Defenders uncover documents state fought to keep secret in Detroit demolition corruption case
Documents are part of FBI investigation into possible corruption
DETROIT – The Local 4 Defenders have obtained never-before-seen emails, letters and depositions that are now part of the FBI investigation into possible corruption in Detroit's demolition program.
The state of Michigan spent millions of dollars on an audit that suggests bid rigging and collusion was taking place in Detroit. State officials turned it over to the FBI, but went to court to keep it from the public.
Documents that the state fought hard to keep secret have now been ordered released by a judge. The documents offer inside confirmation of a major criminal investigation and who knew what and when.
Michigan officials spent $2.5 million to audit the city of Detroit's demolition program in 2016. Rather than release the findings, the state agency monitoring the program's funding fought hard in court to keep them a secret, but the secret is out now that the FBI is interviewing cooperating witnesses such as demolition contractor Tim Drakeford.
Drakeford, who has been suspended from doing demolition work due to questionable practices, met with federal agents three separate times in the corruption probe.
"Whatever you do in the darkness shall come to the light, and that is what is happening," Drakeford said. "It is all coming to fruition, full turn."
City and state officials said they are cooperating, but what they didn't do is make public the full audit that comes to the conclusion that evidence suggests bid rigging and collusion between the Detroit Land Bank and the Detroit Business Authority.
Activist Robert Davis first requested the audit in February 2017.
"I sent FOIA requests to the state, the city, the Land Bank and the Building Authority," Davis said. "All of them said no such document exists."
Davis sued, with taxpayers footing the bill for the state to fight turning over records. In December 2017, a judge ordered the release of meeting minutes that showed Mary Townley, who ran the state program monitoring federal money, met with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan about the audit findings, and that the mayor then went to Chicago to meet with the treasury department.
"What stuck out was the fact that the mayor was intimately involved once the MHA and the state authorities revealed there was criminal activity taking place in the Detroit demolition program," Davis said.
The Davis lawsuit also turned over a letter from Townley to the U.S. Treasury. It's dated Sept. 30, 2016, and says there is an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI, and that the investigation thus far has focused on the Detroit Land Bank and Detroit Building Authority, rather than the contractors.
In February 2018, the judge ordered depositions. Townley testified she met with the FBI on 10 occasions. Finally, the state gave up, still insisting the document was not a completed audit and not subject to release through the Freedom of Information Act, but turning it over to Davis.
"The audit report, which they said didn't exist, now exists," Davis said.
Here are some of the items included in the report:
- Dozens of examples of highly questionable billings.
- Invitation-only meetings for contractors to discuss pricing.
- Evidence of no-bid contracts.
- Admissions of concealing price manipulations.
- Inflating of invoices.
- Evidence of bid rigging and collusion.
Davis said he thinks the court battle to keep the audit secret was a conspiracy.
"They didn't want to release the audit report during the election in Detroit because they didn't want to hurt the mayor of the city of Detroit," Davis said. "That's what this whole thing is all about."
City officials said that's ridiculous. They said they didn't release the audit because they didn't have it, insisting they have been transparent about mistakes they've made -- the reimbursement of $6.37 million, plus $2.5 million in investigative costs and how new procedures are now in place.
They pointed out that the federal program has awarded more than $100 million since the corrections were made.
"It is what it is," Drakeford said. "I'm cooperating. You can't hide it."
Drakeford, a demolition contractor, said after three meetings with the FBI, he knows the criminal investigation is serious. He said he's happy to cooperate as a witness to make sure the demolition program is run fair and square in Detroit.
"You're not hiding anything from the FBI?" Local 4 Defender Kevin Dietz asked.
"No," Drakeford said. "If they want to come in here and get everything, they're more than welcome."
Although neither city nor state officials would go on camera for an interview, both provided lengthy written statements.
Here is a statement from Detroit city spokesperson John Roach:
"The City has been completely transparent with its demolition program and has fully cooperated with every state and federal inquiry into the program.
