Suit: Councilman Leland tried to extort $15K

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Marcelus Brice’s first name and his marital status, which was incorrect in the 2016 FBI affidavit the story cited. Brice says he has never been married. It also been changed to reflect that the FBI agent who wrote the affidavit believed that Gasper Fiore was saying that Brice was offering to pay people on Fiore’s behalf to get political results and to make clear that Brice has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Detroit – A Detroit businessman says he wore a secret recording device for the FBI after alleging City Councilman Gabe Leland tried to extort $15,000 from him, according to a federal court lawsuit filed late Wednesday.

Businessman Robert Carmack said he delivered $7,500 cash in an envelope to a Leland campaign worker in late summer 2017, according to the lawsuit filed against the councilman, Mayor Mike Duggan, the Detroit Land Bank and Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree.

The lawsuit appears to help explain why Leland was included in a list of FBI targets named in a sealed wiretap affidavit obtained first by The Detroit News in December. The full scope of the ongoing FBI investigation is unclear, but the affidavit indicates agents have focused on campaign finances and Leland’s ties to towing titan Gasper Fiore, who was ensnared in a related corruption investigation.

The lawsuit’s allegations date to a few weeks before the August 2017 primary election in Detroit. Leland was running for re-election and Carmack was trying to resolve a dispute involving property he owned at 8124 Michigan Ave. Carmack alleges the city illegally demolished his commercial building using federal funds and was trying to sell the property.

“Leland demanded and requested...$15,000 for his reelection campaign,” Carmack’s lawyer Andrew Paterson wrote in the lawsuit.

Carmack says he ignored the request.

Leland could not be reached for comment immediately Thursday.

Rod Liggons, a spokesman for the land bank, did respond, saying: "The Detroit Land Bank Authority does not comment on pending litigation, and we will have no further comment at this time. Thank you."

In the weeks since The News published details about the sealed wiretap investigation, several politicians and public officials – including Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans – have received assurances that they are no longer considered targets of the FBI corruption probe.

Leland is notable among politicians on the list who have not been cleared by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Leland, who chaired a City Council committee responsible for community development, promised not to sell the property in exchange for $15,000, Carmack alleges.

Carmack feared he was being extorted so he approached the FBI, according to the lawsuit. The FBI is investigating widespread corruption involving politicians, police officers in Detroit, Macomb County and across southeast Michigan.

“The FBI asked (Carmack to) wear a recording device and to pay defendant Leland as defendant Leland demanded,” Carmack’s lawyer wrote in the lawsuit.

The day after Leland asked for $15,000, Leland called the businessman and said he would be sending someone to pick up the cash, according to the lawsuit.

That same day, a woman who Carmack believed to be a Leland campaign worker met him on a side street near a bank on East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, the lawsuit alleges.

“During the exchange, (Carmack) explains to the female campaign worker that the cash in the envelope was for defendant Leland and the female campaign worker responds by (stating) that it was not for her and that she would be delivering the money to defendant Leland immediately,” the lawsuit alleges.

The next day, Carmack said he met with Leland.

“Leland responded that he had in fact received the money from the campaign worker,” Paterson wrote.

Carmack was free to do whatever he wanted with the commercial property, Leland said, according to the lawsuit.

FBI spokesman Tim Wiley declined comment about whether the bureau’s investigators asked Carmack to wear a wire.

“I would say anyone who has information about public corruption is asked to call the FBI’s hotline at (313) 965-2222,” Wiley said.

After receiving the money, Leland made more demands, Carmack claims.

“Leland asked (Carmack) to fix his secretary’s car for free, and, in accordance with the FBI’s instructions, plaintiff obliged and fixed defendant Leland’s secretary’s car for free,” according to the lawsuit.

Then, Leland double-crossed Carmack, according to the lawsuit.

“A few weeks later, (Carmack) learned that defendant Leland had in fact placed on the (City Council) agenda the sale of plaintiff’s property,” Paterson wrote.

Carmack wants a federal judge to rule that Leland extorted him and that the city illegally took his property. Carmack wants at least $1.3 million.

The lawsuit describes Carmack’s attempts to secure a separate land deal during former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s administration. Carmack says former Kilpatrick aide Derrick Miller demanded a $50,000 payment to finalize a deal for the Revere Copper & Brass property near Historic Fort Wayne and the Riverfront.

In March 2015, Carmack complained during a City Council meeting that the Duggan administration was not honoring the deal.

On Thursday, the city’s top lawyer Lawrence Garcia accused Carmack of misrepresenting facts.

Wayne County foreclosed on the Michigan Avenue property in 2010 and the city later purchased it and demolished the unsafe building in 2016, Garcia said in a statement.

“Now, two years later, (Carmack) files this lawsuit because he could not get special treatment from the administration in his effort to reclaim the property he had lost through a legal process,” Garcia wrote.

“As it relates to the Revere Copper & Brass property, Mr. Carmack is upset that this administration did not honor a sweetheart deal for that land he had struck with the Kilpatrick administration,” Garcia added. “The City no longer operates that way.”

Duggan’s administration acted properly and appropriately, Garcia said.

“We believe the claims against the administration are frivolous and we will be defending them vigorously,” Garcia said.

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

The sealed wiretap affidavit obtained by The News last year outlined a broad corruption investigation by the FBI. Agents were interested in payments Fiore apparently made to Leland, and the councilman's interest in a separate FBI investigation involving towing companies and body shops.

In May 2016, FBI agents were tapping Fiore’s phone and overheard the towing mogul discuss fundraising for Detroit city council members and candidates. One conversation touched on several council members, including Andre Spivey, Council President Brenda Jones and Leland.

At the time, Leland was dating Fiore’s daughter Jennifer.

The FBI was investigating whether Detroit police officers accepted bribes from body shops and towing companies, according to the affidavit.

In one wiretapped conversation, Fiore talked to his ex-wife Joan Fiore about the towing investigation and Detroit Police Chief James Craig, according to court records.

"In Fiore’s conversation with Joan, it appears that Chief Craig briefed Gabe Leland about the towing case, and Leland has briefed the Fiore family about it,” FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman wrote in a court filing.

In an interview with The News in December, Craig insisted he never told Leland anything about the investigation. He said he contacted the FBI after a 2016 meeting 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.”

Fiore’s wiretapped conversations describe his distaste for Leland.

“He's another guy that -- there with a tight suit on, with a cheap tie and got a hole in the side of his pants on the pocket cuz he don't want to buy a pair of pants,” Fiore said in one recorded conversation.

In another conversation, Fiore labeled the Detroit councilman a "mooch."

In a May 2016 conversation, Fiore complained about paying for unspecified items for Leland.

The FBI monitored text messages that month as Fiore and Leland arranged a meeting at Big City Bar & Grill in Detroit on May 27, 2016.

After the meeting, Fiore called his daughter.

Fiore complained about Leland pressuring him to hire political consultant Marcelus Brice, according to the wiretap affidavit.

Brice had been under investigation previously based on allegations he used his City Hall connections to try to extort someone, the FBI agent wrote in a court filing. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The FBI agent listened to Fiore's call and wrote that he believed Fiore was saying Brice was offering to pay people on Fiore's behalf to get political results, according to the FBI affidavit.

"I don't need him," Fiore said.

"Fiore is saying that if someone needs money, Fiore will pay the person himself, and he does not need Brice as a middleman," Beeckman, the FBI agent, wrote in the wiretap affidavit. "I'm tired of the ------- guy. Wants me to hire somebody just to give him a ------- job. I said, 'You give him a job. You can hire people.'"

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