Lawyers, former employees of accused CMU grad decry university’s choice of investigator
Central Michigan University reacted Friday to criticism of its choice of an investigator in a sexual harassment case.
The university's decision is “mind-blowing,” said Tess Francke, who interned as a CMU student at the consulting firm whose links to CMU are under investigation.
When the university announced it had hired former federal prosecutor Matthew Schneider to investigate ties between CMU and T.J. Bucholz, a CMU alumnus and the owner of Vanguard Public Affairs, who is accused of sexual harassment by at least half a dozen former employees, the university’s news release touted Schneider’s “reputation for navigating complex and high-profile investigations” and “strong relationships in the fields of law, policy, politics, industry, energy, agriculture and business, as well as with industry, government leaders and judges.”
What CMU did not divulge is that Schneider went to high school with Bucholz.
The two men attended Frankenmuth High School at the same time in the late 1980s.
Schneider disclosed their high school connection to CMU, university spokesperson John Veilleux said.
“That two people had an awareness of one another does not create a conflict of interest. That they appeared in a yearbook does not create a conflict of interest,” Veilleux told WCMU News in an email.
But several women who have accused Bucholz of harassment, and two attorneys contacted by WCMU News, all said the appearance of a conflict of interest left them questioning the university’s decision to hire Schneider to investigate.
“If your goal is total independence and objectivity, then that’s not the best choice. Optics matter on something like this,” said Abby Clark, who worked for Bucholz at Vanguard from 2018 to 2019 and said he was an explosive boss who swung wildly between lavishing gifts on staff and publicly yelling at and berating them.
Schneider is “a white man of the same age cohort from the exact same place. Wouldn’t you want someone with just, like, a slightly different perspective?” Clark asked. “Could a woman do it? We’re half of people.”
Tess Francke, who interned under Bucholz at Vanguard in 2016, said the decision to hire Schneider was “just laughable.”
Francke says she was likely one of the first to report Bucholz’s behavior to a CMU faculty member, but she says her advisor dismissed the concerns and pushed her to finish her internship.
“My trust is shaken on all fronts with the university,” Francke said. “If they were wanting to earn some of that trust back from people like me, I would imagine they would pick someone a little safer, who doesn’t have any involvement.”
Francke, who graduated from CMU with a minor in public affairs and went on to start a career in public relations, wondered why the university would make a decision that carried the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“I’ve looked through a lot of these situations as a PR practitioner. How did they not think of how this might look?” she said.
The perception of a conflict of interest had attorneys concerned, as well.
Bob Hirshon, who teaches ethics at the University of Michigan Law School and has been a member of the American Bar Association’s committee on ethics and professional responsibility, said if he were advising the university, he might not be concerned about Schneider’s ability to perform an objective investigation, but he would be worried about the public perception of that ability.
“If you’re worried about any bad publicity, you might be better off starting with a clean slate,” Hirshon said.
"It’s a no-brainer," Mittleman said. "The optics are not good, and it’s wrong."
"There are probably hundreds, maybe thousands of other people that could do this [investigation],” he said. “Why not use one of them?"
Asked whether Schneider had considered how his hire could appear to the women who have alleged harassment, a spokesperson for Honigman, the law firm where Schneider works, referred questions back to Central Michigan University.
CMU spokesperson John Veilleux did not answer specific questions about why the university did not divulge the high school connection between Schneider and Bucholz, or whether CMU had considered the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Veilleux did say the men “were not friends” or “running buddies, and they did not hang out together.”
In addition, Veilleux said, “This investigation is not of T.J. Bucholz. The investigation is focused on whether any CMU staff or faculty members may have had any involvement in or were aware of the allegations at Vanguard Public Affairs.”
A possible upside of the scrutiny of Schneider and Bucholz’s shared past, said Abby Clark, is that it could push Schneider's investigation toward thoroughness and transparency.
“The attention to the connection probably raises the bar for him,” she said.
Central Michigan University's full statement on Matthew Schneider's high school connection with T.J. Bucholz is below:
CMU and Mr. Schneider’s law firm did its due diligence with regard to this matter.
Mr. Schneider is the former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan with impeccable credentials and unquestioned ethics. As a former United States Attorney, Mr. Schneider is well known in political circles in the state of Michigan and beyond. Vanguard Public Affairs operated in politics. That two people had an awareness of one another does not create a conflict of intertest [sic]. That they appeared in a yearbook does not create a conflict of interest.
Too, this investigation is not of TJ Bucholz. The investigation is focused on whether any CMU staff or faculty members may have had any involvement in or were aware of the allegations at Vanguard Public Affairs.
Mr. Schneider has been a state and federal prosecutor for a majority of his career. He has conducted investigations at all levels and has never been afraid of doing what’s right. Examples of this include indictments at the UAW, charging former prosecutors in Macomb and Ingham Counties and a host of other people that he has been acquainted with across his career.
He attended high school with Bucholz some 30 years ago, disclosed that information, and we considered the information fully. They were not friends, running buddies, and they did not hang out together.
Given his strong prosecutorial background, deep experience with investigations and unquestioned ethics, we believe that Mr. Schneider is precisely the right person to lead this independent investigation.