New names emerge in federal corruption probe

Robert Snell, George Hunter, and Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Several previously undisclosed Metro Detroit public officials and politicians drew scrutiny from federal agents during a public corruption investigation that started in Macomb County and spread to Wayne County and Detroit, according to federal court records obtained by The Detroit News.

The records, for the first time, publicly mention former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco in a criminal investigation that has led to charges against his former right-hand man, Dino Bucci.

Federal wiretap documents filed in federal court contain a list of “target subjects” that includes several public officials. Among them: Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans, two former state representatives and Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland.

FBI agents were investigating conspiracy to distribute marijuana, bribery, extortion and other crimes in connection with Detroit towing mogul Gasper Fiore or others, according to court records obtained by The News. The records included an application to continue wiretapping Fiore’s cellphone.

Of the public officials named in the filing, only former Detroit deputy police chief Celia Washington has been charged with a crime in connection with the investigation. Napoleon and others reached Tuesday by The News said they were unaware they had been named in the filing.

The names were included in a federal court filing that reflects the broader scope of a years-long investigation that has led to charges against 18 people so far. The filing, which was temporarily unsealed in federal court, gives a rare snapshot of an early stage of a high-profile investigation involving Fiore, a multimillionaire businessman who built a towing empire in Metro Detroit by securing lucrative contracts with municipalities and the federal government.

One court filing by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta from 2016 said there was probable cause that the target subjects “are engaged in the payment and receipt of bribes and corrupt payments.”

“Certain sensitive investigative documents were inadvertently filed on the public docket by a non-governmental attorney,” acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch told The News in a statement Tuesday. “There’s a reason why such documents are filed under seal. They may contain allegations against individuals, including public officials, that never rise to the level of criminality. It’s unfair to impugn the character of anyone, especially a public official, with an investigative document that the public official never gets to contest in open court. That’s the reason why these documents should be, and now are, back under seal.”

The ongoing corruption investigation has led to 13 convictions so far. The court filings were temporarily unsealed days after Fiore struck a plea deal last week with prosecutors, admitting he bribed former Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds.

The government filing indicates FBI agents started wiretapping people in 2014. By summer 2016, agents were tapping Fiore’s phone.

Using phone records, agents analyzed which public officials and other people were in communication with Fiore’s phone. After realizing Fiore was in contact with several public officials, FBI agents started scrutinizing whether any were involved in wrongdoing.

Those named listed as “target subjects” in the filing included:

■Leland, a Detroit city councilman who was re-elected in November to his second, four-year term on Detroit’s City Council. Leland, 35, first took office in January 2014 and formerly served six years in the state House.

■Napoleon, a former Detroit police chief who has been Wayne County sheriff since 2009. He ran for Detroit mayor in 2013.

■Evans, a Wayne County judge who presided over high-profile trials, including the murder case against Grosse Pointe Park businessman Robert Bashara.

■Brian Banks, a Harper Woods Democrat who resigned from the state House in early February and pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of making false statements of financial condition to try to obtain a $7,500 personal loan. He was sentenced to one day in jail.

■Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, a Detroit Democrat. In 2015, The Detroit News reported that the former Detroit City councilwoman was under investigation in connection with a Detroit pension scandal that led to the conviction of her former chief of staff, George Stanton. She left the state House last year amid term limits.

■Assad Turfe, who is chief assistant to Wayne County Executive Warren Evans.

■Romel Casab, former owner of the Packard Plant, who was convicted last year in a separate medical marijuana investigation.

■Jennifer Marie Fiore, daughter of Gasper Fiore and Leland’s former girlfriend. She is an attorney who is an executive with several Fiore-owned companies. In a lawsuit filed in August, Detroit officials alleged Jennifer Fiore, along with her mother, Joan Fiore, Gasper’s ex-wife, her sister Jessica Lucas, Boulevard & Trumbull Towing and other Fiore-related companies, committed “fraud, tax evasion and other crimes against the City of Detroit and its residents.” The city later dropped the lawsuit.

■Michael Irvin Lucas, who worked at B&G Towing in Detroit. He’s married to Jessica Lucas, a daughter of Gasper Fiore.

■Paul Ott, a former Detroit police attorney who owns Gene’s Towing in Detroit.

■Shane Anders, owner of Area Towing and Recovery in Taylor.

■Morris Joseph, a Detroit police officer. He was sued in May, with Gasper Fiore as a co-defendant, and accused of improperly towing an owner’s cars, although a federal judge found the plaintiff’s civil rights hadn’t been violated.

■Louay Hussein, whose brother Hussein Hussein owns MetroTech Collision in Detroit. Detroit officials said in a Sept. 11 federal court filing — which was later withdrawn — that Louay Hussein was supposed to provide Detroit police with information about an alleged stolen vehicle ring involving cops, a towing company and a collision firm. Hussein Hussein “was criminally charged for his involvement in the theft of a stolen motor vehicle,” said the complaint. Louay Hussein offered to provide Detroit police “information on similar crimes involving other individuals in exchange for leniency with respect to his brother,” said the filing. The city agreed to the deal and the charges against Hussein Hussein “were either dropped or reduced,” according to the court filing. In 2016, Louay Hussein purchased an interest in Nationwide Towing, the city said, adding the company since 2010 has been associated with Gasper Fiore, whom the city said engaged in “fraudulent and criminal conduct.”

