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250K pages of documents turned over in demo probe

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city’s building authority and land bank have turned over more than 250,000 pages of emails and attachments to the federal authorities conducting a criminal investigation into Detroit’s demolition program, a Freedom of Information Act request reveals.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority and Detroit Building Authority, which oversee the city’s federally funded demolition programs, received subpoenas in May from the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program seeking documents from more than two dozen employees. The requests pertained to federally funded demolition contracts and numerous contractors.

The land bank and building authority are being looked at in the federal probe, one of several ongoing federal, state and local reviews of the program that’s taken down nearly 11,000 blighted properties since spring of 2014.

In response to The Detroit News’ request for the documents turned over under the subpoenas, the FOIA response notes 54,716 emails and 31,409 attachments were turned over. The land bank would fulfill the request at a cost of $47,075. And, it would take at least 538 business days for staff to separate exempt from non-exempt information, the Wednesday FOIA response notes.

On Thursday, Craig Fahle, a spokesman for the land bank, reiterated the authority’s cooperation with the probe.

“Since the beginning of this investigation, the Detroit land bank has pledged its full cooperation and to be fully transparent with the investigation,” he said. “Giving over records is a part of that. This is what cooperation looks like and we will continue to cooperate.”

The News requested copies of the documents earlier this month after officials publicly released copies of the two subpoenas in December that covered text messages, voicemails, emails, phone records, meeting notes and schedules of current and former employees.

One of the federal subpoenas requested all voicemail messages, telephone records meeting notes and schedules from 14 Detroit Land Bank employees.

The other asked for emails and text messages pertaining to similar topics from 18 Detroit Building Authority employees, in addition to voicemail messages, telephone records, meeting notes and schedules.

The document requests covered demolition contracts for the federal Hardest Hit Fund, which has provided more than $258 million to help the city tear down abandoned houses.

The Duggan administration’s program came under scrutiny last fall amid concerns over soaring costs and bidding practices. The city and land bank have defended the program and said they are cooperating fully with all investigations and reviews.

In May, the FBI’s Detroit office acknowledged it’s investigating the program and the results of an investigation into an aspect of the program remains pending with the city’s Office of Inspector General.

This fall, Mayor Mike Duggan revealed the U.S. Treasury Department had temporarily halted the use of federal Hardest Hit Funds for demolitions for two months beginning in August after a probe 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 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.