Request for Schuette probe referred to FBI

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Republican  candidate for governor, addresses the crowd.

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon has referred a request for a grand jury investigation into Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to the lawyer who asked for the probe. 

Siemon’s office confirmed the recent request from East Lansing attorney Mike Nichols was referred “to an appropriate agency” but declined to say whether the FBI is handling the case.

Nichols wants an investigation into whether Schuette broke any laws when he used staff in his state office to witness multimillion-dollar sales of inherited Virgin Islands property. A Schuette spokeswoman called the original request a “baseless attack on an attorney general with a strong ethical record.”

Siemon, a Democrat, declined a request from Nichols to launch her own grand jury investigation into Schuette, a Republican candidate for governor.  But Nichols said Tueday he was pleased by the referral.

“It’s not a ‘get lost, this is nothing,’” he said.

Nichols on Tuesday circulated an email showing that Siemon told him she had sent his six-page request letter to the FBI and would also be forwarding a related notebook.

“After some research, it was determined that the most appropriate investigative body for this matter is the FBI and I have made that referral,” Siemon said in the email. “The Special Agent with whom I spoke indicated that while they do not contact all complainants, they likely will be in touch with you.”

Timothy Wiley, a spokesman for the FBI’s Detroit office, which oversees all of Michigan, declined comment. Scott Hughes, a spokesman for Ingham County Prosecutor Siemon, said the office leaves it up to a referring agency to decide whether to make any announcement.

Siemon did not review the claims against Schuette in great depth before forwarding the case, Hughes said.

“Typically, a prosecutor doesn’t investigate alleged crimes," he said. "That’s typically done by an investigative agency.”

Nichols called the referral a “good, prudent step” in response to his request for an investigation of Schuette. “The FBI is an excellent choice," he said in an email.

Asked about the referral, Schuette spokesman Andrea Bitely repeated her dismissive statement from last week.

“If I had a dime for every time a defense attorney attacked a prosecutor, I’d have a lot of dimes,” she said.

Stu Sandler, who heads a pro-Schuette super political action committee and previously worked for former Attorney General Mike Cox, said he suspects Siemon referred the case because she did not want to be in the middle of any political drama.

“This is a prosecutor’s polite way of passing the buck,” Sandler said. “I think there might be politics at play here.”

Nichols represented former state Rep. Cindy Gamrat against misconduct charges filed by Schuette in February 2016.

An Ingham County judge tossed the charges four months later but allowed Schuette’s office to move forward with a separate case against former Republican Rep. Todd Courser of Lapeer, who had an affair with Gamrat and orchestrated a “false flag” email in an attempt to discredit rumors.

In his original letter to Siemon, Nichols noted that one of Gamrat’s misconduct-in-office charges stemmed from allegations she “allowed two staffers to sign her name to two bills submitted to the House journal.”

Schuette’s use of state employees to witness and notarize personal property sales merits similar scrutiny, Nichols said.

“It is very likely that these Attorney General employees did much more than simply witness and notarize these documents, and had greater roles in helping advance their boss’ personal interests,” the attorney said in the letter. “However, absent an investigation, the truth will never be known.”

As The Detroit News reported in May, Schuette used state staffers in his office as signed witnesses and notaries on at least four private real estate transactions in the Virgin Islands, including deed transfers on two separate properties sold for $1.8 million each.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, also running for governor and competing with Schuette in the GOP primary, has called for an independent investigation of the real estate transactions.

"The attorney general broke the law by using taxpayer resources for personal gain and that warrants a federal investigation," Calley said in a Wednesday campaign statement. "The main questions now are if Bill Schuette will be held to the same standards he applies to others and when an indictment might occur.”

The Michigan Ethics Act of 1973 requires that state officials and employees only use personal resources and property “in accordance with prescribed constitutional, statutory, and regulatory procedures and not for personal gain or benefit.” Violations are considered civil — not criminal — infractions punishable by fines.