Detroit — A former Detroit deputy police chief accused of pocketing a $3,000 bribe from Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore, lying to the FBI and failing a polygraph exam is expected to plead guilty next week, according to federal court records.
A surprise plea hearing for Celia Washington was announced Friday, one week after her lawyer filed secret FBI wiretap documents that indicate several previously undisclosed Metro Detroit public officials and politicians have drawn scrutiny from federal agents during a public corruption investigation that led to Washington’s indictment.
The FBI wiretap documents contain a list of “target subjects” that includes several public officials. Among them: Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans, two former state representatives and Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland. None of those officials have been charged in the federal probe.
The plea hearing is Tuesday in front of U.S. District Judge David Lawson in Detroit. Washington will plead to bribery conspiracy and could face up to two years in federal prison, said her defense lawyer, Arnold Reed.
A plea would make Washington the 14th person convicted in a wide-ranging corruption scandal that started in Macomb County and has since spread to Detroit. So far, 18 people have been charged with crimes related to the corruption investigation.
“She knows she made a mistake, and Ms. Washington wants to put this behind her,” Reed said.
Washington was accused of accepting bribes from Fiore to help with permits and circumvent rules that prohibit a towing company owner from having more than one company in each police district or towing rotation, the indictment says.
Washington insists she never influenced the towing rotation or tried to boost Fiore’s towing empire, Reed said.
“She told him, flat out, she wasn’t changing the towing rotation. She thought this guy was her friend, and it turns out, he wasn’t,” Reed said. “She knew why he was giving her the money. She didn’t have the power to influence the rotation. But when you’re a public official and you accept money from somebody and you know why they’re giving it to you, even if you didn’t do anything, you’re still guilty under the federal statute.”
Washington tried to return the money to Fiore, her lawyer said.
“He wouldn’t take it,” Reed said.
Plea negotiations were underway for weeks and were not influenced by the disclosure of FBI wiretap documents that were supposed to remain sealed in federal court, Reed said.
“Not at all, man,” Reed said. “That didn’t influence anything.”
Investigators amassed substantial evidence against Washington, including secret video recordings, a “significant number” of wiretaps, text messages and other evidence.
Washington, 57, of Detroit was indicted in October on federal conspiracy and bribery charges that carry penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison. She is free on bond.
According to the indictment, Washington pocketed bribes in exchange for helping Fiore grab a bigger piece of a towing industry that totaled more than $2 million a year.
She was indicted despite being given a chance to cooperate with investigators.
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 failing a polygraph test, according to the records.
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 also 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 five years imprisonment and a fine of $250,000. A sentencing date has been set for May 1.
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 a court 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.”