Schuette campaign: FBI 'smear' organized by Whitmer fundraiser

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Democrat Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Bill Schuette

Lansing — Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette's gubernatorial campaign on Monday accused a lawyer helping to raise money for Democrat Gretchen Whitmer of coordinating a "smear campaign" by requesting a criminal investigation into Schuette real estate deals.

An invitation circulated Saturday by the Whitmer campaign listed East Lansing attorney Mike Nichols and Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon among dozens of co-hosts for a July 22 fundraiser for Whitmer. 

Nichols on June 28 asked Siemon to launch a grand jury investigation into Schuette for using staff in his official state office to sign paperwork for personal real estate deals. Siemon instead referred the request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

The FBI has not indicated whether it has or will investigate the matter. But Siemon's referral gave ammunition for critics to attack Schuette, including the Michigan Democratic Party and Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is competing with Schuette in the Aug. 7 primary. 

The fundraiser invitation "officially confirmed this smear campaign is coordinated by a member of Gretchen Whitmer's fundraising team," Schuette strategist John Sellek said, referencing Nichols. "These false political attacks stink to high heaven because they are the kind of garbage making voters cynical about politics."

Nichols did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Scott Hughes, a spokeman for Siemon, confirmed the Ingham County prosecutor is co-hosting the fundraiser and said she's never made it a secret she's supporting Whitmer for governor. State records show Siemon has already contributed $300 to Whitmer’s campaign.

"My referral to the FBI was not politically motivated, in fact, the opposite," Siemon said in a statement. "I referred it to the appropriate investigative entity. Period. I can’t help what political use others made of my actions but mine were emphatically not politically motivated."

The invitation for the upcoming fundraiser shows hosts will donate at least $1,000 to Whitmer's campaign, while guests are asked to contribute at least $100.

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 that sold for $1.8 million each.

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.

Whitmer’s campaign did not directly address Schuette’s claim of a coordinated smear, but spokesman Zack Pohl said Schuette should “look in the mirror” if he “wants someone to blame for the mess he’s in.”

“Even the governor of his own party said this is 'clearly a serious matter.' The fact is, Schuette used six different government employees to help him sell $7.2 million in luxury Caribbean real estate," Pohl said in a statement.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who is backing Calley in the GOP primary, last week called Siemon's referral to the FBI “serious matter" and said the federal agency must "be allowed to do a thorough investigation without any undue influence."

Snyder on Thursday denied his comments were politically motivated in an attempt to help Calley.

"We gave a factual statement that didn’t have value judgments in it," Snyder said. "I didn't make any references to good or bad. People said, 'Is something going to the FBI serious or not?' It is serious."

Calley's campaign on Monday downplayed the relevance of the upcoming Whitmer fundraiser to the request for investigation.

"It isn’t surprising to see that people who understand the extent to which Bill Schuette is abusing his office for personal gain would choose to oppose him from holding the highest office in Michigan," said spokesman Mike Schrimpf.

Former Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican who is supporting Schuette, has questioned the furor over the real estate documents and speculated the FBI will not investigate.

“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?” Cox told The News previously.

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