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Court: No grand jury probe of Snyder’s attorney fees

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Ingham County Circuit Court judges have denied a request for a one-person grand jury to investigate whether Gov. Rick Snyder committed misconduct in office by using public funds to hire private attorneys representing him in criminal probes of Flint’s water contamination crisis.

Ingham judges, several of whom have strong ties to the Democratic Party, met last week and denied the request to investigate the Republican governor, according to an order released Tuesday.

“This isn’t surprising, given that it was a baseless accusation,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said in an email.

Attorney Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, filed a complaint last month on behalf of Flint resident Keri Webber, who said she was “appalled” Snyder was spending public funds on private attorneys while she and other Flint residents continued to suffer from the water crisis.

The complaint argued that Snyder did not have legal authority to enter into a contract with the Warner Norcross & Judd law firm, circumvented established procurement rules and violated a constitutional prohibition against public officials engaging in transactions that create a conflict of interest.

“This is not a denial on the merits of the complaint,” Brewer said Tuesday. “The court simply exercised its discretion not to investigate.”

Snyder’s office has said his use of private attorneys is “legally sound” because he is facing lawsuits in his official capacity as governor. But Brewer targeted what he called the governor’s “unilateral hiring” of Warner Norcross & Judd “to represent him in criminal proceedings arising out of Flint.”

The Michigan-based firm stands to earn up to $2 million in taxpayer funds under its current contract for what the state has called “legal services related to records management issues and investigations.”

Despite the rejection by Ingham County judges, Brewer said he will continue to consider other options for challenging the governor’s contract for private attorneys. He declined to discuss what those options may be.

“I don’t want to speculate,” he said. “Meanwhile we continue to urge the Legislature and the attorney general to put a stop to this. They can put a stop to this contract any time. It was only because they didn’t act we asked the Ingham County court to step in.”

joosting@detroitnews.com