Wiretaps show towing titan’s influence with officials

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

Detroit — Telephone conversations intercepted as part of a federal corruption investigation offer insight into the influence wielded by Detroit towing magnate Gasper Fiore over local officials and his attempts to rig the system in his favor, according to unsealed court records.

FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman last year chronicled the conversations as part of a request to a federal judge to continue tapping the phone of Fiore, who pleaded guilty Dec. 20 in federal court to conspiracy to commit bribery.

Gasper Fiore, left, operates the boom as he and Ron Klien lift a 40,000 lb coil of steel off of a trailer at the Caine Steel Company in Detroit on Dec. 19, 2011.

Beeckman noted the communication “demonstrates the considerable influence Fiore has over towing in the City of Detroit.”

The federal records show Fiore allegedly was involved in questionable activity involving individuals on the Detroit Police Department, Detroit City Council, Highland Park Police Department and the Michigan State Police.

The agent also wrote when he filed the June 2, 2016, request: “The last 30 days of interceptions of wire and electronic communications have yielded evidence indicating that Fiore is committing several of the crimes he was suspected of committing, including bribing public officials.

“This past 30 days also captured items of value Fiore is providing to police officers,” Beeckman wrote. “Agents (were watching) the O’Reilly Auto Parts store regarding the repairs Fiore was doing on a state trooper’s personal vehicle.”

State Police Lt. Michael Shaw said Friday he didn’t know anything about the alleged April 19, 2016, incident.

According to the federal case, Fiore, a 57-year-old Grosse Pointe Shores multimillionaire who built an empire by securing lucrative towing and other contracts with local, state and federal governments, allegedly gave a $3,000 bribe to former Detroit Police attorney and civilian deputy chief Celia Washington, who was indicted in October on federal conspiracy and bribery charges.

According to federal court records, she is expected to plead guilty to bribery conspiracy Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Washington, 57, of Detroit, allegedly pocketed bribes in exchange for helping Fiore nab a bigger piece of Detroit’s towing rotations.

Washington’s attorney, Arnold Reed, on Dec. 22 filed a motion to dismiss the charges against his client. Reed attached to the motion sealed documents that lay out the conversations federal investigators picked up by tapping Fiore’s phone. The documents were later resealed after The News obtained them.

List of ‘target subjects’

The documents include a list of the FBI’s “target subjects” connected with the corruption investigation that includes Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans, Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland and former state Reps. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, D-Detroit, and Brian Banks, D-Harper Woods.

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

Napoleon and Evans issued written statements denying any wrongdoing. They have not been charged with crimes.

Among the wiretapped calls from 2016 was an exchange between Fiore and a man identified as Nicholas Primus about secretly funneling money to Councilwoman Janee Ayers to pay for advertising billboards. Federal agents did not list Ayers as a target of the investigation, and she has not been charged with a crime.

Attempts to reach Primus were unsuccessful.

In a May 10, 2016, phone call, Primus alerted Fiore of an alleged upcoming meeting he had planned with Ayers. The two men “discussed ways to get money to her but disguise it,” Beeckman wrote.

Primus told Fiore he was providing billboards for Ayers, who at the time was gearing up for a special election to finish out a term on council in a vacated seat, the agent wrote. Primus offered Fiore the opportunity to pay for the billboards and said he would let Ayers know that he was doing so.

Primus also spoke with Fiore about a planned lunch meeting with Ayers and invited Fiore to attend, according to the court filing. Fiore acknowledged that he’d attended a party for Ayers a week earlier, and told Primus to let him know where the meeting would take place, and that they should keep it “close and quick.”

“I gave her a good deal,” Primus told Fiore, according to a transcript of the call. “I was gonna give her some money too. Not in my name, but, you know, but ... anyways, I gave her a good deal on some billboards, and she asked me for some extra time. And I said, ‘I don’t know, let me work with you.’ I don’t know if you want to tell her and you pay for it cause uh, I only charged her a thousand dollars a billboard.”

Fiore replied: “Alright. ... I – I’ll do something.”

Ayers told The News she doesn’t know Primus.

“I have never had a private meeting with him. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him publicly,” said Ayers, who added “he has never donated to my campaign.”

Campaign finance records show no payments from Primus or Fiore to Ayers.

Ayers, 36, was appointed to City Council in 2015 to replace Saunteel Jenkins, who left for a nonprofit job, and defeated four other candidates in the August 2016 special election to complete Jenkins’ term. Ayers won election to a full four-year term two months ago.

Providing help

A May 1, 2016, telephone conversation between Fiore and one of his employees was recorded, in which the employee “boasted about his close relationship with one of the police officials, saying the prior command officer instructed the current lower ranking officer to ‘take care’ of (the employee),” Beeckman wrote.

There are several conversations between Fiore, Washington and others that, Beeckman wrote, showed Washington was trying to tip the scales to help Fiore.

Fiore told his daughter, Jennifer Fiore, on May 6, 2016, that Washington “is going to get them what they want for towing rotations,” Beeckman wrote.

According to the court records, during that conversation, Fiore told his daughter: “I’m sitting here with Celia Washington ... and she’s asking for some information on this tow stuff so she can help us.”

Gasper Fiore told his daughter that Washington was using her personal email account, prompting Beeckman to write: “I believe that Washington is using her personal email to hide this activity from the police department.”

Federal officials confirmed for The News that Jennifer Fiore is not a target of their investigation.

In a May 5, 2016, conversation between Fiore and a Detroit cop about a stolen car that needed to be towed, the officer “joked about following the rules and referring a tow to Nationwide (Towing), a competitor who handles the precinct where the car was found,” Beeckman wrote.

When the officer told Fiore he had to give the job to Nationwide because the recovered vehicle was in that company’s jurisdiction, Fiore apparently became angry.

“You out of your (expletive) mind?” said Fiore, according to a transcript of the call. “They ain’t touching this car ... you and (the owner of Nationwide) will both be setting (sic) in (expletive) jail.”

Beeckman wrote of the conversation: “I believe that (Fiore) is saying that (the officer) and the owner of Nationwide would go to jail if (the officer) took kickbacks from Nationwide, because Fiore would report him.”

When Fiore warned the cop he’d end up behind bars, the officer replied: “Oh, man ... you’d be right there (in jail) with me.”

Also, phone calls and text messages between Fiore and Highland Park Detective Sgt. James McMahon on May 18, 2016, show the cop asked for, and received, a metal culvert, a structure that allows water to flow under a road or tunnel, according to the court records.

Highland Park spokeswoman Marli Blackman declined to comment because McMahon is under investigation. He is also the subject of multiple lawsuits alleging he illegally seized people’s property and forged court documents.

Fiore sent McMahon, who is the member of a multi-jurisdictional stolen vehicle task force, a text instructing him where to pick up the equipment: “bottom of hill at my 12 mile yd. 45700 west 12 Novi,” according to the court records.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN