Snyder: Allegations against Schuette a 'serious matter'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, right, and Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Lansing — Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said Monday the Federal Bureau of Investigation should “be allowed to do a thorough investigation” of GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette amid scrutiny over Schuette's use of office staff to sign personal real estate documents.

Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon last week referred a request for a grand jury probe to the FBI. The federal agency has not confirmed whether it has or will look into the original request from East Lansing Attorney Mike Nichols, and a spokesman again declined comment Monday.

“This is clearly a serious matter if the local prosecutor felt it should be referred to the FBI for investigation,” Snyder said Monday in a statement shared by communications director Ari Adler. “It’s important that the FBI be allowed to do a thorough investigation without any undue influence and let the facts take them wherever they lead.”

Nichols last month asked for 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 GOP candidate for governor who has clashed with the Snyder administration. The governor, who is term-limited and cannot seek re-election, is backing Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Schuette’s office has downplayed the FBI referral and grand jury request from Nichols, who represented Republican former state Rep. Cindy Gamrat against misconduct charges filed by the attorney general in February 2016 but tossed by a judge four months later.

"This isn’t a law enforcement issue — this is a phony attack from a disgruntled trial lawyer who is playing politics with the judicial system," said spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.

Tensions between Snyder and Schuette have escalated during the attorney general's ongoing investigation of the Flint water contamination crisis and the Snyder administration's role in a 2014-2015 Legionnaires' outbreak that killed 12 people and sickened another 79.

The probe has so far resulted in involuntary manslaughter charges against six current and former officials, including Snyder's health chief Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells. Closing arguments in Lyon's preliminary exam start this week.

When Schuette announced charges during a June 2017 press conference in Flint, he said he was not filing charges against Snyder "at this time" because no “crime has been established.” 

In his original request for a grand jury to investigate Schuette, Nichols compared his use of office staff to the attorney general's case against Gamrat, a Plainwell lawmaker who resigned from the House in September 2015 amid scrutiny over an affair with GOP Rep. Todd Courser of the Lapeer area.

One of the dismissed misconduct charges against Gamrat stemmed from allegations she “allowed two staffers to sign her name to two bills submitted to the House journal,” Nichols said. Schuette’s use of state employees to witness and notarize personal property sales merits similar scrutiny, he argued.

“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.”

Siemon’s office said last week it had referred Nichols request to “an appropriate agency.” In an email that Nichols later circulated, she named the FBI, which is not obligated to investigate the matter and has not given any indication whether it will do so.

Former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican who has donated to Schuette’s campaign but said he’s also given advice to Calley, called any furor over the staff signatures political “bull----” and criticized Snyder for pilling on.

“I mean, it’s just kind of petty,” Cox said Monday. “I get that the governor wants his lieutenant governor to succeed him, but God he makes himself seem small doing that.”

Cox said he doubts the FBI will take the request seriously, noting the allegations against Schuette do not rival bribery or other crimes the agency often investigates.

“If he had someone in his office preparing the documents or doing legal work on them, absolutely, slam him,” Cox said. “But having a notary in a law office notarize something and having your press secretary witness it … where is the personal gain or benefit there?”

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.

But “there’s absolutely nothing here,” said Stu Sandler, who helps run a super political action committee supporting Schuette’s run for governor. He declined to comment directly on Snyder's statement but downplayed the requested investigation and referral. 

“This was a disgruntled Democrat lawyer who was upset about the issue they were dealing with. The Ingham County prosecutor found nothing, so she simply did this to get it off her plate," Sandler said.

Nichols said Monday he has considered himself a Democrat but doesn’t always vote that way. The attorney general's prosecution of Gamrat was politically motivated, he said, calling it a “delicious irony” that Schuette allies are now accusing him of political motivation.

Nichols declined to say whether the FBI has contacted him since Siemon last week referred the case.

The Michigan Ethics Act of 1973 requires that state officials and employees only use state personnel 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.

Calley has called for an independent investigation over the signatures and said last week he thinks Schuette’s actions warrant a federal probe because he “broke the law by using taxpayer resources for personal gain.”

Democrats appeared to revel in Snyder's comments about Schuette, who has consistently led public opinion polls of the GOP primary field. 

"Even Gov. Rick Snyder is throwing Bill Schuette under the bus because there’s absolutely no excuse for his schemes and misuse of taxpayer funds," said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon.