Detroit City Councilman Leland indicted in bribery conspiracy

Detroit Council Member Gabe Leland

Detroit — City Councilman Gabe Leland was indicted by a federal grand jury Thursday on bribery charges and accused of agreeing to accept $15,000 and free car repairs from a businessman, the latest corruption scandal to hit the top levels of Detroit government since former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's downfall.

The three-count indictment capped a tumultuous year for Leland, 35, who has lived under a cloud of suspicion since The Detroit News obtained sealed FBI wiretap affidavits that revealed he was the target of a federal bribery probe.

Recorded conversations played a prominent role in the indictment, which portrayed the Detroit Democrat as a greedy, expletive-spewing schemer who used his political power to stall votes on a businessman's real-estate matter last year while demanding bribes.

“I held it up again,” Leland told the businessman, who The News has identified as Detroit auto shop owner Robert Carmack. “It stayed … right in committee brother.”

On May 16, 2017, Leland offered to help the businessman in exchange for $15,000 and free car repairs, the government claims.

“I should ask for thirty,” Leland said, according to the indictment, “but I’m nice to you.”

Leland was charged with bribery conspiracy and two counts of bribery one day after his campaign staffer Elisa Grubbs was charged and accused of delivering the bribe from Carmack.

Leland is the highest-ranking Detroit politician charged with a federal crime since Kilpatrick was indicted eight years ago and sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.

The indictment marks the next phase of a public corruption crackdown that emerged two years ago in Macomb County before spreading to Detroit. More than 20 people have been charged and prosecutors have secured at least 14 convictions of politicians, a deputy Detroit Police chief and businessmen, including trash mogul Chuck Rizzo and Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore.

"It should be troubling to every citizen of the city, of the state, of the country," U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said. "We cannot stand for this type of conduct."

If convicted, Leland faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each bribery count and five years for bribery conspiracy.

Leland could not be reached for comment. Earlier Thursday, Leland attended the City Council’s weekly Planning and Economic Development committee but left before the indictment was filed in federal court.

“This is old news,” his criminal defense lawyer Steve Fishman told The News. ”As The Temptations once said, ‘the further you look, the less you see.’”

Mayor Mike Duggan, whose administration is embroiled in a separate federal grand jury investigation involving Detroit's demolition program, called the Leland allegations "deeply upsetting and disappointing."

“This is a very unfortunate development for our city at a time when so many things have been going right," Duggan said.

The conspiracy described by prosecutors dates to spring 2017.

That's when Leland and Carmack discussed land the businessman believed he owned that was going to be sold by the city.

Leland offered to vote and help Carmack delay or prevent the sale in exchange for $15,000 and free car repairs, prosecutors alleged.

Carmack agreed to provide free car repairs, prosecutors said.

The next month, Leland twice cast the sole vote against selling the property.

Two months later, in August 2017, Leland enlisted Grubbs to serve as his bribery bagwoman, prosecutors said.

On Aug. 4, Leland told the businessman he should give the money to Grubbs, and later that day, Grubbs received $7,500 and delivered the money to Leland, according to the government.

Four days later, Leland won the Aug. 8 primary.

Days later, Leland met the businessman at Caucus Club Detroit restaurant. Leland acknowledged receiving $7,500 but said Carmack never paid the balance of the $15,000 bribe, according to the indictment.

Exterior of the historic Caucus Club with the famous London Chop House across the street on Congress Street.

Carmack expressed concern about dealing with Leland's campaign staffer.

"You can f-----' trust me," Leland said, according to the indictment. "That's all that matters."

The $7,500 bribe alleged by prosecutors represents less than 10 percent of the $80,730 Leland is paid annually as a city councilman.

“It’s always so stunning and striking about these cases that someone would sell their career for $7,500,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

Leland, the only white City Council member in a majority black city, was re-elected in November to his second, four-year term on Detroit’s City Council. He took office in January 2014 after serving six years in the state House.

The councilman is the son of Burton Leland, a longtime public officeholder who served in the state House and Senate and as a Wayne County commissioner. Burton Leland died in February following a lengthy battle with cancer.

Political consultant Steve Hood, a longtime friend of Carmack’s, said Thursday that the indictment isn’t surprising, but it’s sad.

“I don’t think it gives Detroit as a whole a black eye, but it does do some damage to the Leland family, which is sad,” Hood said.

Hood said the council’s president, Brenda Jones, should remove Leland from the Planning and Economic Development Committee in light of the charges.

“He shouldn’t be anywhere near that (committee)...," Hood said.

Under council rules, Jones is empowered to appoint the chair and membership of each standing committee. Her nominations must then be approved by the full body.

The removal process for a committee member is not clear in the rules, but a chairperson may be removed by a two-thirds vote.

The indictment's allegations closely track details contained in a lawsuit Carmack filed against Leland in April.

Carmack feared he was being extorted by Leland last year, so he approached the FBI, according to the lawsuit. 

“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.

A grand jury also is investigating whether Leland extorted cash, booze and food from Kenneth Scott Bridgewater, an owner of the since-shuttered Centre Park Bar in downtown Detroit’s Harmonie Park.

Bridgewater sued Leland in federal court earlier this year, claiming the councilman demanded more than $5,000 in free club access, drinks and food in exchange for help in a dispute with city officials.

The indictment's portrayal of Leland clashes with Angy Webb's view of the Detroit politician.

Webb represents the city’s Joy Community Association and said Leland is responsive and visible in the community.

“He is faithful about coming if I need him for anything," Webb said. "We appreciate him.

“I’m really hoping and praying that it’s a mistake, too," she added. "We don’t always agree on things, but I still believe he’s a good-hearted person and I’m just praying for him.” 

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Twitter: @robertsnellnews

Candice Williams contributed.