Election commission OKs Leland recall petition language

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Gabe Leland

Detroit — The Wayne County Election Commission unanimously agreed Tuesday that a recall petition targeting indicted City Councilman Gabe Leland is fit for gathering signatures.

But an attorney for the second-term councilman was quick to say it's a ruling he will challenge.

"No doubt we're going to appeal," Leland's attorney, John Knappmann, told The Detroit News after the brief hearing.

Leland did not attend but sent a text message to The Detroit News later Tuesday that read: "I respect and trust the process. While this issue works itself out, I'll be busy working hard for the good people of the 7th District."

Ramon Jackson filed the petition with the Wayne County Clerk’s Office earlier this month, citing Leland's federal indictment on corruption and bribery charges.

The election commission, comprised of Wayne County Probate Court Chief Judge Freddie G. Burton Jr., Wayne County Clerk Cathy M. Garrett and Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree, took just minutes Tuesday to sign off on the petition's clarity.

Jackson, an activist and longtime resident of Leland's council district, has said he's been advocating against the councilman for years. The district, he said, remains plagued with poverty, crime, homelessness and vacancy.

Despite Knappmann's vow to challenge the ruling, Jackson said he's ready to move forward.

"From here, we'll be getting started on the signatures immediately," Jackson said, adding a group supporting the effort will need to obtain about 3,200. "That's what we intend to do."

Leland was indicted by a federal grand jury in October on bribery charges and accused of agreeing to accept $15,000 and free car repairs from a city businessman.

Knappmann argued Tuesday that the petition should have been turned down. He said the reasoning listed had to apply to an action alleged of the officeholder — and during the existing term. 

"The action in the petition calls for him to be recalled based on him being indicted for federal corruption and bribery charges. Well, that wasn't an action from him. That was an action by the U.S. attorney," he said. 

Of equal note, Knappmann added, "the indictment is specific to actions that took place before the election."

"On either basis, this petition lacks the basis to be approved," Knappmann said. 

City resident JoAnna Underwood praised the commission for signing off Tuesday on the recall language, saying she's among those who have organized to petition for Leland's removal.  

"We feel like we deserve proper representation," said Underwood, who challenged Leland for the council seat in the 2017 primary election. "How can he represent us when he's facing these serious, dangerous charges dealing with bribery while serving in office?"

Leland has called the recall effort "a political attack" and said that he's "totally confident" that he can overcome it based on the rapport he and his staff have built with the community. He was re-elected in November 2017 to a second, four-year term on Detroit's council.

Leland has maintained he'll continue to attend community meetings, respond to constituent concerns and serve residents at the council table.

A few district residents attended Tuesday's meeting in support of Leland. 

"He's dedicated to the people. He's a people person," said Shayne Sisco, who said she's known Leland since he was a boy. "He's always there. He makes the time. It doesn't matter how busy it is."

Sisco said the allegations against Leland don't bother her.

"You are innocent in this country until you are proven guilty," she said. 

Fellow District 7 resident Barbara Matney said she's surprised to hear the negativity about Leland since "we know how much he's done for our community."

"Some people are just not happy unless they can cause chaos," she said.

Knappmann has 10 days to file an appeal of the commission's decision that the recall petition was factual and clear. Jackson is free to circulate it once any circuit court appeals have concluded, according to state statute.

The number of signatures needed to trigger a recall election is 25 percent of the votes cast in Leland's district for all candidates of the office of governor in the last gubernatorial election, according to the state Bureau of Elections.

If a recall election is triggered by a sufficient filing, it would be held during the next regular May or November election.

Recorded conversations played a prominent role in Leland's indictment, which portrayed the Detroit Democrat as using his political power to stall votes on a real-estate matter involving Detroit auto shop owner Robert Carmack while demanding bribes. 

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 30,” 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.

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

Federal court records show a trial for Grubbs and Leland is slated for August.