Detroit authorities sued over demolition documents

The Detroit News

A community activist is suing Detroit’s building authority and land bank over a hefty bill and lengthy wait to obtain documents related to the city’s demolition program, seeking to have the materials made public.

Robert Davis said he filed the suit Wednesday in Wayne County Circuit Court. A government watchdog group he leads had previously asked the court to compel the release of the documents after the Detroit Land Bank last year rejected a Freedom of Information Act request. Davis filed the request to obtain copies of subpoenas the land bank, its attorneys, contractors as well as others received as part of a federal probe.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority and Detroit Building Authority, which oversee the city’s demolition efforts, received subpoenas in May 2016 from the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program seeking documents from more than two dozen employees.

One of the 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 land bank and building authority are under scrutiny in a federal probe after questions were raised over bidding practices and soaring costs. It’s one of several ongoing federal, state and local reviews of the program that has toppled nearly 11,000 blighted properties since spring 2014.

This year, the Detroit News sought the documents through FOIA. The response revealed more than 250,000 pages of emails and attachments were turned over to federal authorities. The response also indicated the land bank would fulfill the FOIA request at a cost of $47,075 but it would take at least 538 business days for staff to separate exempt and non-exempt information.

Davis’ suit centers on a similar response to his FOIA request. On Jan. 25, the land bank told his group, A Felon’s Crusade For Equality, Honesty, that “it would take nearly 2½ years for the defendants to provide plaintiff with the documents requested and further advised plaintiff’s director that it would cost $47,075 to fulfill plaintiff’s FOIA request.”

Among other allegations, Davis claims officials aren’t allowed to charge such a fee since the land bank’s board of directors did not approve a resolution in an open meeting establishing a FOIA policy and failed to show how producing the documents would “result in unreasonably high costs” to them.

Davis aims to have the documents made public.

“The citizens have a right to know whether or not public officials were part of a conspiracy to defraud the federal government,” he said Wednesday. “And the citizens have a right to know what documents they supplied the federal government — especially when you’re talking about the public’s money.”

Craig Fahle, a spokesman for the land bank, declined to comment Wednesday on the litigation.

Mayor Mike Duggan and the land bank have defended the demolition program and pledged cooperation in the investigations.