Star witness in Leland bribery case 'a thief,' city says

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — The star witness against Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland is a thief who stole a million-dollar property from the city, according to city lawyers who leveled damning allegations that could damage the businessman's credibility in a high-profile corruption case. 

The allegation against businessman Robert Carmack emerged Monday as Leland was released on a personal recognizance bond, the latest development in a bribery scandal that could send him to federal prison for more than 10 years.

Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland, left, leaves Detroit federal court with attorney Steve Fishman after being released on bond in a public corruption case in 2018.

The city sued Carmack in June, accusing him of stealing 10 acres of industrial property near the Detroit River in southwest Detroit and flipping the land for a $750,000 profit.

Carmack is the central figure in the bribery case against Leland and says he wore a secret recording device during conversations with the Detroit city councilman — portions of which are included in the indictment. Leland is accused of agreeing to accept $15,000 and free car repairs from Carmack. 

"As we learned in law school — res ipsa loquitor — the (thief allegation) speaks for itself," Leland's lawyer Steve Fishman told The News on Monday.

The civil lawsuit involves Carmack, his company B&C Land Development Corp. and a Great Recession-era land deal involving property that has quadrupled in value.

In June 2007, City Council approved selling the vacant land to B&C for $250,000, according to the lawsuit.

The city sent a deed and related documents to Carmack prior to the deal closing. But the closing never happened and the sale was abandoned, city lawyers allege.

Five years later, in September 2012, Carmack recorded a fraudulent affidavit alleging B&C bought the property, according to the lawsuit.

In 2016, Carmack fraudulently filed a property transfer affidavit with the Detroit assessor's office making B&C the property's taxpayer ahead of a sale to another firm, Moby Dick Ventures LLC, the city's complaint alleges. 

On March 2, 2016, Carmack sold the property for $1 million, according to the city. A recent property listing showed the land for sale for $2.75 million.

"The (city's) title to the property is unequivocally superior to Moby Dick's interest insomuch as Moby Dick took alleged title from a thief," city attorney Michael Muller wrote in the lawsuit.

Carmack has done nothing wrong, one of the businessman's civil lawyers said.

"Mayor Mike Duggan is acting as if he is the God Father of the Mafia, but his scare tactics will not silence Robert Carmack," attorney Andrew Paterson wrote in an email to The News. "Mr. Carmack is a reputable businessman who has not engaged in any unlawful conduct. The city of Detroit's frivolous lawsuit is nothing more than Mayor Duggan retaliating against Mr. Carmack for exposing corruption at Detroit City Hall. Mr. Carmack will not be silenced and is looking forward to exposing Mayor Duggan for the fraud he is and Mr. Carmack is definitely looking forward to providing truthful testimony regarding Councilman Gabe Leland's corrupt conduct.

"Mr. Carmack is credible, honest and has absolutely nothing to hide, which is why a federal grand jury indicted Councilman Leland based upon the credible evidence Mr. Carmack provided to the federal authorities," Paterson added.

A Duggan spokesman declined to comment.

The city wants the judge to rule that the city has valid title to the property along with possession of the land.

Carmack has denied the allegations and asked Wayne County Circuit Judge Leslie Smith to dismiss the Moby Dick lawsuit.

Carmack also has a criminal defense lawyer who is handling matters related to the Leland case but the attorney's identity was unclear Monday.

Meanwhile, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford on Monday ordered Leland to surrender his passport and restricted the councilman's travel to Metro Detroit. He stood mute to bribery and bribery conspiracy charges and Stafford entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf.

Inside court, one of the city's most powerful politicians was just another defendant. Leland sat in the front row next to a pony-tailed lawyer, eyes on the purple carpet, and waited in line behind six others facing charges — including drug, tax and gun crimes and three facing immigration offenses —before the magistrate judge heard his case.

Leland said little beyond "yes, ma'am" when Stafford asked routine questions.

Outside court, the councilman professed his innocence.

"I'm innocent and I'm looking forward to trial," Leland told reporters outside court.

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 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.”

Fishman downplayed the recorded conversations.

"I’ll tell ya, it doesn’t sound like what they think it sounds like," Leland's lawyer told reporters. “Anybody that’s opining about the case doesn’t know s--- from Shinola about the facts."

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 linked to conspiracy involving cash bribes

Leland is the highest-ranking Detroit politician charged with a federal crime since former Mayor Kwame 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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. 

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Twitter: @robertsnellnews