Detroit demolition subpoenas target dozens of officials

Ian Thibodeau

Detroit — The scope of a criminal probe by federal investigators into the city’s demolition program covers text messages, voicemails, emails, phone records, meeting notes and schedules of city officials and targets more than two dozen employees, according to subpoena documents released Friday.

In two subpoenas issued in May, the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program demanded the Detroit Land Bank Authority and Detroit Building Authority, which oversee the city’s blight reduction program, hand over information on federally funded contracts and several demolition contractors.

One federal subpoena requested all voicemail messages, telephone records meeting notes and schedules from 14 Detroit Land Bank employees — including Detroit Land Bank Executive Director Carrie Lewand-Monroe — that involve Detroit-based Adamo Demolition Co. and West Bloomfield Township contractor Barry Ellentuck, who was acquitted of attempted fraud charges involving Detroit demolition inspections. Ellentuck is also suing city officials for malicious prosecution and defamation.

The other subpoena requested from 18 Detroit Building Authority employees emails and text messages pertaining the similar topics, in addition to voicemail messages, telephone records meeting notes and schedules. Brian Farkas, building authority director of special projects compliance, is named in that subpoena.

Farkas declined to comment on the subpoena when reached by phone Friday.

The document requests covered demolition contracts for the federal Hardest Hit Fund, which has provided more than $258 million to help the city of Detroit tear down abandoned houses and buildings in the past three years. The city has taken down 10,704 structures since 2014.

Earlier in December, a Wayne County Circuit judge ordered the subpoenas be released after a months-long legal battle. The federal government did not want to release the records because, officials argued, it would interfere with an ongoing investigation into the city’s demolition program.

The battle stems from the efforts of a government watchdog group headed by Robert Davis. The group asked the court to compel the release of the document after the land bank this summer rejected a Freedom of Information Act request Davis filed to obtain copies of subpoenas received by the land bank, its attorneys, contractors and others from the FBI and the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program about Detroit demolition contracts or its program.

SIGTARP had no comment Friday on the release of the subpoena.

Reached by phone Friday, Davis said the subpoenas show the federal government is “truly launching an investigation that is truly a very far-reaching investigation.”

Craig Fahle, spokesman for the Detroit Land Bank, said in a statement that the land bank “withheld the subpoena based on the ongoing nature of the investigation,” but released the subpoenas following the court’s December ruling.

According to documents released Friday by the Detroit Land Bank, investigators subpoenaed the Detroit Building Authority for emails sent or received from January 2014 to the present by those within the department pertaining to demolition contracts, Adamo Demolition Co., Ellentuck, and other companies and entities associated with Detroit’s demolition program.

An attorney for Adamo could not be immediately reached on Friday, but has previously confirmed the company had received and fully complied with a subpoena it received from SIGTARP related to its contract with the land bank for the federal hardest hit program.

The building authority was also subpoenaed for text messages, voicemails and phone records to or from employees with the building authority and demolition contractors and consulting companies. The federal government demanded meeting minutes and notes related to the demolition contracts, and calendars and appointment logs involving employees and contractors.

The feds did not subpoena emails from the Detroit Land Bank Authority, only telephone calls and messages, meetings minutes and notes and calendars and appointment logs.

Ellentuck is mentioned several times in both subpoenas. He went on trial earlier this year for attempted fraud between $1,000 and $20,000 involving demolition inspection billings. After a week of testimony — including hearing Ellentuck’s secretly taped conversations with his accuser — a jury acquitted Ellentuck.

In September, he sued nine people — including Mayor Mike Duggan’s Chief Of Staff Alexis Wiley — for malicious prosecution and defamation. Ellentuck’s company, ADR Consultants, was contracted by the state of Michigan to provide blight demolition management, oversight and inspections around Michigan, primarily in the Detroit area.

Paul Sugameli, a Troy-based attorney representing Ellentuck, had no comment on the subpoenas released Friday.

The Duggan administration’s program came under scrutiny last fall amid concerns over soaring costs and bidding practices. Detroit officials have defended the program, and say they are cooperating fully with all investigations.

Detroit’s auditor general and one of the city’s largest demolition contractors, Adamo Group, also have confirmed they received subpoenas from the special inspector general related to the demolition program.

In May, the FBI’s Detroit office acknowledged it’s investigating the program.

Duggan also revealed this fall that the U.S. Treasury Department had prohibited the use of federal Hardest Hit Funds for demolitions for two months beginning in August after a probe conducted by the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corp., in conjunction with Michigan State Housing Development Authority, turned up questions over “certain prior transactions” and indicated specific controls needed to be strengthened.

A separate independent audit commissioned this summer by the land bank found excessive demolition costs were hidden by spreading them over hundreds of properties so it appeared no demolition exceeded cost limits set by the state.

The audit turned up mistakes over a nine-month period between June 2015 and February, including inadequate record keeping, bid mistakes and about $1 million improperly billed to the state.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Staff writer Christine Ferretti contributed.