Despite an ongoing lawsuit, it appears high-level staffers within Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office are still using personal e-mail during work hours, in possible violation of state law.
The Great Lakes Beacon has obtained an e-mail sent by Schuette’s Director of Public Affairs, Rusty Hills, from his personal Gmail account, sent during work hours after the attorney general held a press conference announcing new charges in his office’s Flint Water Crisis investigation, this time against Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, and the state’s Chief Medical Executive, Eden Wells, among others, for their alleged roles.
Hills, who has previously served as Schuette’s campaign manager, sent an e-mail on June 14th to “Interested Parties” roughly two hours after Schuette announced the charges in a press conference. And while Schuette has not yet declared himself a candidate of any sort, he is widely seen as a potential contender for the GOP’s gubernatorial race in 2018.
Though the content of the e-mail tracks Schuette’s Flint messaging, the fact that Hills appears to have used his personal Gmail account for the matter raises many questions: Who received the e-mail? Was it political or campaign-related? If so, why is Hills cultivating Schuette donors and/or campaign staff during work hours at taxpayer expense? And if the e-mail was about state business, why wasn’t a government e-mail account used?
State law requires that government e-mails be preserved, and campaign finance law prohibits state employees from doing political work at taxpayer expense.
Neither Hills himself nor Schuette spokesperson Andrea Bitely were immediately available for comment on the matter.
In the e-mail sent by Hills, he identifies himself in his official capacity as “Senior Advisor, Department of Attorney General” at the top of the memo and shows the e-mail being sent only to himself, likely meaning the true recipients were blind carbon-copied on the message in an effort to prevent that from being exposed. It boasts about Schuette’s investigative team, noting that Schuette “called upon the best of the best,” including “former Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Flood and Andrew Arena, former Special Agent in Charge of the Detroit Field Office of the FBI, to spearhead the investigation.”
It concludes, “The charge of this independent review is to determine what laws may have been violated in the course of the failure to deliver safe water to the citizens of Flint. And where laws have been broken, to hold individuals responsible.” It also includes a transcript of Schuette’s speech given to reporters earlier in the day.
Schuette is currently being sued by Progress Michigan in the Michigan Court of Claims for refusing to turn over personal e-mails used to conduct state business. The AG’s office rejected Progress Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act request, saying they did not possess the e-mails. However, the watchdog group has over a dozen examples of Schuette and his staffers using private e-mails to do their public work over a six-year period.
The lawsuit is not the first time Schuette has found himself in hot water over official e-mail use. In 2015, he used his official state account to communicate with a political fundraiser. He acknowledged as much, attributing what could otherwise be a campaign finance violation to a simple lapse of judgment while using an iPad at home.
The use of private e-mails for government communications been in the headlines over the past several years. Former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also faced criticism for her use of a private e-mail server for official communications, rather than official state department e-mail accounts maintained on federal servers, while serving as the nation’s secretary of state.
By Danielle Emerson
The Great Lakes Beacon will update this story as warranted. The text of the e-mail is below:
TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Rusty Hills, Senior Advisor, Department of Attorney General
DATE: June 14, 2017
RE: Legal Update
I am writing for the purpose of providing you with a brief update on the latest decisions and determinations made regarding the Flint Water Crisis investigation.
As you may know, in 2014 the City of Flint switched water sources to the Flint River without adding the proper anti-corrosive treatment. As a result, lead leached from the pipes, joints and fixtures into the water. Because of that, many of Flint’s children suffer from high blood lead levels. Moreover, numerous individuals have died from Legionnaires’ disease. To this day, even during the heat of summer, many residents of Flint refuse to drink water from their tap.
Composition of the Team
To investigate and prosecute what occurred in the Flint Water crisis, Attorney General Schuette called upon the best of the best. He named former Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Todd Flood and Andrew Arena, former Special Agent in Charge of the Detroit Field Office of the FBI, to spearhead the investigation. Both have extensive experience in public corruption cases.
In addition, Genesee County (Flint) Prosecutor David Leyton and retired Circuit Court Judge David Hoort have “peer-reviewed” the various charging documents.
Retired Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals William C. Whitbeck has also brought his considerable skills and powerful presence to this investigation.
Since the investigation began in January of 2016, the Attorney General has charged fifteen individuals with crimes related to the Flint Water crisis. As of today, there have been a total of 51 charges.
On Wednesday, June 14, 2017, the Attorney General charged five individuals with involuntary manslaughter, and a sixth individual was charged with obstruction of justice.
Investigation Moves into a New Phase
This marks the completion of this phase of the criminal investigation of the Flint Water Crisis. While continuing to aggressively pursue and gather new and compelling evidence, a significant focus of the Flint Water Crisis investigation will turn to the prosecution of those individuals who have been charged with crimes.
The Flint water crisis is a man-made disaster of significant proportions. The switch in water sources set off a chain of events that continues to unfold.
Citizens of Flint, including children, continue to suffer ill effects because of this switch. The response to the water crisis in Flint was characterized by a failure by certain public officials to protect the public health, safety and welfare. These are duties and responsibilities imposed by the constitution and the laws of the State of Michigan.
The charge of this independent review is to determine what laws may have been violated in the course of the failure to deliver safe water to the citizens of Flint. And where laws have been broken, to hold individuals responsible.
NOTE: Attached, please see a copy of remarks delivered at the June 14 news conference by Attorney General Bill Schuette, in which the Attorney General announces the latest charges in the Flint Water Crisis investigation.