Calley, liberals jab Schuette on campaign staffer issue

Michael Gerstein Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is joining Democrats and liberals in criticizing Attorney General Bill Schuette for having Republican political operatives on the state payroll who do “constituent relations” work.

The lieutenant governor, who is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination against Schuette, and a liberal political group are separately arguing that the attorney general should not have political staffers whose salaries are paid with public money. Calley is calling on Schuette to take four such staffers off the state payroll and Progress Michigan is arguing in a separate federal complaint that Schuette is violating U.S. law.

The constituent relations staffers are Judy Schwalbach, Michael Sullivan, Luke Londo and Brandon Sinclair. Sinclair has been a political coordinator with the Kent County Republican Party, while Schwalbach is a former Escanaba mayor and Londo was a staffer for ex-U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and former regional press secretary for the Michigan GOP.

Schuette’s spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said it’s common for public officials to hire “constituent relations” workers who spread the word about their employer’s public work.

In Schuette’s case, Bitely said the four in question regularly make public appearances at school board meetings, Kiwanis club gatherings and other public events to tell Michigan residents about the Attorney General’s consumer protection programs, school safety initiatives and other ways in which Schuette “helps the taxpayers of Michigan.”

Calley has one part-time constituent relations staffer, Ben Geiger, according to the lieutenant governor’s office. But Calley said the staffer answers emails and phone calls from the public rather than making appearances to talk about the lieutenant governor and his work.

Calley’s campaign on Friday bashed Schuette and called on him to “move campaign staff off taxpayer funds.”

“Forcing taxpayers to subsidize any officeholder's political ambition is a clear and disturbing breach of the public’s trust,” Calley said in a statement. “Attorney General Schuette should immediately move the gubernatorial campaign field staff exposed in the story off the government payroll and refund the state for all taxpayer funds that were misspent on political purposes.”

Bitely said the four staffers are not being paid to do additional work as campaign operatives for the attorney general, who is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in August. But she would not say whether they may be volunteering for the campaign when they’re not doing state work.

“After 5 p.m., they can do whatever activities they like, whether that be working on horseback riding or the Boy Scouts or whatever it is they choose to do in their free time,” Bitely said, adding that if they volunteer for Schuette it’s not during the work day.

“I don’t know what they do in their personal time – that’s not up to me,” she said.

Calley’s attack followed a report from the Detroit Free Press that first noted that Schuette’s hiring of staffers who are also “campaign operatives” in an attempt to replace Gov. Rick Snyder, who is term limited out office at the end of this year.

When asked about whether the staffers in question were Schuette supporters at a year-end roundtable interview, Schuette replied: “They’d better be, or they’re not going to be working for me.”

“You don’t have to be Republican but you better have a relationship with Bill Schuette or I wouldn’t hire those people to be a person who goes out and meets with people and responds to concerns that people have,” he continued. “I need to trust them, and I do.”

Friday’s attack is the latest between Calley and Schuette since the lieutenant governor officially announced his gubernatorial bid in late November with a jab at Schuette, arguing he was using his Flint water probe to propel his run for governor.

Progress Michigan also announced Friday that it filed a complaint this week with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel over Schuette’s staffers.

The liberal group contends that Schuette is violating the federal Hatch Act by abusing his authority as attorney general “by using public funds to hire and contract with his political campaign workers,” according to the complaint.

“Schuette has clearly used and is using his official authority and influence as Attorney General to affect the result of his own nomination and election efforts by hiring and contracting with his own paid political campaign staff, providing them with public jobs from which they are to assist his nomination and election efforts,” according to the filing.

“This is political patronage at its worst which the Hatch Act is intended to prevent,” it continued.

AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber bashed Schuette in a statement for “stacking his office with political cronies” with public money.

“During his more than 30 years in office, Schuette has always been more interested in doing what’s best for his career and his corporate donors, but this is a brazen abuse of the public’s trust,” Bieber continued. “Schuette should be using his office to protect working families, not trying to get a leg up on his political opponents.”

Bitely defended the attorney general by saying, “It’s no surprise that the political opponents of Bill Schuette are attempting to attack the office” and called the attacks “political gamesmanship” and a distraction from the important work that Schuette does.