Wayne County jail whistleblower lawsuit has fireworks

Renee Newell
Renee Newell

DETROIT – Where else but in Wayne County would you read a headline such as this: Strip club owner runs Internet porn site using county-issued computer.

Sadly, that REALLY DID happen inside the Wayne County Jail. Francis Sharrek, 46, of Farmington Hills, was acting as his own attorney in a tax evasion case and asked for the laptop to use in his defense. He was granted that laptop. The jailers never checked it because they claimed they were not allowed to see his legal work for his case.

Of course, Sharrek took the opportunity to continue making millions of dollars managing a growing cash business. The feds investigated and determined Wayne County Jail Administrator Jariel Heard approved the laptop for Sharrek.

Yet, during that investigation the Wayne County Jail Compliance officer Renee Newell -- the person responsible for making certain the myriad rules in place inside the jail -- ended up taking the fall. At least, that is her claim in a civil whistleblower lawsuit playing out at the City-County Courthouse this week. Newell says Heard fired her and said she was the person responsible for the Sharrek laptop disaster. But she claims he didn't fire her for the Sharrek laptop, he just used her as a scapegoat.

Newell claims he fired her for telling her superiors Heard was misappropriating/misusing county jail funds. She had a very specific allegation. She said Heard hired a young woman by the name of Tiffany Burgess to work in the Wayne County Jail. She reported that Burgess was being paid $45,000 a year out of the jail commissary fund. That is the profit the county derives from selling inmates candy, pop and sundries inside the jail. She believes Heard and Sheriff Benny Napoleon retaliated against her, firing her, for making the claim. She said she was merely doing her job and her firing was improper as well.

Napoleon has spent the week sitting at the defense table denying Newell's claims. His office would not speak with Local 4 about the case, but in court it is building a case to show Newell earned her firing and it had nothing to do with the Sharrek laptop or the reporting of alleged misappropriated funds. They brought audio tape into court today -- recordings from the Wayne County Jail's own inmate phone recording system -- and showed Newell broke jail rules on numerous occasions and the infractions were anything but small. Newell's brother, Bobby Dochey, was incarcerated in the Wayne County Jail during this timeframe. Jailhouse rules are very specific, stating that jail employees are not allowed under any circumstances to have any contact with family or friends. If a family member is in the jail it is supposed to be reported immediately.

Well, Newell did not report the fact her brother was in the jail. Furthermore, she ended up calling on the phone and speaking with him on at least half a dozen occasions. The recordings showed she knew she was not supposed to be speaking with her brother and worked with him to try and make it so her phone number would not show up in the caller I.D. system. She was only concerned with Dochey's well-being and was heard on the tapes wanting to act on her brother's behalf using her influence in the jail after a fight her brother had with another inmate.

This information was discovered by Wayne County Sheriff's Department Internal Affairs officer Alan Bulifant, who then questioned Newell about her conduct in the jail and contact with her brother. She lied -- the tapes of that internal affairs interview were played in court -- about having contact with her brother and trying to evade detection. While not a criminal offense, Bulifant believed it was a clear conflict of interest endangering the safety and security of inmates and jail personnel. In his opinion it was a fire-able offense. It was devastating testimony the jury in the case was clearly interested in hearing. It sat transfixed for two hours, delaying lunch at one point in order to listen to all the tapes Napoleon's attorneys had as evidence.

Still, as devastating as those tapes are to the lawsuit, there is still the question of whether Heard misused jailhouse funds. Newell's case notwithstanding, it is important to note that Local 4 reported on the way Heard and Napoleon operate the jail and its commissary last summer. A Wayne County Audit conducted Auditor General Willie Mayo showed there were serious problems with the financial controls in the jail, that indeed commissary funds were being used for purposes other than intended, clerks were taking cash for items when no cash was allowed to be used and the tab on this is incalculable because no one knows how much money went into or out of the program.

View: Jail Commissary Unit Audit Report
Read more: Auditor General's report: Wayne County Jail commissary money not spent appropriately

The lengthy audit report reads as if the commissary is operated like a country store with no one accountable for the money, leaving open the opportunity for abuse. Mayo himself is scheduled to appear on the stand when trial resumes next week. It is likely the fireworks could continue.

Oh and by the way, Sharrek is serving a 78-month sentence for tax evasion and bragged at the time that he was the first inmate ever to have a laptop in the jail.

One can only hope he is the last.

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