Judge: Michigan trooper's whistleblower suit can proceed
Detroit — A judge's ruling means a suspended trooper's whistleblower lawsuit against top Michigan State Police officials will move forward.
The State Police had sought to have the lawsuit by Scott Woodard, a former lieutenant with the agency, dismissed on the grounds that retired State Police Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue and MSP Inspector Michael Johnson were protected by “qualified immunity.” But U.S. District Judge Laurie J. Michelson disagreed.
“Etue and Johnson are not entitled to qualified immunity based on factual allegations,” Michelson ruled.
Qualified immunity refers generally to all government agencies and their employees and, under state law, it applies if the employee was acting, or believed he or she was acting, within the scope of authority at the time of the alleged negligence.
In July 2018, Woodard, a 27-year police veteran – 23 of them with MSP — was removed as executive director of the state Auto Theft Prevention Authority amid allegations he had “leaked” information to other board members in November 2017 about unauthorized and possibly illegal spending of task force funds, according to Woodard’s attorney.
“One of his supervisors went to his home and took his departmental-issued firearm and credentials,” said attorney Steven Potter, who represents Woodard in the lawsuit. “He was told his involvement was no longer needed.
“But they didn’t stop there, they went out to ruin his career,” said Potter. “Here’s a guy expressing concern about expenditure of funds — more than $14,000.
“They started a criminal investigation on him because they felt he lied about this,” Potter said. “It wasn’t a lie. It was an expenditure on the books. You can say an internal investigation later found there was nothing inappropriate or criminal about the spending. But that doesn’t make Scott Woodard a criminal for telling other board members about his concerns.
“I am looking forward to taking depositions from some people responsible and also putting this in front of a jury.”
One deposition will likely come from Etue. When initially asked by an ATPA board member about the fund discrepancy, she said it resulted from rising costs that state police could not control.
An internal probe eventually found discrepancy resulted from an accounting error, according to a State Police internal affairs officer, and that the funds went toward appropriate State Police computer equipment and salary expenses.
Woodard has been at home, suspended with pay, pending an investigation into his actions and his lawsuit against Etue and Johnson, Potter said. Etue retired as the State Police’s top officer last year. Woodard initially went on a medical leave for a shoulder injury, Potter said.
Last month, the ATPA board formally terminated Woodard as a member.
Mark Donnelly, an assistant state attorney general who represents the State Police in the case, declined comment Monday and referred questions to Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Attorney General’s office.
“We do not comment on pending litigation,” Rossman-McKinney said. “But we will be filing an answer to the judge’s ruling this week.”
Shanon Banner, a State Police spokeswoman, said “as far as we know, this lawsuit is ongoing” and that Woodard remains on leave.
Banner had earlier said Woodard was also under criminal investigation for matters unrelated to the auto theft authority board. He has not been charged with any crimes and the focus of that probe is not known.
Banner noted a March 2019 audit found all ATPA expenditures "appropriate."
The authority is funded by about $6 million annually from $1 fees on every vehicle license plate issued in Michigan. The agency coordinates anti-auto theft programs and grants to police agencies across the state.