An offhand remark by Gretchen Whitmer is prompting a fresh round of attacks from gubernatorial rival Bill Schuette, who questions her 2016 appointment as interim Ingham County prosecutor and claims she wants to “kill” his criminal investigation into the Flint water scandal.
Lacking evidence and based almost entirely on innuendo and misdirection, the attack from Schuette, the Republican attorney general, is foul.
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Schuette’s campaign leveled the accusations in a press release Thursday, one day after his second and final debate against Whitmer.
“Democrat gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer admitted last night that she does not know criminal law, accidentally revealing her motive for trying to damage Bill Schuette’s Flint Water Crisis criminal prosecution and why she took the backroom deal to serve as the Ingham County Prosecutor: to beat Bill Schuette for governor,” the press release said.
The statement claimed Whitmer promises to “end the prosecution of those responsible for the poisoning and deaths in Flint,” an investigation initiated by Schuette.
Whitmer’s campaign denies each of the claims.
“This argument is absurd,” Zack Pohl, Whitmer’s spokesman, told Bridge in an email. “Schuette's campaign is desperate.”
Whitmer was interviewed after the debate and asked by a reporter from WDIV-TV 4 if Gov. Rick Snyder should be charged for his role in the Flint water crisis.
Here’s her full response:
“You know, I am going to stay focused on making sure that we expedite the pipes and replace bottled water for people. You know, I am not a criminal attorney that is going to weigh in on whether or not that is something that should happen or that could even be sustained — I don’t know. I know this: I’m not going to waste any more taxpayer dollars on - on lawsuits when we have a crisis that has not been under control.”
Schuette’s campaign argues Whitmer’s statement that she is “not a criminal attorney” is significant because the Democrat served a six-month stint as Ingham County prosecutor — a position she has highlighted in her campaign.
Reasonable people might disagree about whether Whitmer was the right choice to temporarily fill the position after her predecessor was charged with prostitution-related crimes.
But it was no secret Whitmer lacked criminal law experience before she was appointed to the job in May 2016, four months after Schuette opened his Flint investigation.
"No, I'm not a criminal attorney by trade, but I am an attorney," she told WILX-TV after being sworn in. “I've been on the front lines during tough debate in the Legislature on criminal issues. And so, I think I've got maybe a different kind of experience than we've seen, but maybe that's exactly what we need right now.”
Ingham County’s Circuit Court judges unanimously selected her over six other applicants. Chief Circuit Judge Janelle Lawless cited Whitmer’s leadership experience.
Schuette spokesman John Sellek and other Republicans have criticized Whitmer’s selection as secretive. Ronna Romney McDaniel, then-Michigan GOP chairwoman, called on Whitmer and Ingham County judges to release any correspondence concerning her selection, but Whitmer and Lawless said at the time none existed.
At the time, Whitmer was already a widely rumored candidate for governor, fueling GOP suspicions that she was padding her resume for the campaign trial. Some political pundits described the gig as politically useful.
So when Whitmer recently dodged that question about prosecuting Snyder over Flint? Schuette's campaign saw inconsistency — particularly as the Democrat runs ads touting her experience as a prosecutor.
“We contend if she feels she cannot comment on the legal basis of the Flint prosecution then she had no business being the actual prosecutor of a major county,” Sellek said.
As for the claim that Whitmer “tried to kill”— for purely political reasons — Schuette’s prosecutions of 15 state and local officials for their role in the Flint’s lead-in-water crisis and subsequent Legionnaires disease outbreak?
Sellek pointed to Whitmer’s public criticism of the prosecutions, saying they could taint potential jury pools. Among others, the state’s health director, Nick Lyon, and chief medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells, face charges for their roles in Flint’s lead exposure.
“While Whitmer portrays herself as wanting to help the people of Flint, repeatedly attacking the prosecutor/prosecution is something that typically is only done by defense attorneys and those interested beating the prosecutor in court—killing the case,” Sellek told Bridge.
Whitmer criticized the investigation in January 2017, weeks after Schuette filed his third round of charges against state and Flint health and environmental workers, but well before the highest-profile charges against Wells and Lyon.
“I don’t have any confidence in the charges they have brought and the case they have made,” Whitmer told Lansing’s City Pulse.
And in more recent weeks, Whitmer’s campaign has attacked other aspects of Schuette’s performance in Flint, making claims Truth Squad has labeled “misleading.”
Could such public statements influence any future jury pools? Hypothetically.
But the investigation has been controversial from the start, and Schuette’s camp offers no proof that Whitmer’s criticism is solely motivated by politics or a desire to upend the case.
Nor is it clear Whitmer would end the Flint prosecutions.
Sellek pointed to the brief interview after the debate, telling Bridge you “can’t get more direct than that.”
But her actual statement isn’t direct at all. Whitmer declines to say whether Snyder should be charged in relation to the Flint saga and later says “I’m not going to waste any more taxpayer dollars on - on lawsuits when we have a crisis that has not been under control.”
Whitmer was responding to a question about Snyder, not the Flint prosecution as a whole. So it’s a leap to see the comment as a promise to halt Schuette’s ongoing prosecutions.
Pohl, Whitmer’s spokesman, denied that Whitmer made such a broad promise, though he did not specify to Bridge which lawsuits she was referring to in the interview.
“First and foremost, Sen. Whitmer wants the people of Flint to have clean drinking water, and it will be a top priority for her administration,” he said.
Schuette’s attempt to use Whitmer’s brief interview against her is foul, because it is based almost solely on conjecture.
Schuette may have stood on steadier ground had he focused more narrowly on Whitmer’s prosecuting credentials and how she describes that experience on the campaign trail. But he went much farther.
He argued Whitmer promised on tape to end the Flint prosecutions when she did not, and Schuette exaggerated the effects of Whitmer's criticism of his Flint prosecution on the campaign trail — while speculating about her motives.
In criticizing the Flint case, Whitmer is one voice in a bipartisan chorus questioning the prosecutions. It's not a clear case of jury-tainting.
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