Ex-prosecutor left a trail of red flags before ‘inappropriate relationship’ with victim
More than a year before ex-Assistant Attorney General Brian Kolodziej resigned for having an “inappropriate relationship” with a sexual assault victim in one of his cases, his previous employer, the Macomb County Prosecutor, moved him off the Child Protection and Sex Crimes unit.
That’s because there were serious concerns about Kolodziej being “flirtatious” with victims he represented, meeting with them alone, and repeatedly violating forensic interview protocol, according to Nicole Blank Becker, his former supervisor.
But apparently no one from Macomb County alerted the Michigan Attorney General’s office to those concerns when they hired Kolodziej for the prestigious job of prosecuting sex crimes at the state level, says former Attorney General Bill Schuette.
Now, the Michigan State Police are investigating Kolodziej for prosecutorial misconduct and criminal sexual conduct, after he had a relationship with Rachel Wilson, whose sexual assault case Kolodziej was prosecuting.
Speaking with Michigan Radio on Friday, Wilson said she wanted to put on the record “these exact words that I said to the detective: ‘Brian did not rape me. He did not rape me. But that does not mean that the Michigan State Police’s criminal investigation is not needed.’”
Asked if the relationship with Kolodziej was consensual, Wilson began crying. “I just don’t know how to answer that.”
Concerns about “really shady” behavior on sex crime cases
As head of the Child Protection and Sexual Crimes Unit at the Macomb County Prosecutor’s office, Nicole Blank Becker was Kolodziej’s supervisor in 2017. That’s around the time she became concerned, she says, about Kolodziej’s “really shady” handling of sexual assault cases.
“There was no proof of him sexually doing anything [with victims,] but there was flirtatious stuff that my victim advocates let me know about,” says Blank Becker. “He was not interviewing victims appropriately, based on forensic interviewing protocol. He was meeting with them alone.”
But that behavior wasn’t just inappropriate, she says - it could potentially threaten the credibility of their cases in court.
‘And what we learn in my unit, especially with children and other victims of this kind of crime, is there’s a special way you’re supposed to ask questions. You’re not supposed to be [asking] leading [questions.] You’re definitely not supposed to be reading an entire police report to them and saying, ‘Isn’t all this true?’ That’s clearly leading. Which is a problem.”
But Kolodziej didn’t handle that feedback well, Blank Becker recalls, describing his attitude as “my way is the best way.”
“He’d say things like, ‘Well, if you’re going to order me to do it that way, I guess I’ll have to do it.’ And he’d continue to do it his way.”
Eventually, Blank Becker says she brought her concerns to her boss, Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith. Smith agreed to remove him from her unit, she says. Michigan Radio obtained documents showing that by February 2018, Kolodziej had been moved to a unit handling district court cases.
Asked why Kolodziej wasn’t fired, Blank Becker says, “I don’t have the authority to do that.”
Concerns about Kolodziej didn’t come up when he was hired by the AG
Yet despite the transfer, by September 2018, Kolodziej’s career was on the rise: he was hired to prosecute sex crimes for then-Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
No one from Macomb County raised any red flags about Kholodziej during the hiring process, Schuette told Michigan Radio.
“If there was information that the Macomb County Prosecutor, or any other lawyer had that was not shared with the AG’s office, that’s a huge ethical flaw,” Schuette says. Among staffers, Kolodziej’s hire was a “unanimous decision,” Schuette recalls. “But if information wasn’t shared, that’s an ethical violation, if any lawyer knew of any situation that showed poor character or poor conduct.”
But Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith says no one from the AG’s office ever asked him for references.
“Two Assistant Prosecutor’s [sic] left my office around the same time for employment with the Attorney General’s Office,” Smith said in an emailed statement. “The first time I heard that they were leaving, was when they put in their notice, after they had already been hired. No one from Attorney General Schutte’s office contacted me or my office for additional information about the Assistant Prosecutors or to seek a reference.”
Smith says while his office is now reviewing all of Kolodziej’s cases, Kolodziej “worked in several different units” in his office, and the transfer out of the sex crimes unit wasn’t punitive.
“He was removed from the Child Protection Unit due to a conflict with the Chief of the Unit. He was NOT removed from the Unit as an act of discipline. The Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office has never received a complaint about Mr. Kolodziej while he worked as an Assistant Prosecutor.”
But Nicole Blank Becker, former chief of the Child Protection and Sex Crimes Unit, disagrees.
“That is a complete lie. As chief of the unit, I was told to go through [Kolodziej’s] files. And talk to him about issues that came up with regards to how he was handling his files, including how he was handling victims.
