Nov. 10 2010 12:00 AM

What is the truth about former Michigan Gov. John Swainson?


It was 1969, and Lawrence Glazer had only been an attorney for six months when the Office of the Attorney General sent him to a parole hearing in Detroit for professional burglar John Whalen.

During the hearing, Whalen’s attorney asked that the Detroit police department be excluded from the hearing, alleging the department had leaks in its ranks.

On the stand, Whalen claimed he was an informant for the FBI and just along for the ride. He snitched on one of his partners. The FBI confirmed his role. Then, a month or two later, Whelan’s attorney was killed.

“I thought Whalen was a dead man,” Glazer said. “I called the State Police and told them what I knew.”

Fast forward to 2002. Glazer had retired after a successful career as an attorney general¸ an adviser to Gov. James Blanchard and a circuit court judge. He was asked to write an article about Gov. John Swainson for a local publication.

Swainson was a Michigan State senator, governor from 1962-64 and a Wayne County Circuit judge before becoming a Michigan Supreme Court justice in 1971.

It looked as if Swainson would be a candidate for U.S. Senate when, in 1975, claims from a prison inmate that he paid a bribe to Swainson for a favorable outcome on an appeal were made public. A grand jury was called, and Swainson was indicted on bribery charges. He was acquitted of the bribery charge, but convicted of perjury.

What ties these two cases together is John Whalen — the same man Glazer knew as a professional snitch.

As Glazer began writing the magazine article, the project grew.

“I had to know whether (Swainson) was corrupt or just got railroaded,” he said. "There was a lot more to John Swainson than people saw.”

Glazer decided to write a book about Swainson and interviewed 45 people involved with the case, as well as friends of Swainson. In addition, Glazer reviewed more than 10,000 pages of file documents, including a 2000-page transcript of the grand jury trial.

Glazer compares Swainson’s conviction to an airplane crash: “There was not just one cause; there was a confluence of causes.”

There was a burglar who would do and say anything to stay out of prison, a ruthless prosecutor, and then there was Swainson himself.

Although Swainson was faced with a prosecutor who was quoted as saying “I prosecute by terrorism,” he hired a civil attorney with no criminal experience.

That was part of his undoing. Glazer says that as a sitting judge Swainson did not respond to vile newspaper accounts and his testimony to the grand jury caught him in a “perjury trap” when he didn’t remember what happened at a particular time involving conversations with Whelan’s bailbondsman, the supposed bag man.

As Glazer dug deeper, using his own trial and legal experience, he made his own conclusions about whether Swainson was innocent or guilty, and that forms the basis of “Wounded Warrior,” recently published by the Michigan State University Press.

Glazer said the easiest part of the book was the exhaustive research while the actual writing was the most difficult. “I had to learn to write for regular people,” he said.

The author did find his legal training came in handy in writing what in essence became a dramatic true-crime book. “The rules of evidence and the unwritten rules of historical scholarship are basically the same.”

In the book, Glazer follows Swainson from his humble upbringing through his World War II combat experiences — including the loss of his legs in a land mine explosion on a French battlefield — to what can only be called his meteoric rise in politics. Glazer has opened a window into a fascinating but seemingly flawed politician he calls “a one-man social service agency.”

Glazer also found a man who was deeply influenced by his time in a rehabilitation hospital, where he interacted with injured black and Japanese-American soldiers. According to the author, Swainson was “shocked by other people in America whose advancement was limited.”

Swainson later appointed the first African-American to the Michigan Supreme Court and worked to bring an end to racial discrimination in state government hiring.

Later in life, Swainson became a student of Michigan history and was appointed to the Michigan Historical Commission and the Michigan Sesquicentennial Commission by Gov. Blanchard.

Glazer said Swainson was often quoted as saying “he wanted history to judge his record.”