LANSING, MI – Few people were paying much attention to something called coronavirus back in late February. The head of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was cautioning people to wash their hands and stay home if they were sick, but saying that “the current risk of COVID-19 in the United States is low.”
However, Dana Nessel, Michigan’s exuberantly active attorney general, already had a hunch that unscrupulous vultures would be trying to take advantage of people worried about the disease.
Long before the first confirmed case in Michigan, she issued a statewide warning against scam artists.
“This is the perfect example of criminals preying on people’s fears,” she said. “Ignore online offers for vaccinations. Don’t give a single piece of personal information to anyone reaching out to you regarding coronavirus.”
Sure enough, within days, reports surfaced that a retailer in west Michigan was selling individual paper face masks packaged in plastic bags of $10 each. An assistant attorney general was sent to talk to the seller, and Nessel announced, “those who think they can profit off the rising fears about coronavirus need to think again.”
“The Michigan Consumer Protection Act makes price-gouging illegal,” she added. “It also gives our office tools it can use against profiteers who fuel panic by manipulating prices and supplies.”
Moving to confront that issue before it had barely gotten started was typical for Nessel, who was elected Michigan’s top attorney in November, 2018 after winning the Democratic nomination in something of an upset. She had been an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and then an attorney in private practice before.
Now 50, she won statewide notice nearly a decade ago when she first challenged a state law that said same-sex couples couldn’t adopt children, and then broadened her suit to challenge the law against same-sex marriage. She won on both grounds, and that case helped lead to the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015.
She is open about being an activist and a crusader for consumer concerns. In an interview a few days before coronavirus came to Michigan, she indicated that she sees her job differently than had most of those who held the job before her.
“I intend to use my office – use my capacity to protect and defend the people of our state, not just state government,” she told me. Many previous attorneys generals saw their job as primarily reactive, she said, and mainly about protecting elected officials.
She doesn’t. “I want to return the office of attorney general to what it was under Frank Kelley,” a crusader for consumer protection and environmental justice who held the job for a record 37 years.
“I decided to make the office much more proactive than it was,” she said, and she has done her best to live up to that promise.
Much of what she has done hasn’t set well with Republicans, who still hold majorities in the legislature. For a time, they threatened to severely cut her budget, though they backed off.
Meanwhile, Nessel has been busily reorganizing the nearly 300 assistant attorneys general who work for her, adding branch offices in Marquette and in battered Flint.
She also added criminal prosecutors to the attorney general’s environmental division, and has reorganized the office and created a number of other new divisions, including a new one for Criminal Trials and Appeals, announced just last week.
How did she afford the new initiatives? “My predecessor Bill Schuette had a bunch of ‘community outreach coordinators’ who I suspect were just there to further his plans to run for governor.” Eliminating them freed resources, she said.
Perhaps the most controversial issue she has faced so far involves Line 5, the twin oil-carrying pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac. Nessel ran for office vowing to move immediately to shut down the pipelines which environmentalists see as a major hazard to the Great Lakes. So far, she has been largely thwarted.
In his last days in office, outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder set up a new Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority that would be charged with overseeing encasing the 67-year-old pipelines in a concrete tunnel, with the cost to be borne by Enbridge, the multi-national Canadian-based firm that owns the pipeline. Nessel declared the law establishing the authority unconstitutional, but the Michigan Court of Claims subsequently ruled that she was wrong.
The corridor authority has now hired contractors to beginning building the tunnel, but Nessel says the fight is far from over.
“I’d take issue with anyone saying I’ve been thwarted. There are actually two lawsuits. The Court of Claims said it was constitutional – I say it isn’t – and the Court of Appeals hasn’t ruled on it yet,” and beyond that may come more appeals.
“So there are at least two courts left to go, and there is another lawsuit that I’ve filed in Ingham Circuit Court,” seeking to decommission the pipeline. “That hasn’t even gotten started yet.”
She thinks both lawsuits will wind up before the Michigan Supreme Court – and is convinced more than ever that the pipeline needs to be shut down. “I see it as one of the biggest threats we have to our way of life in Michigan. It could cause the biggest oil spill in human history,” one that would destroy the Great Lakes.
Nessel said she has no trust in Enbridge, which caused a devastating oil spill near the Kalamazoo River in 2010. “Not a month goes by that they are not caught in some egregious lie. They have proven they cannot be trusted.”
Dana Nessel knows she couldn’t possibly match the record of her role model, Frank Kelley; state law now only allows her to serve a maximum of two four-year terms as attorney general.
The last three attorneys general all went on to run for governor. Might she do the same? The answer, she says, is an unequivocal NO.
“I have a lot of respect for Governor (Gretchen) Whitmer, but I look at what she does and think “Boy, that seems like a miserable job to have!” she said, indicating she isn’t thinking beyond hoping voters will reelect her attorney general in 2022.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.