In virtually any other county, this scene would have been shocking.
Six Michigan State Police cars parked side-by-side in front of the Macomb County Administration Building in downtown Mount Clemens for a raid of the prosecutor’s office Wednesday That'sthe headquarters of Prosecutor Eric Smith, the county’s top lawman, who's under criminal investigation.
Welcome to Macomb County politics, where political corruption scandals are a dime a dozen – and sometimes connect to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars.
In public statements, Smith has essentially pleaded not guilty to allegations, based on hundreds of documents, that he misspent large sums from county financial accounts totaling $1.8 million. Essentially, the Macomb Township Democrat is accused of treating the money like a slush fund.
A few observations about Wednesday's intrigue:
- Why the need for six cop cars to raid a prosecutor’s office – certainly not a dangerous dealer’s drug den – located in a secured government building?
- After Smith had vowed to fully cooperate, why was a full crew of officers needed to gather up documents that might have amounted to no more than several boxes of material?
- How is it that the state police moved just a couple weeks after Attorney General Dana Nessel had turned over the investigation to the MSP? After all, Macomb County residents have grown accustomed to political corruption investigations that last for a year or two.
No information has been released by law enforcement officials about what was taken from the prosecutor’s office or how much material was seized in the raid. It’s also unclear if Smith was on hand when the raid took place.
Cash spent on parties, credit cards
First elected in 2004, the prosecutor faces accusations of violating state law by spending hundreds of thousands of county dollars on unspecified credit card purchases, cell phone bills, satellite TV service, furniture and refrigerators for the prosecutor’s staff, and lavish office parties.
In addition, hundreds of pages of financial documents recently made public show that Smith donated about $100,000 designated for crime-fighting activities to churches, schools and charities, such as the Kiwanis and Goodfellows.
All the money was supposed to be for law enforcement purposes since it was derived through asset forfeitures, which let police and prosecutors to seize cash and property from those arrested on drug offenses, and cars from repeat drunken driving offenders
Stacks of documents also show irregular expenditures that go far beyond credit cards and phone bills.
Hundreds of dollars were paid for flowers at a funeral. About $200 monthly was expended on “purified” bottled water for the prosecutor’s office. In 2014, Smith somehow spent $775 from the fund at a coffee shop in Ferndale called Capuccino Man. A year later, he dished out $780 at a cheesecake shop.
Wendesday's raid marks yet another black mark on Macomb County, with 22 government officials and contractors indicted for bribery or extortion charges in the past two years.
The latest embarrassment for the county came just 24 hours ago when a judge granted Dino Bucci, perhaps the most infamous among Macomb’s criminally charged officials, permission to travel to the Caribbean for a vacation with his son while awaiting trial.
The former County public works deputy commissioner and Macomb Township board member, Bucci faces numerous felony charges for bribery, extortion, fraud, theft and money laundering. But his case has been postponed five times since his 2017 federal indictments.
Hackel suggests abuse
As for Smith, his claims of innocence took a big hit when his close political ally, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a fellow Democrat, declined to provide cover. In February, Hackel called for a criminal investigation by the Attorney General’s Office after Smith had allegedly abused government funds. The county Board of Commissioners authorized a detailed, forensic audit over a 6-year period of Smith’s covert use of the asset forfeiture funds without full public disclosure.
The prosecutor responded by lashing out, demanding that county commissioners conduct a similar forensic audit of millions of dollars in contracts he said Hackel's office has handed out without "legislative oversight or approval."
In Smith’s case, there appears to be no evidence that he was tossing around cash to award his election campaign donors. Based on the recent track record, the prosecutor has absolutely no fear of a highly competitive re-election campaign – or at least he didn’t until now.
Instead, the evidence, at this early stage, suggests that Smith yearned for opportunities to dole out checks to local community groups, to establish a relationship as a powerful guy, but a good guy.
Maybe he craves adulation. Or simple admiration. It seems that perhaps he wanted to stake his claim as the Santa Claus of Macomb County.
We await the outcome of the investigation to determine if, in fact, he was Macomb’s Bad Santa.