Emails: Schuette talked RNC in AG office

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette, currently the Michigan attorney general, speaks at a campaign event on the Weir farm in Southern Michigan near Hanover.

Lansing — Attorney General Bill Schuette was discussing his official role as a future speaker when he held a meeting on the Republican National Convention with staff in his taxpayer-financed Detroit office, his spokeswoman said Wednesday. 

The 2015 meeting, which came a full year before his speech, was disclosed in an email dump by liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan. The organization obtained communications between Schuette staffers as part of a lawsuit alleging he illegally used his state office and staff to build a political enterprise and help him climb the political ladder.

The documents show attorney general staffers — many of whom had worked on Schuette’s attorney general campaign or now work on his gubernatorial campaign — were careful to use personal email accounts when they discussed political activities. But the staffers often did so during regular state employee hours. It's not clear if they took breaks.

With less than a week to go until Tuesday's GOP gubernatorial primary, Schuette called the email release a political attack and said his staff sent "personal email on personal time."

Schuette’s official schedule for July 23, 2015, shows that he was in Detroit to read to school kids and meet with Attorney Linda Orlans.

But a separate schedule sent by a state staffer from her personal account shows that Schuette was expected at a 2:30 p.m. meeting in his Detroit office to discuss the “Cleveland Convention,” a July 2016 political event where Schuette would end up speaking ahead of President Donald Trump’s official GOP nomination.

“At that time, Mr. Schuette was a big Jeb Bush supporter,” said Mark Brewer, attorney for Progress Michigan and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “It was a planning meeting to help Mr. Bush," he suggested.

Bush dropped out the GOP primaries in late February 2016. 

Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely disputed Brewer's characterization and said the meeting was organized "to determine the information that would be contained in the remarks that the attorney general delivered in his official capacity at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland."

The schedule showed longtime political fundraising consultant Katy Tylus was among "staff" who attended the meeting, alongside Wendy Anderson, Schuette's supervisor of constituent relations representatives, director of public affairs Rusty Hills and director of public relations John Sellek, who is now a strategist for Schuette's gubernatorial campaign. 

Tylus was not at the meeting as a fundraising consultant, Bitely said. Instead, she was there as a "volunteer" who helped make sure that "logistics were sound for the event." Bitely said Schuette had been invited to speak at about one month prior to the 2015 meeting. His speech was publicly announced one year later.

State work or politics?

Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott said the attorney general's office should produce documents to back up its claims, arguing his group has "proof" of its allegations.

"If you look at the trove of staff emails, there seems to be several discussions about the RNC that popped up," Scott said. "It clearly is political activity, and the fact that meeting was called in a state office should at least raise questions the AG's office should answer."

In his convention speech, Schuette touted his work as attorney general in Michigan but also highlighted his role as chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association,” a political organization he described as “27 women and men dedicated to defending the Constitution and upholding the rule of law.”

Schuette's unofficial schedule shows he also set individual meetings that day with Roger Penske and Sean Cotton, chief executive officer of Meridian Health, GOP donors who have both contributed to his gubernatorial campaign. He was set to meet Chris Ilitch at Comerica Park for a tour.

Schuette is the front runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but he’s faced a barrage of recent attacks from Democrats and GOP rival Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who said Wednesday that Schuette should "look in the mirror, stop lying to voters and apologize for his illegal actions.

“It is the height of dishonesty for him to claim that the meeting on state property was to discuss a convention speech that was not going to take place for OVER A YEAR,” Calley wrote on Twitter. 

A separate email leaked to the press Tuesday showed Schuette staffers using personal email accounts to set up a workday meeting on “presidential politics” in August 2015. In another email sent to some staff and allies, Schuette offered a $250 gift card for whoever could line up the most Jeb Bush endorsements.

Bitely said staff who participated were not on the clock, indicating that staff who choose to participate in non-state-related events are expected to use their lunch hour and take time off their calendar.

Schuette defends himself

"This is all about the Democrats attacking me because they know I'm the strongest candidate and Republicans attacking me because they're desperately behind," Schuette said outside a campaign rally at McShane's Pub in Detroit, where he held a round table talk with Detroit police and firefighter union officials who had endorsed his gubernatorial campaign. 

"I’m the chief law enforcement officer for the state of Michigan …, and the fact is I’m not going to have my integrity questioned whatsoever."

Schuette is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Progress Michigan, which alleges he hired political allies as staffers and constituent relations representatives to help advance his political career in violation of Civil Service Commission rules and the state Constitution.

Brewer mailed out 37 separate subpoenas demanding Schuette staff and allies produce documents related to his personal campaigns or political activities. A judge temporarily blocked those subpoenas Tuesday, but Progress Michigan released a trove of emails that had already been collected.

Scott suggested there could be "thousands more" staff emails uncovered if the judge allows the suit to move forward. "It's clear from the examples we have here that this is a culture. It seems well orchestrated."

In one May 2015 email, sent on a Thursday during regular state employee work hours, Schuette used his personal email account to thank Tylus, a fundraising consultant, and several staffers for helping organize an Upper Peninsula barbecue fundraiser, which he said was “just the formula for the rest of our Endless Summer BBQ tour of Michigan.”

Schuette, who was term limited and could not seek re-election as attorney general, predicted a “big turnout” of at least 300 supporters at a fundraising barbecue in west Michigan and discussed plans for another fundraiser in northern Michigan.

“Thanks so much for all each and every one of your (sic) are doing to make the summer a big success,” Schuette wrote in an email indicating it was sent from his iPad. Staffers on the email chain included Sellek, Hills, Scott Greenlee, Sonny Gast, Carter Bundy, Esther Jentzen and Lori Gay. Bundy is now helping run Schuette’s gubernatorial campaign.

Schuette sent the email at 10:53 a.m. His public calendar for that day, released last week by Calley, was blank until 11:30 a.m. when Schuette had “desk time” scheduled until noon.

Former West Michigan liaison Matt Hall, in an email sent during regular state employee work hours on Monday, April 30, 2012, confirmed details of a Grand Rapids barbecue held in June of that summer.

Tickets cost $100 per person, and those who raised or contributed more than $1,000 could be on the host committee, Hall wrote. “Checks made out to Bill Schuette for Attorney General.”

'Mountain of nothing'

Stu Sandler, a Schuette ally who runs a super political action committee supporting his gubernatorial bid, called the newly released emails a “mountain of nothing” and suggested Schuette is under attack because he’s ahead in GOP primary polls.

“He has a lot of staff that personally support him,” Sandler said. “They support him politically. They can do that on personal time.”

While Schuette’s office did not immediately respond to question about personal time policy, Sandler said it is his understanding that “every employee gets an hour to 90 minutes to do what they want personally, and I believe it’s office policy for them to do political work on personal time, and they did that.”

Sandler suggested Progress Michigan was attempting to aid Democratic gubernatorial primary front runner Gretchen Whitmer, which the organization denied. Calley last week promised to release a summary of his work calendar but has not yet done so, he noted.

The Calley campaign did not immediately respond to a Detroit News question about when it will release details of the lieutenant governor's official calendar.

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, also competing for the gubernatorial nomination, said recent revelations about Schuette make it "clear" that "he will be a liability to all Republicans in November" if he wins the primary. 

"Republicans, Independents and Democrats are tired of politics-as-usual," Colbeck said in a statement. "They want solutions."

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