Judge rejects ‘political patronage’ suit against Schuette

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette addresses the crowd during the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce's 13th Annual Business Luncheon in Detroit, Friday.

Lansing — A Michigan Court of Claims judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a liberal advocacy group alleging “political patronage” by Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican nominee for governor.

Hugh Madden of Progress Michigan filed the complaint in May, accusing Schuette of hiring and using state staff for political purposes and personal gain.

Judge Christopher Murray dismissed the suit on technical grounds, but he also criticized the case against Schuette and rejected Madden’s attempt to force an evidence discovery phase before any ruling.

“The court will not, under the guise of discovery, sanction a fishing expedition on the basis of conjecture, which is all plaintiff has offered in this case,” Murray wrote.

The complaint alleged that Schuette created state positions to reward loyal campaign operatives and alleged that some state staffers engaged in political activity on his behalf.

Murray granted Schuette’s request to dismiss the case, holding that some of the employment decisions fell under the Michigan Civil Service Commission’s “sphere of authority” and that the alleged political activity did not amount to violations of the state Constitution.

Progress Michigan criticized the ruling, noting Murray is a Republican appointee, and vowed to appeal the case. The judge was appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals by former Gov. John Engler in 2002 and has served on the Court of Claims since 2015.

“Today’s decision is a setback for accountability and transparency,” Madden said in a statement.

A Schuette spokeswoman praised the decision to dismiss the “frivolous” lawsuit.

Schuette also faced accusations of inappropriate political activity in the Republican gubernatorial primary, when Lt. Gov. Brian Calley suggested he should resign for hosting a meeting about the Republican National Convention in a state office.

Emails related to the Progress Michigan lawsuit and obtained by The Detroit News in May showed Schuette and staffers using their personal email accounts to discuss political activities during at least one regularly scheduled workday.

In an August 2015 email, Schuette official state scheduler 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 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.”

Andrea Bitely, Schuette’s spokeswoman in the attorney general’s office, said in May that state staff who participated in the meeting were not on the clock.

“The court made the correct decision, and today’s dismissal is proof that this was a frivolous, politically motivated lawsuit,” Bitely said Monday.

Madden, in vowing to take the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals, said there is “clear” evidence that Schuette and his staff used the attorney general’s office for political gain. Violations of the Michigan Ethics Act  are considered civil — not criminal — infractions punishable by fines.