Judge blocks Schuette staff subpoenas in 'political patronage' suit

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Republican gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Bill Schuette

Lansing — With one week to go until the Michigan gubernatorial primary, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette on Tuesday blocked subpoenas  demanding his state staff and allies turn over any documents related to his personal campaigns or other political activity.

Michigan Court of Claims judge Christopher Murray granted Schuette's emergency request for a protective order to stop discovery in a lawsuit filed by liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan. The suit alleges the Midland Republican has used his taxpayer-funded office to build a “political enterprise."

It is a claim Schuette has repeatedly denied.

Attorney Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, last week mailed out 37 separate subpoenas demanding Schuette staff, allies and Republican operatives produce documents by Thursday, according to court records.

Murray blocked the subpoenas pending his decision on a separate motion from Schuette to dismiss the case. 

While evidence gathered in the lawsuit has not been disclosed, emails obtained by The Detroit News show Schuette and staffers using their personal email accounts to discuss political activities during at least one regularly scheduled workday. A Schuette spokeswoman said state staff who participated were not on the clock.  

In an August 2015 email, Schuette scheduler Esther Jentzen invited various colleagues and political operatives to a conference call with Schuette on “presidential politics” scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on a Monday.

The August 2015 meeting was set two days before Schuette announced he was endorsing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primary and would serve as Bush’s state campaign chairman.

In another email sent from his own personal account on a Sunday, Schuette encouraged a similar group of state staffers and GOP allies to secure Bush endorsements, offering a $250 gift card to whoever got the most by “the close of business Wednesday.”

None of the emails came to or from government accounts but were sent to several state employees, including then-deputy Matthew Schneider, who now serves as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Other state staff on the email chain include top Schuette aide Rusty Hills,  spokeswoman Andrea Bitely and former political director Carter Bundy, who is now helping run Schuette’s gubernatorial campaign.

“If there is an event that is not state-related and you choose to participate, you are expected to use your lunch hour or take time off your calendar,” Bitely told The Detroit News. “Presidential elections are special opportunities for anyone interested in the political process, and the efforts were conducted without use of state resources.”

Brewer subpoenaed Bitely, Bundy, Hills, Jentzen and other current and state staffers last week, according to court records. The requests ask them to produce “all documents and records, including notes, audio or video recordings, electronic files, and emails and their attachments” related to any political activity by Schuette or his campaigns for attorney general or governor.

Assistant Solicitor General Kathryn Dalzell on Monday asked the judge to halt all evidence “discovery” in the suit until he rules on Schuette's motion to dismiss the case, a request Murray granted Tuesday.

“Immediate relief is warranted,” Dalzell wrote. “Having claimed immunity from suit, Mr. Schuette is entitled to a ruling on that issue before discovery; otherwise, immunity from suit will be defeated.”

The subpoenas are “overbroad, noncompliant with the court rules, and harassing,” Dalzell continued. One-third of the subpoenas went to individuals “who have never been employed in the department.”

The Progress Michigan lawsuit alleges Schuette ran a “vast, wealthy political campaign apparatus” from his public and taxpayer-funded office in violation of the state Constitution and Michigan Civil Service Commission rules.

Brewer said in a Tuesday filing that even non-state employees who received subpoenas were a "key part of the enterprise."

The suit highlights a handful of Schuette staffers who have bounced between his campaigns and government offices, alleging “a political patronage reward” for their campaign work.

Schuette’s office, in court filings, has derided the claims as “cynical” allegations meant to “impugn” Schuette as he runs for governor. The attorney general is claiming governmental immunity in the suit.

Asked Tuesday if he has ever hired staff for political purposes or directed them to do political work on state time, Schuette was blunt: “No,” he told The News. “Listen, absolutely not.”

But Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called presidential campaign emails that Schuette and staffers sent from their personal email accounts “a smoking gun” that expose his “abuse of taxpayer funds.”

Progress Michigan executive Director Lonnie Scott declined immediate comment on the Schuette emails but said his group “will have more information soon.”

State staffers routinely use personal time to do campaign work for elected officials they work under, including Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who is competing with Schuette for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Laura Biehl, a state employee who works as Calley’s director of communications, helped organized a campaign press conference last week in Lansing at which Calley accused Schuette of being "off duty" as attorney general and missing work days. Biehl used a vacation day on her time card, according to the campaign.

Calley blasted Schuette over the staff emails revealed Tuesday, suggesting his GOP rival is “in serious legal jeopardy for misuse of his office in advancement of his political ambition.” Schuette’s nomination “would put Republicans at risk up and down the ballot,” Calley said in a statement.

Stu Sandler, executive director of a super political action committee supporting Schuette, accused Calley of working with Democrats to coordinate campaign attacks.

“Brian Calley is a hypocrite who refused to release his own calendar or emails and uses his state staff to work political events on state time,” Sandler said. “It’s sad and pathetic.”

Schuette said earlier Tuesday that accusations he does not work a full schedule were the latest in a string of "desperate" attacks by Calley because he is behind in the polls. 

"Talk to my wife and kids," Schuette said when asked how many hours he typically works.  I don't know, is it a hundred hours a week? I'm a hard worker and everybody knows that."


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