County Commissioners Weigh Letter to Whitmer Regarding McDonough

The St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners weighed Wednesday whether to send a letter to Governor Gretchen Whitmer regarding Prosecutor John McDonough’s status. McDonough has been on paid leave since being arrested in a May drunk driving incident for which he will soon stand trial. He has been arrested twice since on bond violations. Wednesday’s conversation took place at an Executive Committee meeting, where agenda items for next week’s regular meeting were set.

Over the last four months, in light of his absence from work, which was an ongoing problem even prior to the drunk driving incident, as well as his position within criminal justice, many citizens have been publicly and privately calling for McDonough’s removal. In July, a group of citizens, including several elected officials, sent a letter to commissioners requesting they remove McDonough immediately.

In response to that letter, commissioners sought legal counsel, who advised them they did not have the authority under state statute to remove McDonough, since he holds an elected office and the commission thus did not appoint him. Instead, commissioners met late in July and invited McDonough to provide a status update on his position and his case. At that time, McDonough told commissioners he had been receiving medical treatment and expected to be back to work by September. Commission Chair Dennis Allen said commissioners were satisfied with McDonough’s report.

Both bond violations occurred since that report, one in August and one in September, and McDonough did not end up returning to work. The day before Wednesday’s meeting, in 3B District Court, McDonough pled guilty to one of his bond violations, accepting a plea deal in which the other bond violation charge was dropped. At least one of the violations stemmed from McDonough’s continued use of alcohol. 

At his plea hearing over the bond violations on Tuesday, McDonough’s attorney said he continues to receive treatment for alcoholism and is preparing to enter a daily support group. The judge presiding over the hearing said the courts would watch his progress in that treatment closely. McDonough still awaits trial on his original charges relating to the drunk driving incident.

In early August, McDonough faced fellow Republican David Marvin for the County Prosecutor’s position in the Michigan primary election. Despite his incumbency, McDonough lost to Marvin by a considerable margin. Since there are no Democratic or independent challengers for the seat, Marvin will be the presumptive winner in the November general election. McDonough’s last day as prosecutor will be December 31 of this year.

Meanwhile, citizens have continued to complain through social media and a variety of other channels, fueled further by the bond incidents. Several county commissioners said Wednesday they have been contacted by constituents on the matter, asking why McDonough is still on the payroll, or why he has not already been removed.

Allen said he met with County Administrator Teresa Doehring about a month ago, where the two came up with the idea of writing a letter with the input of legal counsel, since “commissioners don’t have the authority to address this in a meaningful capacity.” The proposed letter would outline the situation to Governor Whitmer and seek guidance on next steps. It would also go to Attorney General Dana Nessel, whose office has already been prosecuting McDonough on his drunk driving and bond violation charges.

Commissioner Allen Balog opposed the letter on Wednesday, alluding to an incident in which St. Joseph County 45th Circuit Court Judge James Noecker was removed from his position by the Michigan Supreme Court following an incident in 2003. Balog said the public official disobeyed court orders, driving under the influence of alcohol, when they crashed a vehicle and caused property damage before leaving the scene. McDonough’s case, Balog said, is identical, with the exception of the persons involved. 

“In (the earlier case), the board chose no action because it was outside of their authority. I believe that still holds true today. The Attorney General is certainly aware of the situation because they have offered charges and are doing the prosecution,” Balog said. “Why is he still being paid? Because the law says so.” 

Balog said McDonough is only accused and not convicted, and less than 13 weeks from the end of his term. In the primary election, “the voters said clearly what they want,” Balog said. The commission would be “asking the Governor what we can do. We know what we can do, so the apparent hope is that the Governor will fire him next week. I don’t see that happening.”

Balog said in his experience working in insurance, his job is to manage risk and consider how to keep things from going to court. “If we took this action,” he said, “we are allowing the current person to sue the board for discrimination. If this scenario should play out in the future, that board will have to send a letter to keep the same sequence. This would open up a giant can of worms” and not be necessary, Balog said.

Commissioners Kathy Pangle and Daniel Czajkowski expressed some support for Balog’s concerns. Czajkowski said, “can you imagine the chaos if the commission had the authority to terminate other elected officials?” Nevertheless, Pangle and Czajkowski also supported Allen, who said, “we let the election play out, but now two other things have happened.” There are still three months left in McDonough’s term, Allen said, “and I think we need to move forward with the letter and at least get the Governor’s opinion.”

Czajkowski said, “If I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid, but I want clarification from the attorney on possible ramifications.” Czajkowski said McDonough is “in survival mode right now,” with his future job prospects impacted, and “he may need his health insurance.” He said, “he’s probably in a real bad place. It’s just a sad, sad thing. We have a great deal of the population having all kinds of problems with different kinds of abuse. Alcohol, drugs, mental health. It just happens to be he is a well-known person in the community.” 

Speaking to that theme, Balog said, “If this were cancer, we would not be having this discussion. It is an illness,” and commissioners “should not put ourselves into the position of a potential lawsuit. The lawsuit could be frivolous, it could be thrown out, but we would still have to respond to it, when this could just go away in 13 weeks. We waited almost a decade, what’s another 13 weeks?” Pangle disagreed with Balog’s comparison, since McDonough is a high ranking official, and “cancer patients don’t usually break the law.”

Amid commissioners’ discussion, Doehring asked for guidance on whether to prepare a letter for a vote at next Tuesday’s meeting. Although Balog said he wanted the letter to include a vote tally for the governor to see who did and did not approve it, other commissioners supported moving forward with having Doehring draft a letter with input from legal counsel. Allen instructed her to have a letter prepared for next Tuesday.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.