LANSING, MICH. - Attorney General Bill Schuette is facing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for staffing his state-funded office with campaign operatives as he runs for governor and a liberal group has filed complaints with state and federal agencies alleging violations of laws intended to keep politics and government agencies separate.
The criticisms and complaints to oversight agencies follow an investigation of Schuette’s office staffing by the Detroit Free Press, first published Dec. 15.
The Free Press, using records obtained under Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, reported that in 2017, in advance of his September announcement that he is running for governor, Schuette hired as civil servants four "constituent relations representatives" who are all Republican activists or experienced GOP campaign operatives.
The state constitution and civil service rules prohibit hiring or firing employees based on partisan considerations, enshrining the idea that a professional state workforce based solely on merit should remain in place, regardless of what party or leader is in power.
Schuette's 2017 hires joined other highly politicized appointees and civil servants on his executive staff, all paid for by taxpayers. They include Schuette's driver, a political appointee who is paid more than $82,000 a year as a "special assistant" but doubles as Schuette's campaign treasurer, and two others with civil servant posts — a self-described "tea party organizer" and another constituent relations representative who was political director for Schuette's 2014 attorney general campaign and recently took a leave of absence to work full-time on his campaign for governor.
Schuette, the early front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, was unapologetic Dec. 6, when a reporter pointed out that his executive office representatives were Republican activists and Schuette supporters.
"They'd better be, or they're not going to be working for me," he said, before softening his answer under further questioning.
The Free Press found that Schuette also has used no-bid state contracts to pay more than $130,000 to two influential Republicans — one of whom has been active in the tea party movement that is important in winning a Republican primary.
The Lansing-based liberal group Progress Michigan on Wednesday mailed a complaint to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C., alleging violations of the U.S. Hatch Act, which prohibits campaign-related activities using federal government buildings and resources, spokesman Sam Inglot said Thursday.
Schuette's office is subject to the Hatch Act because it receives federal funds and Schuette may not "use his official authority to influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for office," says the complaint, signed by Progress Michigan Director Lonnie Scott.
Schuette is violating the Hatch Act "by hiring and contracting with his own political paid campaign staff, providing them with public jobs from which they are able to assist his nomination and election efforts," the complaint alleges. "This is political patronage at its worst, which the Hatch Act is intended to prevent."
Removal of an officeholder is the only penalty under the Hatch Act.
Also on Wednesday, Progress Michigan filed a campaign finance complaint with the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, alleging Schuette "has used his AG office funds like a political slush account, hiring GOP organizers and allies to public positions and handing out massive no-bid contracts to supporters."
The Michigan Campaign Finance Act provides for fines and/or jail time, depending on the severity of an offense.
Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitley earlier said that Schuette's executive office staff members were not hired for their political leanings and connections, but because they are "the best and the brightest."
On Thursday, Bitely dismissed the significance and motives behind the complaints and criticism.
"It’s not surprising that the political opponents of Attorney General Schuette are choosing to play political games and force the State of Michigan to expend state resources to further their highly politicized agenda," she said in an e-mail to the Free Press.
Before the Progress Michigan complaints were filed, both Republican and Democratic candidates seeking to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018 lashed out at Schuette over the Free Press report.
And on Friday, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican, called on Schuette to "move his campaign staff off the public payroll."
"Forcing taxpayers to subsidize any officeholder's political ambition is a clear and disturbing breach of the public’s trust,” Calley said in a news release.
“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.”
Stu Sandler, a Republican consultant backing Schuette, hit back at Calley on social media Friday, noting the lieutenant governor earned his master's degree in public administration from Harvard in 2015 by making weekly trips to Massachusetts while holding his current office.
"It's rich when (Calley) blows off his six-figure government salary to get a degree at Harvard and then lectures others about using a taxpayer funded position to further a political career," Sandler said on Twitter.
Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, said he and Schuette "have different approaches to managing staff paid for by state taxpayers."
"I explicitly told my staff not to participate in campaign-related activities," Colbeck said. "Mr. Schuette appears to use involvement in his campaign as a condition of employment.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shri Thanedar on Thursday joined Progress Michigan in calling for an investigation, saying he fears the lines between Schuette's office and campaign staff will become increasingly blurred over the next few months.
First, it should be determined whether Schuette is breaking existing state laws, he said. If the current laws aren't adequate, new legislation to prevent such overlap should quickly be passed by the Legislature, he said.
Earlier, former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, a candidate for governor, said she was "appalled" by the Free Press findings.
It appears about $900,000 in annual state salaries are being paid to political operatives in Schuette's office, Whitmer said.
"This is coming from a guy who has so heartily embraced the Trump tax shift on working families," but who at the same time is "wasting tax money" to promote his own political interests, Whitmer said.
"I don't think that this is typical," she said.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed said the Free Press findings were "pretty astounding."
"The irony of it is that he should probably be the state agency who is empowered to look into and eliminate" such practices, El-Sayed said. "There's really nobody to hold him accountable."
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.
© 2018 Detroit Free Press