Metro-Detroit is not unfamiliar with public corruption. At least once a year, but usually more often than that, a public corruption cases surfaces in Southeastern Michigan that involves a public official. Recent headlines have been focused on several public officials, including four from the Detroit City Council, three from the Detroit Police Department and three from Macomb County. These charges have surfaced over the last year or so, and have only driven the total number of public corruption cases that can be accounted for in the last four years. In total, there have been at least 32 public corruption charges since 2016 in Southeastern Michigan that involve either an elected official or a public employee. When including public contractors that number rises to about 40.
Most recently, investigations involve Detroit City Councilmembers Andre Spivey, Janee Ayers and Scott Benson. Last week, Andre Spivey pled guilty to federal bribery charges and admitted he and an aide received almost $36,000 in bribes. This case involving Spivey is connected to a larger investigation related to its towing operations. Ayers and Benson have not been charged with any crimes, however their homes have been raided in connection with this broad FBI investigation, according to news reports. The chief of staffs for Ayers and Benson are also included in this investigation but have not been charged. Since Ayers, Benson and their chief of staffs have not been charged with any crimes they were not included in the total number of regional corruption cases since 2016.
In addition to members of the Detroit City Council being investigated for possible crimes related to public corruption tied to City towing policies, so are three members of the Detroit Police Department. According to news reports from the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, at least three members of the Detroit Police Department are suspected of accepting bribes from towing industry figures; no charges have been filed so these unnamed individuals were also not included in the regional public figure count.
In addition, former Detroit Councilman Gabe Leland pled guilty to misconduct in office in May of 2021, and he resigned from City Council following the plea. Leland’s guilty plea stemmed from him being indicted on federal bribery charges and a felony misconduct in office charge for accepting $15,000 in cash and free car repairs in exchange for his vote on a land deal, according to the FBI. Leland admitted to accepting the cash when he pled guilty.
As corruption charges continue to surface in Detroit, public information from the FBI, news sources and local court documents shows that there have been at least 15 public corruption cases involving Detroit councilmembers or Detroit staffers; this number does not include contractors or business figures who have been involved in these corruption cases. In Wayne County (excluding Detroit), since 2016, there have been four public corruption charges. Wayne County, including Detroit, has the highest number of public corruption charges in the region, and the state, followed by Macomb County.
In Macomb County, the recent names making headlines for alleged public corruption are former Macomb County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Smith, former Macomb County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Ben Liston and suspended Macomb County Assistant Prosecutor Derek Miller. Miller recently asked for the misconduct in office and conspiracy to commit a legal in an illegal manner charges against him to be dropped. This request came because, according to news reports, Miller’s attorney claims there was no criminal intent with his interaction related to the larger case of alleged misuse of forfeiture funds by Smith. The charges still currently stand against Miller though, and Liston pled guilty to embezzlement charges for improper use of forfeiture funds in September of 2021. With this plea he is required to testify against Smith if requested to do so.
As for Smith, he pled guilty to a federal obstruction of justice charge for covering up theft from his campaign fund. While he pled guilting to this federal corruption charge in January of 2021, he has yet to be sentenced, in part because of his ongoing public corruption case with the State Attorney General’s Office. At the state level, Smith has been charged with five counts of embezzlement by a public official, one count conducting a federal enterprise, official misconduct in office, tampering with evidence in a civil proceeding, accessory after the fact to embezzlement by a public official and one count conspiracy to commit forgery, according to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office. Smith’s felony charges from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office are all in relation to alleged misuse of forfeiture funds. The initial charges against Smith were the state charges and occurred in March of 2020, and the federal charges came in September of 2020.
Since 2016 there have been 10 public officials from Macomb County, either the County organization itself or a municipality within its boundaries, who have been charged with alleged public corruption crimes. There are also cases tied to contractors and overall public corruption cases in Macomb County, that were not included in these counts. Many of the cases are related the Rizzo Environmental Services federal case that entangled elected officials, public employees and business figures who owned the business and worked with it.
No other county in the region or the state has had as many corruption cases the as Wayne and Macomb counties. Since 2016 there has been two public corruption cases in Oakland County and one in St. Clair County; no other county in the region has had any cases come to light.
Corruption cases have long riddled the Metro-Detroit region and in an upcoming post we will detail the ones that have been brought to the public eye since 2016. With more likely in the works, it is important to note that strong local journalism, citizen involvement in local government and an understanding of who is being elected can help reduce corruption cases. Of course, the fix is much more complicated than that, and this too will be explored at a later date.