James Neuhard, director of Michigan’s State Appellate Defender Office, resigned abruptly 16 months ago, the day after being confronted by his board with evidence that he was searching pornographic websites on his state-owned work computer — including some that raise concerns about whether the surfing crossed the line from improper to criminal.
Neuhard’s computer, logs and backup files were seized and preserved by staffers at the office, which represents indigent defendants in appellate cases, so they could be turned over to law enforcement. But that didn’t happen for another seven and a half months because of “personal tragedy” and other issues, staffers said.
That delay has caused a swirl of controversy, questions and anger, including from Chief Justice Robert Young of the state Supreme Court. He was “outraged” that it took so long to get the evidence into the hands of law enforcement, according to the court’s spokeswoman, Marcia McBrien.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the matter to see whether state charges are warranted. Federal investigators worked the case for four months before deciding that it did not meet the threshold for a federal charge and ceding the material to Wayne County.
Prosecutor Kym Worthy “was apprised of the allegations about a month and a half ago,” said her spokeswoman, Maria Miller. “There is nothing more that we are able to say because the matter is currently being investigated.”
Neuhard’s house was searched in late March. It is unknown what, if anything, was seized to join the materials impounded from his office in January 2011.
No charges have been filed, and Neuhard’s attorney Frank Eaman said his client is “completely cooperating” with officials, while hoping that the investigation will end without criminal action.
“I’m surprised it’s still going on, that people are still asking questions,” Eaman said.
The story of Neuhard’s fall and the laborious and hush-hush reaction by officials in and outside law enforcement is based on weeks of interviews and examination of documents prepared as part of the commission’s investigation and chronologies recounting it.
Distinction and disgrace
From his office on the 33rd floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit, Neuhard entered 2011 with a national reputation and a string of accolades earned during his 40-year tenure as director of the State Appellate Defender Office.
But his notable career — he was honored as a 2002 Champion of Justice by the State Bar of Michigan, was Michigan Lawyers’ Weekly Lawyer of the Year in 2009 and won the American Bar Association’s Clara Foltz Award for outstanding work in providing indigent defense services — was about to blow up.
On Jan. 3, 2011, staff members handed Donald Martin, then chairman of the Appellate Defender Commission, a package detailing Neuhard’s computer activity. The commission is charged with oversight of the defender office. The staff said that Neuhard “was spending a substantial amount of time on his office computer viewing pornographic websites,” according to a chronology prepared by John Nussbaumer, who was then a member of the office’s governing commission and who now heads the panel.
Neuhard was summoned to an emergency meeting the next day and shown evidence from his computer. In short order, he resigned, and his computer and related materials were taken by the staff and preserved for possible criminal investigation, according to commission officials.
Martin, a former Ingham County prosecutor, said he would look into the matter and contact law enforcement.
That investigation and others that followed have focused on Neuhard and no one else associated with the state-funded office formed 40 years ago to handle criminal appeals for indigent clients. The office has been a national leader in appellate issues and operations and is working on cases in connection with the now-closed Detroit police crime lab.
Delays and more delays
Within weeks of the January confrontation, Martin’s investigation ran aground when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He told no one on the commission of the illness that was to quickly overwhelm him. Likewise, he told no one that he hadn’t contacted law enforcement agencies about the Neuhard situation.
Nussbaumer said he didn’t know about Martin’s terminal illness and inaction until mid-June, when he was elected commission chairman and Martin confided in him. Martin died in January 2012.
Martin’s inaction was out of character for the former prosecutor, said Nussbaumer: “But for that illness, I can’t imagine him not going forward.”
Nussbaumer, associate dean of Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, agreed to take over the probe, but again, “personal tragedy” intervened, he said.
Nussbaumer said he “dived into this full bore. I wanted to familiarize myself with the facts and research the law.” As part of this preparation, he said, he met with the office and consulted with a former assistant U.S. attorney.
However, he said, his efforts, too, were sidetracked by illness. His mother-in-law died of cancer, and he was executor of her estate, he said.
Nussbaumer acknowledged delays and said the investigation is still alive in Worthy’s hands because of the office and commission: “There wasn’t any kind of cover-up.”
By the end of July, Nussbaumer was ready to call a special commission meeting for Aug. 15. The commission voted to hand the matter over to federal officials. Young, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, was briefed within days.
Young was irate about the delay in going to the cops, according to McBrien. Nussbaumer told the Free Press that some delays were attributable to the illnesses and attorneys’ training “to get the facts and research the law before taking action.”
Others familiar with the matter said such investigations often need “a deeper dive and longer analysis.”
In defense of the panel
The matters rested until late December 2011, according to Nussbaumer, when federal officials decided that the evidence “was not enough for their threshold” to bring charges.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade declined to comment, but on Jan. 6, 2012 — a year and three days since the governing commission learned of the pornography — Nussbaumer wrote to Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Ross asking him to turn the Neuhard material over to state authorities.
Nussbaumer said that he later met with Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor, who said she’d advise him if charges were going to be filed. She has yet to tell him.
Meanwhile, Neuhard’s home was searched on March 23. Neither the Prosecutor’s Office nor Neuhard’s lawyer would discuss the search or say whether anything was seized.
Nussbaumer said that despite the long time line, the appellate commission took the right steps to start the investigation and to keep it alive: The commission got Neuhard’s immediate resignation, preserved the potential evidence, contacted authorities and then got the matter shifted to state officials when federal authorities declined to prosecute.
He also lauded the appellate defender staff: “Actually, they did everything at some risk to themselves. They took on the king of the organization. This was one bad apple; this is not the organization.”
Contact Joe Swickard: 313-222-8769 or firstname.lastname@example.org
More Details: Chronology of the investigation into James Neuhard
• November 2010: The Michigan State Appellate Defender Office installs firewalls and monitoring systems for state-owned office computers.
• January 2011: Office staff reveals evidence that Director James Neuhard has visited pornographic websites. The governing commissioners confront Neuhard and he resigns, ending a 40-year career. Neuhard’s computer and related material are confiscated by office staff. Then-commission Chairman Donald Martin says he will handle the matter and contact law enforcement.
• February 2011: Martin is diagnosed with leukemia.
• June 2011: John Nussbaumer is elected commission chairman. Martin tells him about the leukemia and that he has not contacted authorities about Neuhard. Nussbaumer examines evidence and researches law.
• August 2011: Nussbaumer turns
material over to federal authorities. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young is outraged when he learns of the delay in contacting law enforcement.
• December 2011: Federal officials
decline the case, saying it doesn’t meet their threshold for a federal charge.
• January 2012: Evidence is turned over to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.
• March 2012: Neuhard’s home is searched.