Detroit — A former Detroit deputy police chief lied to the FBI about receiving $3,000 from Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore and was indicted after investigators said she failed a polygraph exam, according to sealed federal court records.
Celia Washington was indicted despite agreeing to cooperate with federal agents last summer and tell the truth about interactions with Fiore, according to records obtained by The Detroit News.
The documents, which were briefly unsealed in federal court, describe an envelope stuffed with cash, wiretapped phone conversations and how the high-ranking police official ended up being charged with taking a bribe in a widening public corruption scandal that started in Macomb County and spread to Detroit.
The investigative backstory is contained among sealed court filings from Washington’s lawyer, Arnold Reed, that includes a list of the FBI’s “target subjects” compiled amid the corruption investigation. The list includes Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans, Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland and former state Reps. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, D-Detroit, and Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods.
Washington met with FBI agents in June and signed a proffer agreement — a deal in which prosecutors would not use her words against her as long as she truthfully discussed her interactions with Fiore, a top target in the corruption investigation whose phone was being tapped by federal agents. Instead, the government claims Washington sabotaged the deal by lying and failing a polygraph test, according to the records.
“Getting indicted after a proffer isn’t all that rare, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office is being pretty aggressive in wanting to use her statements,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “They’re trying to box her out of testifying in her defense while using her words against her. (This is) a favorite tactic of the prosecution, and they’ll use her statements along with the wiretaps to show that she’s a liar, if they can get them into evidence.”
Washington was indicted in October on federal conspiracy and bribery charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison. Her lawyer wants the indictment dismissed and is trying to suppress evidence, including wiretapped conversations and polygraph results.
According to the indictment, Washington, 57, of Detroit, pocketed bribes in exchange for helping Fiore grab a bigger piece of a Detroit towing industry that totaled more than $2 million a year.
Washington resigned from the police department in June after police officials learned she was being investigated in an ongoing probe of Fiore, who for years owned several companies that towed vehicles for the city, sources told The Detroit News at the time. Washington was the attorney for the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, which made decisions about the city’s tow operations.
The indictment alleges a conspiracy involving Washington that ran from February 2016 until she resigned.
Fiore, 57, of Grosse Pointe Shores, struck a plea deal with prosecutors last week. He pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge that carries a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000. A sentencing date has been set for May 1.
Messages left with Fiore’s lawyer and the FBI weren’t immediately returned Wednesday night.
FBI agents investigating towing operations in Detroit approached Washington in June, the same month she resigned. By then, agents had listened to phone conversations between Washington and Fiore that investigators portray as showing the deputy chief looking out for the towing titan’s interests.
A transcript of one phone call in May 2016 was filed in federal court.
“Hello,” Fiore said.
“Hey, handsome,” Washington replied.
“Hey, ma’am,” Fiore said.
A year after the phone call, Washington agreed to cooperate and answer questions, Reed wrote in one court filing.
“The government claims that (Washington) breached the proffer agreement by making false and incomplete statements to the government during two interviews in June when she submitted to a polygraph exam, which the government also claims (Washington) failed,” Reed wrote.
In February 2016, Washington met the towing owner and requested money; that same month, she pocketed at least $3,000 from Fiore, according to the indictment.
The money was not a bribe, Reed said.
Washington told the FBI she had asked Fiore for an $800 loan, her attorney wrote in the filing.
“Fiore gave her an envelope, and when (Washington) got home, she realized that it contained $3,000,” Reed wrote.
Washington told FBI agents that more than a year later, she had $2,000 left in the envelope, according to her lawyer.
“When she got home (after the interview), she found out that she actually had $1,600, so she added $400 of her money to make up the difference, which she turned over to the FBI before taking a polygraph examination,” Reed wrote.
Then, Washington changed her story, her lawyer said.
“(Washington) later admitted that she actually added $1,000 of her own money to bring the total to $2,000,” Reed wrote.
During the polygraph, Washington denied receiving the money as a reward for helping Fiore with towing-related matters, according to the filing.
“The FBI immediately informed her that she failed the exam and that they believed she lied about her dealings with Fiore,” her lawyer wrote. “(Washington) has maintained all along that she did not accept anything of value as a reward for helping with any towing matters, and she did not make Fiore think she could do anything for him.”
Washington’s inconsistent statements to the FBI about the money are immaterial and insubstantial, Reed wrote.
“The FBI was not sent on a wild goose chase by (Washington’s) later truthful explanation about the money she received,” Reed wrote. “And the FBI still had the substantive information that Fiore gave (Washington) $3,000 instead of the $800 loan that she asked for. Fiore may have attempted to bribe (her), but (Washington) did not corruptly accept that loan for quid pro quo or promises that she could help him.”