Sources: Towing probe extends to ex-police attorney

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The former legal adviser for the Detroit Police Department is being investigated by the FBI in connection with a probe involving a towing mogul and several Detroit cops, two sources familiar with the investigation said.

Celia Washington resigned from the Police Department two weeks ago after police officials learned she was being investigated in connection with an ongoing probe into Gasper Fiore, who for years owned several companies that towed vehicles for the city, sources said.

Washington for years was the attorney for the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, which made decisions about the city’s tow operations. Washington did not have a direct hand in selecting which firms were chosen for towing rotations.

Washington declined to comment when reached Monday. Her attorney, Vincent Toussaint, told The Detroit News, “Ms. Washington had no power to change anything with regard to police-authorized towing. That was the responsibility of the police commissioners.”

Detroit Police Chief James Craig and FBI officials also declined to comment.

Monday’s revelation is the latest in a series of scandals involving Detroit’s police towing operations. On Friday, three police sources told The Detroit News several officers also were under federal investigation after they were recorded on wiretaps discussing illegal activity connected to Fiore’s towing operations.

Fiore was arraigned last week in federal court on charges he participated in a widespread bribery conspiracy in Macomb County. The Grosse Pointe Shores business mogul is one of 12 people charged in that case.

Fiore was indicted on charges he bribed Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds. The U.S. Department of Justice charged Fiore and Reynolds with multiple counts of bribery-related offenses in connection with a towing contract.

If convicted, Fiore could get 20 years in prison.

As the federal investigation continues, state and Detroit officials are distancing themselves from Fiore.

Michigan State Police last week suspended its towing permit with Fiore’s company Boulevard & Trumbull Towing, Lt. Mike Shaw said.

“Because of the federal investigation, and his indictment, we just want to make sure everything’s on the up-and-up,” Shaw said. “Not that he’s guilty, but we are a police department, so any time someone is indicted like that, we want to make sure we handle it properly. If he goes through the court process and is found not guilty, we’ll put him back on the towing list.”

Shaw said Boulevard & Trumbull is one of 16 tow companies that contract with Michigan State Police in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The firm works in the Metro South post jurisdiction towing abandoned, stolen and crashed vehicles, he said.

The Wayne County Sheriff's Office also suspended use of Boulevard & Trumbull Towing, spokeswoman Kelly Miner said.

The Detroit Police Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to suspend Fiore’s towing permit and remove the six towing companies he owns from the department’s tow rotations.

The Board of Police Commissioners voted 9-0 to pull Fiore’s towing permit, ending more than a decade of controversy. For years, representatives from other towing companies packed police board meetings, often complaining Fiore was getting more than his share of the city’s towing business.

Board members directed questions to Detroit Corporation Counsel Butch Hollowell, who said in a statement: “The actions taken by the Board of Police Commissioners were both lawful and appropriate. There will be no further comments at this time.”

Craig on Friday declined to comment about the FBI investigation or the police board’s action. But the police chief said the city is working to rescind the leases of two southwest Detroit properties owned by Fiore: 2121 Fort, where vehicle impounds are stored and which houses other units, including the laboratory that tests narcotics; and 7800 Dix, where the Commercial Auto Theft Unit is located.

It’s unclear whether the investigation into Fiore and the Detroit police officers is connected to an FBI probe in which six DPD cops were suspended last year.

In that case, a police source familiar with the investigation told The News the suspended officers were accused of taking bribes from an undisclosed tow company owner in exchange for funneling work to the firm, including towing stolen cars.

The alleged scam also involved two collision shops, which stripped stolen cars with minimal damage, got a high insurance assessment for the fake damage and then put the vehicles back together, pocketing the money.

The city’s business deals with Fiore were called into question in a series of 2005 audits that found former police officials gave an inordinate amount of towing business to Fiore in violation of the towing rules. The audits also reported the awarding to Fiore of no-bid leases and over-payments for his buildings that were used for police operations.

The 2005 reports by City Auditor Joe Harris found the city never entered into a management agreement with Gene’s Towing, a Fiore-owned company that managed the impound lot on Fort Street. After the 2005 audit, the company was transferred to Paul Ott, although the firm continued operating out of Fiore’s building at 7770 Dix in southwest Detroit.

The 10-year lease for the lot overstated its size by almost 9,000 square feet, costing taxpayers an extra $65,000 per year than if the actual footage was used, the report found. Over the life of the contract, the city overpaid by $1 million, the audit found.

Harris’ audits suggested that the city of Detroit retool its towing operation. But when the police board began restructuring the process in 2009, accusations of intimidation, stalking and corruption began to fly.

Ex-Commissioner Michael Reeves filed a police report in September 2010 claiming he was threatened to refrain from voting on the proposed rules. Ex-Commissioner Jerome Warfield said at the May 5, 2011, board meeting that he had been followed.

In 2010, the city’s Auditor General issued another report, criticizing the city’s inaction on the 2005 auditor’s recommendations to revamp the towing process.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN