Detroit – Former Detroit deputy police chief Celia Washington’s plea deal almost unraveled Tuesday when she waffled about pocketing a $3,000 bribe from Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore.
A normally routine plea hearing in federal court turned dramatic as a tearful Washington said she was only pleading guilty because she wanted to avoid the uncertainty of a trial and potentially lengthy prison sentence.
Washington insisted Fiore merely loaned her money and that she later realized that, in exchange, the towing mogul wanted her to help improve the fortunes of his towing empire.
“I can’t risk going to trial, I can’t risk a jury trying to reach into my head and determine my intent,” Washington, 57, told U.S. District Judge David Lawson. “I’m at risk of being away from my two kids for a very long time. I cannot afford, financially or emotionally, to go through with this.”
After Washington spoke, the judge said he could not accept her guilty plea.
“Part of pleading guilty is an acknowledgment of guilt,” the judge said.
Prosecutors and Washington’s lawyer, Arnold Reed, used an approximately 30-minute break to salvage the plea deal. When Washington returned to the courtroom, she admitted guilt.
“When Mr. Fiore gave me money, I realized soon after that, because of my position, he was trying to influence me,” Washington told the judge. “I did nothing to help Mr. Fiore.”
Washington could spend two years or more in federal prison during sentencing April 20 in federal court.
Washington is 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.
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.
Washington, a Detroit resident, was indicted in October on federal conspiracy and bribery charges that carried penalties of up to 10 years in federal prison. She pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy Tuesday, a five-year felony that carries up to a $250,000 fine.
“Former Deputy Police Chief Washington’s crime was a serious breach of the public’s trust. The public must have every confidence that its police force is free of corruption and bribery,” acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch said in a statement.
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 2015 until she resigned.
Fiore, 57, of Grosse Pointe Shores struck a plea deal with prosecutors two weeks ago. 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 is scheduled 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.
“Today’s guilty plea demonstrates the allure of financial gain, even if ill-begotten, sometimes overcomes the impulse to do what is right,” David Gelios, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, said in a statement. “It is our hope that the continued march of dishonest individuals before the Federal bench for their crimes will serve as a reminder to anyone who believes corrupt practices will go unpunished.”
Washington pleaded guilty more than a week after her lawyer inadvertently filed secret FBI wiretap documents that indicate several previously undisclosed Metro Detroit public officials and politicians have drawn scrutiny from federal agents during the corruption investigation.
Lawyers for several people on the list said federal prosecutors have since clarified that their clients are not targets. Those cleared include Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans and Assad Turfe, chief assistant to Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, their lawyers said Tuesday.
“It is unfortunate that Judge Evans has had to defend her integrity in the public forum and must reassure her constituents and her supporters that she has been cleared of any wrongdoing,” Evans’ lawyer Todd Perkins said in a statement Tuesday.
Turfe’s lawyer issued the following statement Tuesday:
“Consistent with his lifelong dedication to service of the public with uncompromising integrity, Mr. Turfe was disappointed to learn his name was listed in the investigative documents, but not surprised that the United States attorney’s office has confirmed that he is not a target and not a suspect in this investigation,” Turfe’s lawyer Brian Legghio said.