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Ex-official schemed to evade towing rules, city alleges

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit’s police towing operation has been a “cesspool for many years,” which allowed a former Detroit police legal adviser to circumvent the rules governing tow companies, city officials said in a federal court filing.

Celia Washington

In a 29-page brief filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, the city says former Detroit police attorney and civilian deputy chief Celia Washington “concocted a scheme to rename the tow contracts as ‘tow permits’” after a 2011 city auditor general report found tow companies were being awarded contracts without City Council approval, in violation of the city charter.

The city in its brief also renewed its allegation that Detroit tow company Nationwide Recovery Inc. was involved in “car theft activity.” City attorneys last week withdrew a similar allegation against Nationwide “without prejudice,” meaning it could refile the motion in federal court.

Nationwide’s lawyer responded Wednesday by calling city attorneys “cowards.”

Washington was arraigned Tuesday in federal court on conspiracy and bribery charges. She is accused of accepting cash bribes from an unnamed towing magnate — an allegation that Washington and her attorney have denied.

The city said in Tuesday’s brief that Washington changed the language from “contracts” to “permits” while she was the legal adviser for the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, which oversaw the city’s towing operations.

The change in language allowed Washington and the board to award work to tow companies without getting City Council approval, city attorneys wrote in their brief Tuesday.

City officials declined to comment Wednesday, while Washington’s attorney Arnold Reed did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Nationwide sued the city in federal court, alleging the company had been improperly removed from the police tow rotation. The city filed a scathing response Sept. 11 that alleged the tow company, its attorney, Marc Deldin, and an unnamed Highland Park police officer were involved in a stolen vehicle ring.

In its response, the city also claimed towing magnate Gasper Fiore was a silent owner of Nationwide. Fiore has been indicted in federal court as part of an alleged bribery scheme involving Macomb County waste management company Rizzo Environmental Services. Deldin, who formerly represented Fiore, insists Fiore has no stake in Nationwide.

The city withdrew its response last week after Deldin threatened sanctions for what he called unfounded charges.

After city attorney Charles Raimi’s reiterated in Tuesday’s brief the allegation that Nationwide was involved in a car theft ring, Deldin replied in a written statement: “The city has yet to produce a shred of evidence that Nationwide Recovery (did anything illegal).

“Facing sanctions, the cowards running this case withdrew the city's lawsuit,” Deldin wrote. “That should tell the public everything they need to know about how the city’s Law Department is run ... the appointees that run the Law Department are out of control. This ‘win at any cost’ mentality has hurt good people for no reason.”

After Fiore’s May indictment, Detroit officials suspended Fiore’s companies from doing business with the city. Nationwide was later suspended from the tow rotation, prompting the company to sue the city.

In the most recent filing, Raimi wrote that Nationwide’s lawsuit has no merit, since the firm was improperly put into the police towing rotation in the first place.

“The only possible reason for the (police board’s) change from ‘contracts’ to ‘permits’ ... was to improperly evade City Council oversight,” Raimi wrote. “The permits are contrary to policy and are void for that additional reason ... because (the police board) had no authority under state law or City Charter to issue the permits, the permits are void.”

Raimi wrote in the brief that the city’s towing process has been a mess for years, saying Fiore’s indictment and Washington’s resignation from the police department “focused the city administration’s attention on the out-of-control procurement process which urgently needed a complete overhaul.

“The City’s Corporation Counsel issued an opinion confirming that all 2016 tow permits were void ... and directing the implementation of a proper procurement process,” Raimi wrote.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN