July 27 2016 01:20 PM

Prosecutor candidates seek to move beyond Dunnings

In March of this year, long-time Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III was arrested on 15 prostitution-related charges. He resigned in disgrace July 2, leaving the post open for the first time in 20 years.
Left: O'Berry Right: O'Keefe

Interim Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer has concluded that officials in that office were unaware of Dunnings’ alleged activities. But she acknowledged the criminal investigation and prosecution prevented some staff from speaking to her.

On Tuesday, Ingham county voters will decide on one of four Democrats and one of two Republicans who will square off in November. The Democrat is likely to be elected.

Vying for the position are Democrats Thomas English, 60; Brian Jackson, 32; Patrick O’Keefe, 33; and Carol Siemon, 59. The Repubicans are Billie Jo O’Berry, 60, and Monica Stephens. All but Stephens sat down for interviews last week.

Of those interviewed, three said they did not believe staff or assistant prosecutors would have known about Dunnings’ alleged illegal activities. Jackson and O’Keefe both worked for Dunnings and have contacts in his office. They said that they had no reason to believe officials knew.

Left: Jackson Right: Siemon

“I have some cordial relationships with people, but at no point did any conversation come up, so all I would be able to do is speculate,” Jackson said.

He called the charges against Dunnings a “shock” and a “surprise.”

“I think that integrity is in the process of being restored by interim prosecutor Whitmer,” O’Keefe said. He also said he would not do an investigation.

Siemon said she agreed with Whitmer’s assessment and believed those employed in the office had been unfairly tarnished by the revelations.

But English said he’s not so sure.

“Should they have known?” He asked. “Absolutely. Attorneys are bound as officers of the court. In the dealings of a prosecutor’s office — dealing with informants, dealing with witnesses, dealing with these people — I find it difficult to believe that somebody didn’t know.”

Left: English Right: Stephens

He stopped short of pledging for a formal review and investigation, but said he expects if elected “the truth will come out” during interviews and conversations with staff as part of the transition.

O’Berry said she saw Dunnings’ appearance decline over the last year, but she chalked it up to “physical issues.” She said she believed that some in the Prosecutor’s Office would have known about Dunnings’ alleged activities or should have been concerned at least. She leaves her most vocal criticisms, however, for Ingham County Sheriff Gene Wrigglesworth, a Democrat, and his staff.

She said she has heard in neighborhoods that it was common knowledge that sex workers referred to Dunnings as their “friend.”

“That’s the responsibility of the Sheriff ’s Office to investigate rumors,” she said. “If that agency is not going to investigate, nobody did.”

Wrigglesworth has said his department was aware of “locker room talk” alleging Dunnings’ involvement with sex workers, but he was unable to verify any of those allegations for over a decade.

The candidates seek to oversee the agency that has a budget of just over $7.1 million and employs over 50 people. The office prosecutes crimes brought to it from 13 different local and state law enforcement agencies. It works closely with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and other federal agencies.

Whitmer’s review found Dunnings was often absent from the office. She reported that he did not use parking available under the Veteran’s Memorial Courthouse, either. She reported prosecutors seeking direction from him had to call his cellphone and that many long-time employees felt like he did not know who they were. He was, she concluded, an absentee manager.

The charges and arrest of Dunnings are not the first time the office of prosecutor has been the source of controversy. The last time Ingham County’s top law enforcement post was up for grabs was 20 years ago. The office under Donald Martin was in chaos and under the gun for prosecuting Dr. Gregory Messenger, a dermatologist from East Lansing, with the murder of his premature baby.

Messenger was found not guilty and in 1996, Martin, a Republican, lost a bid for re-election to a bow-tied attorney from a prominent family.

It was the rise of Stuart Dunnings III.

But 20 years later, Dunnings has resigned and the office is under a cloud once again. He weathered a controversy in which his office prosecuted and convicted the wrong man for a murder in 2006, which allowed serial killer Matthew Macon to continue a series of brutal rapes and murders through 2007.

