Back in the old days, when a politician got caught doing something questionable, we said “this doesn’t look good.”
Today, they say “the optics are terrible.”
Well, whatever your terms, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette didn’t do his image any favors during a candidates’ forum four days ago. Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, his main rival for the Republican nomination for governor, accused him of personally controlling the sale of millions in property he had inherited in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Calley also circulated documents showing that Schuette, who has said that he had placed all his assets in a blind trust, used members of his official staff to witness and notarize the documents transferring the property, apparently on state time.
You might think that’d be enough to raise the eyebrows of your average citizen, for whom how to sell spare resort property is never an issue. What’s worse is that the attorney general seemed to lie about it. When asked about Calley’s charges by reporters after the candidates’ forum, Schuette said, “I don’t even know what he’s talking about.”
According to the Gongwer News Service, Schuette was then asked if he had assets in the Virgin Islands, and said, “I’ll have to see what he is talking about, but it’s nonsense, it’s false.”
Well, it wasn’t false. Mr. Schuette is the registered agent of three LLCs – Limited Liability Companies – in the Virgin Islands.
He did realize $7.2 million dollars from selling Virgin Islands real estate during his first term in office, money his campaign said he split with his sisters, and the documents were indeed witnessed and notarized by department employees who did so on company time.
Once it was clear that this could no longer be denied, Schuette supporters went in to heavy damage control mode, which has consisted of A) making excuses and saying that B) Calley is worse. John Sellek, one of Schuette’s senior strategists, said the attorney general never lied at all. He said that Calley charged he was engaged in “offshore” transactions, and these Virgin Islands didn’t count as offshore because they are actually American territories.
I think that falls under the definition of “splitting hairs.”
Meanwhile, Schuette’s staff made excuses about signing the documents. Andrea Bitely, his press secretary, said finding a notary wasn’t always easy, and that it was easier to use the ones working for the department, and that it only took 30 seconds, et cetera.
And as for Schuette’s statement that “all my assets are placed in a blind trust,” campaign spokesman Sellek said, “Bill Schuette has not violated the spirit of the blind trust that he voluntarily created.” He can say that, but the dictionary says under a blind trust, the owner doesn’t know how the assets are managed.
Naturally, Schuette’s opponents jumped all over the story. State Senator Patrick Colbeck said it appeared that Schuette was “running a real estate practice out of the attorney general’s office.” Jim Hines said Schuette “not only failed to disclose, but he repeatedly lied.”
What we don’t yet know is how powerful this story will be with Republican primary voters. My guess is that it won’t cost Schuette the nomination.
But I am certain of this: Schuette has just handed the Democrats a great campaign commercial for the fall. And for him, the optics are terrible.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.