Trump taps former House speaker as Grand Rapids U.S. attorney

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump has nominated Michigan’s former House Speaker Tom Leonard to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan.

President Donald Trump has nominated Michigan’s former House Speaker Tom Leonard to be U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan, even as a criminal bribery case against one of his Republican caucus members is prosecuted from the office.

The announcement of Leonard, a former assistant attorney general and assistant prosecutor, as the nominee was made Wednesday. The position requires Senate confirmation. 

The DeWitt Republican said Trump's consideration was an "incredible honor."

"Since becoming a prosecutor in Genesee County, my heart has been to work with law enforcement to keep our citizens safe," Leonard said in a Wednesday statement. "I look forward to working with the White House and the Senate as we work through the confirmation process."

If confirmed, Leonard would oversee an office prosecuting one of his former caucus members for charges that stemmed from a controversial prevailing wage initiative vote during Leonard's tenure as speaker. He also is the subject of a civil lawsuit in the Western District alleging the former House speaker used his influence to pressure an insurance association to fire its lobbyist.

The civil lawsuit against Leonard wouldn't have much of an impact on his duties as U.S. attorney, said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University. 

Leonard also could recuse himself from criminal case against his former Republican colleague, Henning siad. 

"That doesn’t preclude him from becoming the U.S. attorney, but it will require him to not have any involvement in that prosecution," Henning said. 

The Western District has been lacking a Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney since early 2017. 

Andrew Birge has served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Michigan since the day Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017, when Democratic U.S. Attorney Pat Miles resigned from the office. Birge first served as acting U.S. attorney and then in November 2017 was appointed interim U.S. attorney by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In March 2018, the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids named him U.S. attorney. 

Several Republican lawmakers applauded Trump's consideration of Leonard for the position, including Congressman John Moolenaar of Midland, who called Leonard "an experienced prosecutor who has always been focused on public safety and ensuring justice for Michigan families."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow did not voice the same enthusiasm about Leonard. 

“Sen. Stabenow has strong concerns over Mr. Leonard’s nomination,” spokeswoman Miranda Margowsky said. 

“As part of her constitutional duty as U.S. senator, she will be thoroughly reviewing his background and qualifications.”

A spokesman for Democratic Sen. Gary Peters said the congressman would review Leonard's qualifications.

“Senator Peters takes seriously the Senate’s responsibility to advise and consent on nominees, and will closely review Tom Leonard’s qualifications," said Zade Alsawah. "However, Senator Peters has deep concerns about Mr. Leonard’s tenure in the Michigan House of Representative, including as Speaker, and if his experience and record are appropriate for serving as a U.S. attorney.”

A former Genesee County assistant prosecutor and assistant attorney general, Leonard served in the state House from 2012 to 2018, with his last two years spent as speaker. Leonard served in the special crimes division while working in Genesee County and practiced civil defense for the Michigan Department of Corrections under Republican former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.

Leonard formed a consulting firm after departing the Legislature at the end of 2018 called MiStrategies LLC and named Quicken Loans as his first client.

Leonard ran an unsuccessful campaign to become Michigan’s  attorney general in 2018, losing to Plymouth Democrat Dana Nessel. They tussled over issues from the future of Enbridge's Line 5 running under the Straits of Mackinac to the potential enforcement of state abortion laws.

It was the tightest of the top statewide races as Leonard didn't concede until the morning of Nov. 7. The Republican's failure to concede earlier prompted Nessel to quip at a 2 a.m. Nov. 7 press conference: "Tom Leonard, if you're watching this, feel free to call me and concede at any time."

Leonard had promised to be a “rule of law” attorney general who would tackle mental health issues, elder abuse and government transparency complaints.

Miles also made a bid for the Democratic nomination for Michigan attorney general, but lost the party’s endorsement to Nessel. 

Potential case conflict 

Leonard was still House speaker in June 2018 when the Republican-majority House and Senate approved a controversial repeal of Michigan's prevailing wage law, which guaranteed union rates on state construction jobs. The House vote and some of the negotiations that occurred beforehand gave rise to federal charges against a Traverse City area legislator months later in the Western District. 

Rep. Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg, is charged with trying to sell his vote to a union group opposed to the June 2018 prevailing wage repeal. Prosecutors have included text messages Inman exchanged ahead of the vote, including ones with the union in general and Leonard's then-chief of staff, Dan Pero.

According to federal filings in the case, Pero told Inman, "You're on edge, pal," and warned the lawmaker that he already risked losing financial support from business community donors and political action committees because of votes on other bills. 

“You’ve been a no vote on the income tax and no fault; you support fee increases; and if you become a no vote on PW, there’s zero incentive for the big PACs to write you a check,” Pero texted. “You vote yes on PW, my friend, you will get a pass on the other votes.”

Inman ended up voting to approve the repeal of the prevailing wage law. 

Last September, former lobbyist Nathan Medina filed suit against Leonard in the Western District, alleging that the House speaker pressured his employer, The Doctors Management Company, in November 2017 to fire him after he had criticized Leonard’s performance as speaker on social media and panned musician Ted Nugent’s endorsement of Leonard’s run for Michigan attorney general.

In court filings, Leonard has denied pressuring the insurance company or intervening in the lobbyist’s employment. The Doctors Management Company has denied Leonard contacted or pressured them about the social media posts and denied Medina was fired for voicing his political views.

In July, parties to the lawsuit were given until the end of August to complete discovery in the case.

Staff Reporter Melissa Nann Burke contributed