“And when [Smith] says it wasn’t an act of discipline, that was the only reason he was removed. It was an act of discipline. I mean, to get taken out of my unit? And my unit was Eric’s highest, most adored unit? It was discipline.”
Blank Becker left the Macomb County Prosecutor’s office last year to go into private practice as a defense attorney. She specializes in sexual assault cases, and is a member of R. Kelly’s defense team.
Kolodziej assigned to prosecute high-profile campus rape case
Kolodziej first met Rachel Wilson, the victim with whom he would later have an “intimate relationship,” soon after he got the job with the AG’s office in September 2018. His first big case was prosecuting Wilson’s alleged rapist.
In 2016, Wilson accused former Central Michigan University student body president Ian Elliott of assaulting her. The case was initially bound over for trial, but then-Interim Isabella County Prosecutor Robert Holmes dismissed the case before it went to trial in the spring of 2018.
In October 2018, Wilson gave an emotional interview to the student newspaper, Central Michigan Life, recounting her rape and accusing Holmes of victim-blaming.
That same month, Kholodziej and the AG’s office intervened, reinstating three criminal charges against Elliott. “Reinstating these charges is about justice for survivors of sexual assault and making sure that those that hurt others know the consequences of their actions,” then-Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a press release at the time.
A second victim, Landrea Blackmore, also came forward against Elliot. This summer, he pleaded no contest to one felony count of Third Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct. Both Wilson and Blackmore made victim impact statements in court last month.
Then, on September 5th, the Michigan State Police notified Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel they were investigating Kolodziej for prosecutorial misconduct and criminal sexual conduct. Kholodziej resigned, and admitted to having a relationship with Wilson from April through August of this year.
At a press conference Tuesday, Nessel called the news “incredibly disturbing.”
“I have never before even heard of a situation like this,” she told the media. “I've never heard of a prosecutor involved in this kind of relationship with a victim in a case, much less on a sexual assault case.”
Asked if they were aware Kolodziej had previously been removed from the sex crimes unit in Macomb County, a spokeswoman for Nessel sent this statement:
“A former employee in the Macomb County Prosecutor’s office reached out to us with similar information following our news conference. We were not aware of it prior to that and, as you know, Mr. Kolodziej was hired by the prior administration. We are conducting our own internal investigation into Mr. Kolodziej’s hiring and tenure here. As part of that investigation, we will evaluate whether there should be any changes to our hiring and background check process.”
Victim hopes this won’t take away their “little piece of justice”
Blackmore, the second victim in the Elliott case, says she was “completely shocked” to hear Kolodziej had a relationship with Wilson.
“I never felt uncomfortable with Brian,” Blackmore says, adding he was always accommodating of her husband being present for meetings about the case, both in person and on Skype. “So I never felt that he had crossed any lines with me. And so that wasn’t really a concern [I had] for Rachel as well.”
But Blackmore says she can understand how those lines get blurred for victims.
“Because it is confusing when you’re telling someone all of your most personal trauma. It’s confusing… there was a closeness, a bond. Once you share those details, you do feel especially vulnerable. And I’m very, very disappointed Brian would cross that line knowing how vulnerable we were. I’m so upset about it. I don’t know if I have all the words yet. I’m extremely, extremely disappointed that he would prey [on Rachel] like that.”
...I'm very, very disappointed Brian would cross that line knowing how vulnerable we were.
What matters now, Blackmore says, is ensuring Elliott’s conviction isn’t overturned because of the alleged prosecutorial misconduct. He’s currently serving a one-year sentence.
“I truly hope there’s nothing’s found [to suggest Kolodziej’s behavior interfered with or prejudiced their case.] So that we can kind of keep the little piece of justice we got… We all agreed to a plea. We were prepared to go to trial. And while this does make the situation a little more complex, I am still ready to go to trial, because Ian Elliott is a rapist and he needs to be in jail.”
Elliott’s defense attorney, Joe Barberi, told Michigan Radio on Tuesday he’ll be meeting with Attorney General Dana Nessel soon to discuss setting aside his client’s conviction.
“I’m planning to present...what Brian Kolodziej did to taint and change witness testimony, such that my client could never get a fair trial,” Barberi said. “I’m hoping she’ll do the right thing, and she’ll decide what justice requires in this case. I hope she decides that steps need to be taken to eliminate his conviction.”
Blackmore says considering that possibility is deeply upsetting, both for her and Wilson.
“We are having a really hard time,” she says. “Like seriously, to have a sentence and to think we were done with this. I think it’s worse than any of the court stuff has been thus far.”