State attorney prosecuting Eric Smith attempted to show Friday by witness testimony that the troubled former prosecutor used donations to churches to help win the county favor for his re-election campaigns.
Assistant Attorney General Mike Frezza questioned Smith’s former chief of staff, Ben Liston, in court about donations of $ 500 to dozens of churches in Macomb County over several years using public funds from government funds. ‘an unofficial fund.
“Mr. Smith understood the importance of having pastors, priests, ministers, among a number of other people, and this witness had direct and long-standing contact with regard to the state of mind. of this defendant in relation to such actions, ”Frezza told the judge in response to Smith’s attorney, John Dakmak, opposing the line of questioning.
“Anyone who runs for office wants to have the churches behind them. They want to have the cops behind them, ”added Frezza.
Frezza said the donations demonstrated illegal activity by Smith.
“It is a tendency to show that he uses the money for personal purposes, not to improve law enforcement, not for the fight against drugs”, as required by law, he said. he declares.
Dakmak called Frezza’s statements “baseless guesswork” and vehemently denied that the spending was politically motivated.
Dakmak noted that church officials sent Smith thank you notes for the donations, often including in the notes, the money would go “to the needy, it will help the homeless, it will help health. mental, it will help those who are intoxicated. It had nothing to do with the countryside.
Dakmak also pointed out later during cross-examination that after Smith won the first election in 2004 against David Viviano, he encountered no serious opposition in his subsequent re-elections in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
Judge Cynthia Arvant allowed the testimony on a limited basis.
Liston, who said he played an “important role” in Smith’s election campaigns, said he and Smith had spoken of “spreading”, carried out by “keys”, as part of a campaign.
Describing the keys, Liston said, “This is something I have discussed with Eric Smith on a number of occasions.”
“If you reach out to them with a name and that name is associated with goodwill, it can translate into good word of mouth and possible association with a politician,” Liston said. “A good feeling about a candidate would lead to a good feeling in voting for that candidate.”
Liston, in response to a question from Frezza, also agreed that goodwill can be achieved through schools, with apparent reference to Smith buying an advertisement for the Chippewa Valley High School Yearbook and buying iPad mini for an elementary school attended by his children, both with dollars from the fund.
In another case, Smith pleaded guilty earlier this year in federal court to obstructing justice for trying to cover up his personal use of $ 70,000 in campaign funds. He is due to be sentenced on January 13 by US District Judge Linda Parker.
Liston was likely the last witness in Smith’s preliminary examination at Clinton Township District Court 41B over allegations he mis-spent thousands of public dollars on various illegal uses, including office parties and holidays, gifts for employees and a security system for his home, among others, over the seven years ending in 2018.
Lawyers are due to return to court on Jan.6 to argue before Arvant, who is to decide whether and on what charges to bind Smith and his co-accused Derek Miller to Macomb County Circuit Court for a possible trial.
Smith was indicted in March 2020 by State Attorney General Dana Nessel with 10 felonies, including racketeering, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, and five counts of embezzlement by a public official, punishable by up to 10 years, and resigned a few days later.
Liston testified in a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to three counts of willful negligence by a public official in a position of public trust and agreed to relinquish his license to ‘lawyer and pay nearly $ 16,000 in restitution, although he testified on Friday that he believes he only stole “half of that.”
“It was thousands of dollars,” he conceded.
He was originally charged with four counts: racketeering, embezzlement by a public official and misconduct by a public official, a felony of five years.
Liston, who retired in May 2018 October 2017 for the purchase of laptops and in May 2017 for the purchase of sound equipment. Liston is a musician.
Liston, who was educated at the Ivy-League and the University of Cambridge, appeared contrite and apologized during his testimony.
“I was not thinking and I made a terrible decision,” he said.
Liston started as a Deputy District Attorney in 1993 around the same time Smith joined the office in the same position, and they quickly became best friends. Smith appointed Liston as his leader when he took office in 2005.
Liston is married to Judge Suzanne Faunce of the 37th Warren District Court, who is a former deputy attorney for Macomb.
Liston recounted a phone call he received from his lawyer and friend, Dove Lustig, who testified Thursday about his and Smith’s anger over Liston’s expenses.
Liston admitted he was “on the defensive” and tried to justify computer hardware purchases as a work expense, overstating his intention to continue doing writing tasks for Smith.
While serving as Smith’s deputy for 13 years, Liston said he wrote “4,000 documents” for Smith, including speeches and press releases. He wrote the letter to the churches that accompanied the donations, he said.
He testified that Smith’s anger was justified.
Liston also testified that he was the one who came up with the idea to start the drunk driving confiscation charge in 2006, which became the main source of funding for the unofficial fund after learning about an account. similar to the Wayne County District Attorney’s Office. The fees, which were $ 900 or $ 1,800, were collected from motorists arrested for impaired driving in Macomb County. The other, smaller generators of money for the fund were drug confiscations, the Warren Drug Court and the return of bad checks.
The charges were stayed in 2020 by acting prosecutor Jean Cloud and eliminated this year by prosecutor Peter Lucido.
Although Liston helped create the pricing process, he said he had not been closely involved in operating the fund over the years. Yet as a high-level administrator, he regularly signed checks used to make payments for funds off the books, he said.
Liston testified that under Smith’s predecessor Carl Marlinga, office workers frequently visited their colleagues to ask for small donations for various gifts and outings for their colleagues.
“It got out of hand,” he said, and prompted him and Smith to adopt a “no-solicitation” policy in the office.
Smith instead used the unofficial fund to pay for these items, state officials said.
Liston described Smith as an “energetic manager”.
“He had full authority in the office, decisive, practical,” he said. “Sometimes he was micro-managed, but he cared deeply about how the office was run.”
Miller is Smith’s former COO and remains in office despite being on paid administrative leave. He is charged with misconduct in the performance of his duties and conspiring to commit an unlawful legal act, both punishable by up to five years in prison, for his alleged role in the law. modification of the identification numbers of four bank accounts that held a total of more than $ 200,000.
Also indicted is William Weber, owner of a security company in Mount Clemens whose four crimes were reduced to a misdemeanor in exchange for his testimony and the payment of nearly $ 24,000 in restitution for not having carried out a project. for the prosecutor’s office for which he was paid from the unofficial fund. Weber said he installed a $ 7,000 security system at Smith’s home, paid for from the fund.