July 6 2016 11:48 AM

How could Dunnings’ staffers, authorities not have known?

With Gretchen Whitmer the new county prosecutor and disgraced Stuart Dunnings III, “retired,” his sordid prostitution and coercion case enters a new and politically fraught phase for him and others, inside and outside of Ingham County's political establishment.

Whitmer wants to know who in the Prosecutor's Office knew about Dunnings’ reckless romps with prostitutes in three mid-Michigan counties. She says she's willing to fire those who knew about their boss's criminal escapades and did nothing.

If she's serious, heads will roll.

Presuming that the Ingham County Prosecutor's Office is even marginally competent, how is it possible that its dozens of lawyers deeply enmeshed in the region's crimes and courts knew nothing about Dunnings’ frequent visits with prostitutes?

Certainly he wasn't discreet.

At the time of his arrest in March, law enforcement officials said Dunnings had paid for sex hundreds of times between 2010 and 2015, solicited prostitutes using websites like Back Page and Escort Vault — sometimes three or four times a week — and was, in fact, videotaped by one of the prostitutes. The most serious charge is prostitution-pandering, a felony, alleging that he coerced a woman who came to him for help with a child custody case to have sex with him.

Yet, no one in the Prosecutor's Office knew about any of this. Seriously!

Certainly, informing on a politician as dishonest — and as powerful — as Dunnings was risky. Even hinting at his activities was likely to bring retribution. But prosecutors operate as the county's chief law enforcement officials. Their role and responsibilities are special. As is their mission. The department proclaims that it “reviews, authorizes and prosecutes violations of felony and misdemeanor criminal laws of the State of Michigan committed within Ingham County.”

Clearly, not all of them. Whitmer needs to put some hard questions to Dunnings’ second in command, Lisa Mc- Cormick. The Dunnings scandal tarnishes her reputation as a law enforcement official and manager. Were staff members willing to confide suspicions to McCormick? Did they trust that their conversations would be treated confidentially or was she perceived as Dunnings' stooge? Dunnings is blazing a trail of sex with prostitutes in her jurisdiction and she's unaware?

Of course, if the professional staff is so clueless that it didn't stumble across Dunnings' years of prostitution activities, Whitmer has another challenge – cleaning house, and thoroughly.

Then there's the Sheriff's Department, also apparently clueless about Dunnings.

Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wigglesworth acknowledged that there had been “chatter” over the years about Dunnings and prostitutes. He told the Lansing State Journal that the rumors started about 10 years ago. But no arrests.

Wrigglesworth's department, 155 sworn officers and civilians, has investigators, full policing powers, and a jail full of criminals that it can squeeze for information. There are plenty of prostitution arrests in the county, surely ample opportunity to question those in custody and follow up on leads.

That is, if you want to.

The entire Dunnings episode is enmeshed in mid-Michigan politics. There is the long standing relationship between Wrigglesworth, who has been county sheriff for 28 years and Dunnings, first elected in 1996.

Their departments are bookends in the law enforcement business — arrests and prosecution. One hand washes the other. Perhaps just a bit too cozy.

It wasn't until a federal government initiated a human trafficking investigation that Dunnings' activities merited attention from local law enforcement. The FBI provided information that prompted a year-long investigation that led to the arrest.

How embarrassing for the Sheriff’s Department that a team of investigators from outside the region, unfamiliar with the community and its criminals, were the ones to discover that the county's top law enforcement officer up to his neck, well, maybe not his neck, in prostitution-related crimes.

Dunnings has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanors and felony charge. Before his resignation, which happened officially on Friday, he had placed himself on medical leave, likely entering a sexual addiction treatment program. He did not attend a preliminary hearing last week in Jackson County where the criminal case is being handled to avoid conflicts with Ingham County agencies and officials.

The trial will be in Jackson — that is, if there's a trial.

In his 20 years as prosecutor, Dunnings has demonstrated that he relishes the “hardass” power that comes with the job. As prosecutor he had wide latitude in deciding how laws would be enforced in Ingham County, who got legal breaks and who didn't.

In short, he's in an ideal position to track the sins of powerful people — politicians, lobbyists, government officials, educators. Lansing isn't all that clean a city.

A plea bargain avoids a lot of messiness. It keeps a lot of secrets secret. It avoids raising the obvious questions about the failures of the Prosecutor's Office and the Sheriff's Department. Dunnings may not have much leverage as his case unfolds, but he has some. And no doubt plans to use it.