Aug. 3 2016 11:46 AM

Behind Dunnings’ plea: politics and rigged justice

Bernie Sanders is talking about income inequality when he growls that “the system is rigged,” but his complaint is just as valid for the “justice” system.

Tuesday's court hearing allowing former Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III to plead to a single prostitution-related misdemeanor and a common law charge of misconduct in office highlights a criminal justice system riddled with politics and favors.

The explosive prostitution charges against Dunnings, orchestrated by Attorney General Bill Schuette and Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth, and announced in March with Donald Trump-like fanfare, largely disappeared as the plea bargain process unfolded. The original pandering charge, based on Dunnings' luring a woman into prostitution, was a felony that carried a possible 20-year prison term. The plea transformed this crime into the common-law misconduct crime, with a maximum of just five years’ incarceration.

The episode raises two disturbing possibilities. One is that Schuette and Wriggelsworth vastly overstated Dunnings’ extracurricular sexual activities for a “Gotcha” event that they never really had the goods to prosecute. The other is that from the very beginning the fix was in and that larger political interest is best served by a compliant — make that, silenced — Dunnings.

Either way, a rigged system, not the way it works for you or me. No date has yet been set for sentencing. The plea hearing was in the Jackson County Court House.

The March 16 Schuette-Wriggelsworth news conference was a full-bore takedown of Dunnings and his illicit behavior. The charges were one count of prostitution/pandering, a felony (20 years in prison/no stated fine); 10 counts of Engaging in the Services of Prostitution, misdemeanors (93 days in jail/$500 fine per count); and four counts of Willful Neglect of Duty, a misdemeanor (1 year, $1,000 fine per count). He was charged in Ingham, Ionia and Clinton counties. The yearlong investigation leading to the charges was conducted by the Attorney General's Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Ingham County Sheriff's Department.

Characterizing Dunnings' criminal activities, Schuette stated that the county prosecutor “allegedly paid for commercial sex (engaging in prostitution) hundreds of times in three counties (Ingham, Clinton and Ionia) with multiple women, between 2010 and 2015. “Furthermore, evidence showed that Dunnings also allegedly induced a woman to become a prostitute who had not previously been one.”

It was all detailed in a packet of criminal complaints by Ingham County Detective/Sergeant Amber Kenny-Hinojosa, who flanked Schuette and Wriggelsworth during the press conference, and validated by Matthew Schneider and William Rollstin (a one-time candidate for Oakland County circuit judge) of the Attorney General’s Criminal Division.

With the fanfare and hype accompanying the Dunnings charges, one would expect that Schuette and Wriggelsworth would have a solid case. Apparently not.

For Schuette, taking down Dunnings provided another PR opportunity, another chance to burnish his law and order credentials in anticipation of a run for governor in 2018.

He larded the charging documents with campaign literature like praise of his human trafficking enforcement prosecution unit. “Human trafficking is a crime that puts people, in this case young women, into situations where they are endangered and where they are manipulated and brutalized,” Schuette said, adding that he has “made fighting this crime a priority.”

Rings sort of hollow, considering that Schuette cited hundreds of Dunnings’ commercial sex encounters in three counties and investigators detailed 10 very specific incidents. At plea time, all of it distilled into engaging the services of a prostitute and the common law misconduct.

For the Ingham County Sheriff's Department, the charges allowed it to get ahead of what has been a particularly embarrassing episode.

It wasn't until the federal government launched a human trafficking investigation in the Sheriff Department's backyard that it actively looked into Dunnings’ activities.

Wriggelsworth has acknowledged that his department had been hearing “chatter” about Dunnings for years. The feds' findings made it impossible to ignore the “chatter,” and the result was the billboard of charges that could have put Dunnings in prison for a decade, but won't. Schuette said Tuesday he will push for a sentence that includes prison.

For Dunnings, the plea deal is a relatively soft landing compared with what could have been. The agreement effectively eliminated potentially embarrassing disclosures that could have surfaced during discovery and a trial. After 20 years in office in the sensitive office of state capital prosecutor, Dunnings has heard the sort of chatter that Wriggelsworth chose to ignore.

“The system in Michigan is not rigged,” Schuette commented on the Dunnings deal. “We have one system of justice and the rules apply to all.”

Indeed. Just ask Dunnings.

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