Bullotta, the federal prosecutor, listed each name in a request to continue tapping Fiore’s phone.

Last year, agents sought permission from a federal judge to keep tapping Fiore’s phone in search of evidence of various crimes, including extortion, honest services mail and wire fraud, and conspiracy to distribute marijuana, according to the filing.

The wiretap application that names the public officials is among evidence the government shared with lawyers representing people charged so far, including Washington, the former Detroit police official who was indicted on federal conspiracy and bribery charges in October.

According to the indictment, Washington, 57, of Detroit, pocketed bribes in exchange for helping Gasper Fiore grab a bigger piece of a Detroit towing industry that totaled more than $2 million a year.

Her lawyer, Arnold Reed, filed a copy of the wiretap application Friday among several motions to dismiss charges against Washington.

The wiretap application was filed despite a protective order that is supposed to shield sensitive documents from the public in the early stages of the prosecution. By Tuesday afternoon, the filings were resealed.

In one document, FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman, who helped prosecute former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, describes the ongoing investigation.

“Evidence has been gathered showing that crimes involving corruption have been committed by some of the target subjects, including Tinsley-Talabi, Napoleon and Casab,” the agent wrote. “However, those investigations have been pending for months or years and the evidence so far has not been sufficient to bring federal charges.”

Federal agents were tapping multiple phones during the investigation. Marrocco’s name emerged in 2014 while agents tapped the phones of at least three people, including engineering contractor Paulin Modi of Troy, according to court records.

Modi has struck a plea deal after being accused of bribing a Washington Township public official.

The court filing names Marrocco as one person communicating with Modi and two other phones.

Marrocco has not been charged with a crime.

Earlier this year, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said a federal grand jury was investigating her office during Marrocco’s tenure and had subpoenaed testimony from about a dozen public employees.

FBI agents were asking questions about Marrocco, who lost to Miller in the November 2016 election; Bucci, his former deputy; and millions of dollars in payments to an unnamed county contractor, Miller said.

Public officials named in the court filings had a mix of reactions.

In a statement posted on Evans' Facebook page, her attorney Todd Russell Perkins defended her integrity.

"It is an unfortunate event that Judge Evans' image could be besmirched as a result of knowing an individual who is being investigated," Perkins wrote. "In the sentiment of our Acting US Attorney, Daniel Lemisch, it is wrong to draw the implication of any wrongdoing against those who are mentioned during the course of an investigation. To do so denies an individual due process and the simple freedom to lawfully associate with one another.

He continued: "It is a sad day when a public servant must field questions about her integrity as there are conclusions drawn against her. Please don't do that. Trust the system, and trust that Judge Evans is a servant for the people by the people and that her service to the people is without reproach."

Reached Tuesday, Napoleon said he was unaware of any of the activities described in the filing. Napoleon said there has never been a hint of impropriety during his law-enforcement career, including stints as Detroit police chief and county sheriff.

Fiore was a county vendor and the two occasionally would talk about questions or issues related to the towing contract, Napoleon said in a statement Tuesday.

“As sheriff, I am required to answer those questions and attempt to resolve those issues when they are brought to my attention,” Napoleon said. “I have never attempted to influence the awarding or implementation of a towing contract. Any suggestion to the contrary is so ridiculous as to deserve no further comment.”

Napoleon said after Fiore was indicted in May, he was removed from the county’s towing rotation.

Leland was unaware that his name was included in the list until being contacted by The News.

“This is the first that Councilman Leland has heard about this and, as I understand it, he has not been contacted by anyone,” said Leland’s spokesman, Daniel Cherrin.

According to the filing, Beeckman wrote that Fiore claimed Detroit Police Chief James Craig had “briefed Gabe Leland about the towing case, and Leland has briefed the Fiore family about it.”

In an interview Tuesday, Craig insisted he never told Leland anything about the investigation. He said he contacted the FBI after a meeting last year with the Detroit city councilman.

“He said he wanted to meet with me for the purpose of discussing something unrelated to towing, but once he gets into the meeting with me, he starts asking about the towing investigation,” Craig told The News. “It’s not my investigation, so I didn’t have anything to give him. I never felt comfortable with him, so I made sure to have a witness in the room with me during this meeting.

“I was not comfortable with Leland’s questions, and I immediately contacted the FBI as soon as he left the room and told them he was asking me questions about the towing investigation.”

Turfe said Tuesday he was unaware and had not been contacted by authorities.

“I have not been contacted and wouldn’t expect to be,” he said in a statement provided to The News.

Banks said Tuesday said he had no knowledge of the investigation and directed The News to his attorney, Ben Gonek, who could not be reached for comment.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews