Calley: Schuette broke law with staff signatures

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley called Thursday for an independent investigation of Attorney General Bill Schuette, alleging his GOP gubernatorial rival broke the law when he used state staff as witnesses or notaries on private real estate documents.

“This is state staff, in state offices, on state time, and it apparently has happened on multiple occasions,” Calley said, referencing Virgin Islands real estate paperwork signed or notarized by Schuette staffers, including deed transfers on two properties his family sold for $1.8 million each.

The attorney general’s office has said signing the documents took staff only seconds or minutes during otherwise busy days, but “that doesn’t change the fact that it is illegal,” Calley told The Detroit News.

As The News reported Friday, records show six state employees signed as witnesses or notaries on at least four separate Schuette real estate documents.

The Michigan Ethics Act of 1973 requires that state officials and employees only use personal resources and property “in accordance with prescribed constitutional, statutory, and regulatory procedures and not for personal gain or benefit.” Violations are considered civil — not criminal — infractions punishable by fines.

Schuette’s campaign has accused Calley of numerous “falsehoods” in his public statements and recent television commercials, arguing that he is attacking because he is behind in the polls.

Spokesman John Sellek did not address Calley’s claims of illegality but fired back Thursday, referencing Calley’s previous accusation that Schuette has politicized a Flint water crisis investigation that produced charges against two top officials in the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“Brian Calley opposes the investigation into his own administration’s actions in the Flint water crisis where children were poisoned, but he favors investigating his political opponents so he can be governor,” Sellek said.

“Calley’s attempts to politicize our criminal justice system for his personal benefit is the reason why Michigan's sheriffs, prosecutors and cops stand with Bill Schuette, not Brian Calley.”

Calley said the using state staffers to sign real-estate documents is part of a “disturbing pattern of other abuses of taxpayer funded resources” by Schuette. He noted reports that the attorney general hired four experienced campaign operatives in his state office last year and had promoted his personal Twitter account on a government website until it was removed this week.

His call for an independent investigation comes one day after a pro-Calley super political action committee launched a new television ad calling on Schuette to resign, amping up a feud between the two Republicans that has been brewing for months. They’ve clashed on stage and in competing television ads.

“It’s obviously getting nastier and nastier, and we’ve got three months to go before the primary, so it could get a lot worse,” said former GOP state lawmaker Bill Ballenger of The Ballenger Report. “It’s understandable on Brian Calley’s part because he’s got to do something to tear Schuette down.”

Under current Michigan law, Schuette’s office would have to appoint an independent counsel to investigate itself. Calley has previously called for a new independent special prosecutor law and said he is supporting a new proposal from state Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren.

“If any other legislator had done these things, (Schuette) would have already opened up an investigation,” the 40-year-old Portland Republican said.

Calley said he does not oppose investigating the Flint water crisis. But if the state had an independent special prosecutor law at the time, he said, the state could have had a “an investigation free off the political influence.”

The lieutenant governor stopped short of agreeing with the super PAC ad suggesting Schuette should resign, saying “we need an independent investigation … before answering that question.”

Calley first criticized Schuette’s real estate deals last week during a forum with all seven Republican and Democratic candidates for governor. He accused the attorney general of “hypocrisy” for proposing new public disclosure rules while declining a request to voluntarily disclose his own assets.

Schuette had put some of his assets in a blind trust and used that as an “excuse” not to fill out a disclosure form, Calley said. The lieutenant governor filled out a form at the request of Bridge Magazine.

Andrea Bitely, an attorney general spokeswoman who signed as a witnesses on a Schuette quit deed claim in 2017, said last week it took less than two minutes. The office has people on staff who are notaries and have provided notarization services for their co-workers and colleagues on documents, she said Friday.

“As anyone who has a busy schedule knows, it can be a challenge to find a notary that is available when you are available and you have witnesses available,” Bitely said. Another employee “provided a 30-second or less service on a document that required a notary to sign.”

Schuette’s campaign said Friday the attorney general went “above and beyond” when he voluntarily created a blind trust upon taking office to avoid potential conflicts.

Schuette and his sisters inherited the Virgin Islands property when his step-father died, according to the campaign. It was never part of the blind trust because property does “not present a conflict of interest.

Records show Vircom LLC, which lists Schuette as its registered agent, sold four parcels of land in 2012 and 2013 for a combined $7.2 million. The earnings were split three ways between Schuette and his sisters, after associated fees and costs, his campaign said.

Calley’s criticism over the real estate transactions and state staffer signatures is unlikely to have a major impact on Republican primary voters, Ballenger said, but the drama “feeds into” a larger narrative that Schuette is a political opportunist.

It’s been a “tough stretch” for Schuette, but he’s withstood years of similar criticism from Democrats, Ballenger said.

If Schuette wins the nomination, “Democrats in the fall can just say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to take our word for it, look what Brian Calley said about Bill Schuette.’”