions?” Patti asked.

“Absolutely,” Smith said.

According to the government, Smith tried to get a friend and two unidentified assistant county prosecutors to lie to a federal grand jury and FBI investigators. The government concluded Smith 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, according to the government.

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

Driven by greed: A database of corruption in Detroit

The 53-year-old Democrat from 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.

A criminal filing earlier this month 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.

Michigan State Police Lt. Michael Shaw (left) and Lt. Darren Green stand outside the home of Macomb County prosecutor Eric Smith while their fellow officers raid Eric Smith's home on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

The case against Smith focuses on alleged 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.

Smith lied, the prosecutor said.

Smith has reached an agreement to plead guilty to one count of obstruction of justice, said his lawyers, Martin Crandall and John Dakmak.

The former Macomb County prosecutor has said he acted irresponsibly and recklessly.

“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."

The criminal charge was unsealed 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.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @RobertSnellnews