Nessel calls for 'unethical' GOP attack ad to be taken down

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
In this April 15, 2018, file photo, Dana Nessel, candidate for state attorney general, speaks to 14th District Delegates at the 2018 State Endorsement Convention of the Michigan Democratic Party at Cobo Center, in Detroit.

Democratic attorney general candidate Dana Nessel on Friday accused her Republican opponent, state House Speaker Tom Leonard, of “despicable and unethical tactics” because a Michigan GOP ad criticized her work as a defense attorney. 

The ad was one of two GOP messages this week to raise hackles among Democratic political insiders, who have characterized the clips as misleading, offensive and insensitive to sexual abuse victims. 

The ad criticizing Nessel attacks her work as a defense attorney and her former law firm's defense of child molesters.

“Who is still protecting the sex abusers?” a narrator says in the ad as images of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Nassar and Nessel flash across the screen. “Dana Nessel’s former law firm specialized in helping men get away with the most heinous acts.”

Nessel’s firm once “questioned a young victim’s memory in order to get their client found not guilty of molesting a five-year-old girl,” the ad claims, citing descriptions that had been posted on the Nessel and Kessel website. “They bragged about preventing sex crime charges and worked to convince judges to drop protective orders.”

The Leonard campaign has denied any involvement with the ad, which was paid for by the Michigan Republican Party. 

"As you can see from his new ads, Tom Leonard is focused on his proven track record as a tough on crime prosecutor and his plan to make Michigan safer and stronger," Leonard spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said. "Dana Nessel's choice to defend criminals speaks for itself in a race to be the state's top law enforcement official."

The ad, as it refers to the 5-year-old girl, cites information that was once published on a blog on the Nessel and Kessel Law website, said Chris Kessel. Nessel and Kessel run two separate firms that operate under a joint DBA or doing business as, but Kessel has sole ownership and control of the website, he said. 

The girl in question was 12 or 13 years old when she testified about the incident from her younger years, he said, and the man she accused was later found not guilty on the charge for which Kessel was defending him.

Kessel said he stands by his work as a defense attorney, but stressed it was his work, not Nessel’s.

“That was a case that I handled that Dana had absolutely nothing to do with,” Kessel said.

Nessel's campaign called for the ad to be taken down and for her opponent Leonard to join in that call. 

"Falsely aligning anyone with some of the most notorious sexual assault perpetrators in American history is totally unethical, irresponsible, and frankly repugnant," Nessel's campaign said. 

Another ad recently released by the Michigan GOP criticized Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer's failure to prosecute former Michigan State University sports medicine doctor Larry Nassar, an alleged misstep that left the prosecution up to her Republican opponent Attorney General Bill Schuette. 

Whitmer said the ad was incorrect and insensitive to victims traumatized by the case. The Michigan GOP said it is factual that Whitmer decided not to prosecute the Nassar cases. 

Michigan Republican Party communications director and deputy chief of staff Sarah Anderson said the images of Nassar and Cosby were used in the Nessel attack ad “because they’re well-known sex offenders.”

“The implication is that she defended the worst kind of criminals,” Anderson said. “Their website bragged about getting convicted sex offenders removed from the sex offender registry.”

The Nessel and Kessel law firm website noted amendments to Michigan law allowing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ offenders — those who were under 18 but had consensual sex with someone under 16 — and minors who were under the age of 14 at the time of their conviction to remove their names from the sex offender registry.

“Don’t let a sex offense ruin your life,” the site said.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed “Romeo and Juliet” relief legislation into law in 2011. The package was sponsored by Republican Sens. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge and Phil Pavlov of Port Huron.

Colleen Pero, chief of staff for the Michigan Republican Party, said the ad was meant to contrast with a recent Nessel campaign ad that touted her former role as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County but did not mention her more recent work as a defense attorney.

“You can’t go on TV and say you’re a prosecutor and then object when someone says what you’ve been doing for the last 13 years,” Pero said. Leonard, the Republican nominee, has “dedicated his life to serving people” while Nessel “profited off cases (her firm said) most people shy away from.”

Anderson noted Democrat Pat Miles' campaign raised similar issues when he competed with her for the party endorsement. "One of the great things about this country is that people are entitled to a defense," she said, but Nessel's firm decided which clients to take and touted their work on troubling cases.

As attorney general, Nessel would fight to uphold individuals' rights to due process, her campaign said, "just like she always has, whether as a prosecutor, a civil rights attorney, or representing every day Michiganders."

Those cases have since been “scrubbed” from the Nessel and Kessel law firm, she noted.