"All of the issues raised in the MHA audit were addressed and resolved a year ago and detailed in two press conferences conducted by Mayor Duggan. The Land Bank and the State agreed on a financial settlement over disputed billings to the State and there was no finding of wrongdoing on the part of the City or the Land Bank. Since these issues were settled, the US Treasury Department has released another $132 million to Detroit’s demolition program to allow it to continue its work.
"The City could not release the MHA audit after it was completed because it was never provided with a copy until just recently, after the MHA released it in response to a FOIA request. Once the City received a copy of the audit we released it upon request."
*NOTE: The city of Detroit says Tim Drakeford is an unreliable witness because he's now banned from the demolition program for questionable practices.
Here is a Q&A response from Katie Bach, spokeswoman for the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corporation:
How much did the audit cost?
"The independent investigation cost $2.5 million and was reimbursed to the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corporation (MHA) by the Detroit Land Bank Authority as part of a settlement reached in June 2017."
Why did you not make public the full audit when you received it in August 2016 or when it was requested under FOIA in February 2017?
"There was no final 'audit report' completed. The MHA retained outside counsel to conduct an investigation into the expenditures by the Detroit Land Bank. In meeting minutes, and other discussions the investigation was sometimes referred to colloquially as an 'audit' but there was never an 'audit report' created. MHA received two updates on the investigation: one was a claims summary sheet and the other was a point-in-time Power Point presentation. The information was shared with federal agencies, and discussions began with the Detroit Land Bank to address the issues that were identified in the investigation. There was no final 'audit report' and/or 'forensic audit report' created. Also, we consistently maintained an exemption to the FOIA request while our investigation was ongoing."
Why did you go to trial to fight Robert Davis’s request for its release?
"There has been no trial. Mr. Davis filed a five-count complaint in November 2017; one count was related to whether Article 9, Section 23 of the Michigan Constitution required public inspection of a 'forensic audit report.' It is MHA’s position that no 'forensic audit report' was created, thus it could not be provided. During the course of the lawsuit, Mr. Davis was provided the claims summary sheet, and the Power Point presentation. It is my understanding that he was also provided the claims summary sheet in June 2017 in response to a FOIA request. Despite having been provided the information that he purportedly sought, Mr. Davis still has not dismissed the claim related to the 'forensic audit report.' The parties agreed to dismiss another count in the lawsuit, and the four other counts are the subject of a motion for summary disposition, which is still pending. The substantive positions of MHA with respect to the claim related to the 'forensic audit report' are set forth in the briefing filed in the Michigan Court of Claims."
What approximately did that cost taxpayers?
"This is covered as part of MHA’s routine Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Attorney General’s office. The MOU is $150,538, and extends from Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2018. It covers court appearances and any other legal services, including the case with Mr. Davis."
What is your position on transparency in Government as it relates to fighting the release of the audit?
"While MHA is not subject to the Open Meetings Act, it has been subject to the FOIA since it was created by MSHDA to oversee the distribution of the Hardest Hit Funds in 2010. It follows the letter of the law when it comes to all FOIA requests.
"You have been quoted in the press that you do not believe there ever was any criminal activity in the Detroit demolition program yet your written communications clearly say you met with the FBI multiple times on this issue and that a criminal investigation is in progress – Can you explain the discrepancy and What is your current assessment of the investigation?
"MHA provides fiduciary oversight over all blight partners (like DLBA) using federal resources under the Hardest Hit Fund (HHF). MHA’s independent investigation of DLB was commissioned to find ineligible spending related to DLB’s administration of the HHF. Such investigation and findings require disclosure to federal enforcement agencies. We take that responsibility seriously and shared our findings as required. MHA is not responsible for making determinations and/or prosecuting any criminal wrongdoing."
How much money has the city paid back in total to date?
"As I mentioned previously, the Detroit Land Bank Authority has reimbursed MHA $6.37 million and paid an additional $2.5 million in investigation costs."
Copyright 2018 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.