All of the candidates seeking to succeed Dunnings said such controversial prosecution would not happen under their leadership, noting that they would “follow the evidence.”

For the candidates, justice is not “just trying to win,” as O’Keefe said, but finding solutions.

That’s why the candidates each support the specialty court systems in Ingham County. There is a special court for Veterans run out of East Lansing’s 54-B District Court; a drug court run out of the 55th District Court in Mason; and special juvenile justice initiatives in the juvenile court system — which are funded by a special juvenile justice millage which is up for renewal.

Underlying that support for those specialty courts is the idea of justice. The dictionary defines that as “just behavior or treatment,” but City Pulse asked the candidates how did they define justice.

Siemon said her definition grew out of a strong sense of social justice — protecting the weak, particularly children, in society.

“You treat people with dignity,” she said. To achieve that, you “listen and hear” what their concerns are.

O’Berry, the Republican, said justice “boiled down” to holding people accountable for their actions, while Democrat O’Keefe said justice was “being fair.”

“It’s to speak out and be an advocate for the crime victim and to be fair to the accused,” he said.

Jackson said justice was a matter of helping each party in a case “be the best that they can be.”

“It’s not necessarily a conviction, and it’s not necessarily letting somebody off the hook,” he said. “It’s rebuilding those relationships.”

The office of prosecutor is a potent one. It decides which laws are enforced and how. With the continuing controversy over medical marijuana dispensaries in Lansing, City Pulse asked the candidates their take.

English, Jackson, O’Keefe and Siemon all said they wanted to see the state act immediately to give guidance and clarity on a poorly written law. O’Berry said it is her belief the current dispensaries are operating illegally and she would support a move to investigate them and “enforce the law.”

Despite that pledge, O’Berry said at the end of the day, she believes in “personal freedom” and would therefore support a voter driven initiative to legalize marijuana.

But English, Jackson, O’Keefe and Siemon, were much more supportive of overall legalization, each immediately saying yes when asked if they supported it.

Neither Republican lists any endorsements on their websites. Jackson also does not list any endorsements on his website. English has been endorsed by retired Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel, who led the city’s probe into how the Lansing Board of Water & Light handled the 2013 ice storm crisis, and Ingham County Drain Commissioner Patrick Lindemann, a Democrat. O’Keefe counts among his supporters former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley and Lansing City Council President Judi Brown Clarke, while Siemon counts Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows among her supporters.

Those endorsements are not necessarily translating to campaign cash, however. Fundraiser and expense reports filed Monday show English and Siemon each have loaned their campaigns at least $30,000. O’Keefe loaned his campaign $4,305, while Jackson’s and Stephens’ campaigns list $1,400 loans from the respective candidate.

O’Berry loaned her campaign $3,195 but did not report it properly, said Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum.

Siemon, with her $30,000 loan, had the highest fund raising, reporting $46,317.43. She has $10,565 on hand. O’Keefe raised $39,576.32, with $4,393.59 cash on hand. English meanwhile reported $36,786.36, including a $32,272.27 loan, with a negative cash on hand of $27,142.80. Jackson reported $12,281 in funds raised, and $567.27 cash on hand.

On the GOP side, the funds are significantly lower. Stephens reported $5,225 in funds raised, with $2,313 cash on hand. O’Berry reported $5,356 in funds raised, with $1,863 cash on hand.

Those reports also revealed that 29 percent of Jackson’s funds came from out of state, mostly in donations of $100 or less. O’Keefe spent $27,8266 on consulting fees for Grassroots Midwest, which has been tied to the controversial mailings and robocalls in last year’s City Council elections. O’Keefe has said he was unaware of the organization’s history. The Democrat also took a $100 donation from Gov. Rick Snyder’s former chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore.

Of note in the GOP primary, Stephens accepted $4,711 in in-kind donations from the Rev. Ira Combs, a controversial antigay minister from Jackson.