---- — LIVONIA (AP) — A high-ranking aide to a former Detroit-area congressman denied taking a bribe to sabotage petition signatures that kept his boss off the 2012 ballot, telling investigators last summer that Thaddeus McCotter was a "father figure," according to a transcript released Thursday.
Don Yowchuang, who was McCotter's deputy district director, incriminated himself in interviews with the attorney's general's office before being charged with conspiracy and other crimes in the campaign petition scandal. But he denied that he intentionally botched things to enrich himself and is not charged with taking a payoff.
Assistant Attorney General Richard Cunningham asked Yowchuang if someone had paid him to "wreck" McCotter's political career.
"I can tell you that it would take a hell of a lot more money than $20,000 to do that," Yowchuang replied, according to a transcript. "Because I still look at Thaddeus like a father figure. I told him about my wife being pregnant before I told my friends. I have talked to him about life issues. He has confided life issues to me. I mean, that's the type of relationship we have."
Transcripts of interviews with Yowchuang and McCotter's former district director, Paul Seewald, were released by the attorney general's office after being presented Thursday to a judge, who must decide whether the ex-staffers will stand trial.
McCotter, who served in Congress for nearly 10 years, didn't qualify for the August Republican primary because his staff turned in less than 1,000 valid petition signatures. The petitions were a mess — some pages were simply copies of other pages.
McCotter has not been charged with a crime, although Attorney General Bill Schuette said he was "asleep at the switch." McCotter abruptly quit public office in July.
In the transcript, Yowchuang admitted to state investigators that he made copies of petition signatures and then took the stack to the secretary of state's office last May to get McCotter in the August primary. He said he "panicked" and knew copies were illegal.
McCotter spoke publicly for the first time Thursday during brief court testimony. He was asked to recall the stunning developments that led to his exit from office.
"Problems is an understatement," McCotter said, referring to the petitions. "Photocopying. Duplicates. Obviously the lines didn't line up. ... Shocking, yes."
He said he repeatedly was told by staff that the petition effort, which is required for anyone running for Congress, was on track. In fact, McCotter said he urged his aides to scrutinize the petitions of a little-known Republican rival, Kerry Bentivolio, to try to bounce him from the ballot.
McCotter said Yowchuang, a "go-to guy" whom he has known since his time in the state Legislature, was in charge of filing enough names to run for a sixth term.
He said he learned that Seewald illegally signed petitions as if he were the person who collected signatures. But McCotter said he didn't know if his high school pal was involved in cutting and pasting.
"I'm waiting for the trier of fact to tell me what happened," said McCotter, who later declined to comment outside court when pursued by reporters.
The judge said he will announce Oct. 23 whether Seewald and Yowchuang go to trial on the conspiracy charge. He indicated there's already probable cause to put Yowchuang on trial for forgery.
Outside court, Seewald's attorney, Mark Mandell, accused the attorney general's office of being "overzealous" by filing felony charges. Yowchuang's attorney, Tim Dinan, said his client voluntarily explained what happened and was unfairly charged with crimes.
A similar conspiracy case is pending against another McCotter aide, Mary Turnbull, in Oakland County. A fourth aide, Lorianne O'Brady, last month pleaded no contest to falsely signing a petition as a circulator, a misdemeanor.