Felon has role in Detroit’s demolition program

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A contractor convicted in the bid-rigging case against a pal of ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is participating in Detroit's federally funded demolition program but officials overseeing the effort say it isn't a concern. 

Rodney Burrell, who was sentenced to two years' probation in 2012 in a federal bid-rigging case against Bobby Ferguson, owns a Lyon Township-based backfill site and has been involved in hundreds of dirt transactions worth at least $315,000 in federal money for more than two years, according to a contract analysis by a University of Michigan researcher. 

Contractor Rodney Burrell owns this crushing and recycling site in Wixom, which has earned him at least $315,000 in federal money for supplying dirt in Detroit’s demolition program. Burrell was sentenced to two years' probation in 2012 in a federal bid-rigging case against ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s friend, Bobby Ferguson.

Detroit's blight elimination program has been the focus of a lengthy federal criminal probe that yielded guilty pleas this month from two men accused of taking bribes and rigging bids. The effort first came under scrutiny in fall 2015 amid concerns over bidding practices and spiraling costs, resulting in multiple federal, state and local reviews.

In recent months, lawmakers have pressed for tighter controls over the soil used to fill in demolition sites amid a number of high-profile contractor violations that have spurred questions over whether the dirt is safe for residential use.

John Mogk, a law professor for Wayne State University, said he understands some might question the optics associated with Burrell's involvement. But unless there's been evidence of wrongdoing, he said, it doesn't present a problem.

"There are two sides to that equation. One side is that somebody who has basically been punished and served their time should have an opportunity to work their way back into society," Mogk said. "The other is 'well, he's committed criminal conduct in the past. There is a potential he will do the same in the future.'"

Burrell and his site, by all accounts from those who oversee the program, is complying with soil regulations and approved to supply dirt to contractors. But U-M doctoral candidate Michael Koscielniak said the convicted felon's role in Detroit's federally funded demolition work raises ethical questions.

Burrell and a second contractor, Brian Dodds, were star witnesses for the government in the bid-rigging case involving Ferguson that ended in a mistrial. Ferguson was later convicted of running a criminal enterprise along with Kilpatrick.

"It's not just about having clean dirt. You are paying somebody who pled guilty to federal charges around fraud and bid-rigging related to backfill," said Koscielniak, who has spent years conducting an exhaustive review of public records that cast doubt on the integrity of soil records in the program. His research also has centered on those benefiting financially from the effort, including Burrell. 

"It's not just what's on the right side of the equals sign, it's about the left side, too. If your program cares about a supply chain then care about the integrity of that supply chain."

Burrell did not respond to requests to be interviewed about his role in the program.

Brian Farkas, director of special projects for the Detroit Building Authority, said in an emailed statement that Burrell is not considered a participant in the city or federally funded Hardest Hit Fund demolition program "because we do not contract with or make payments directly to any dirt suppliers.

The backfill program, he said, is focused on the quality of the dirt, not who is approved to supply it.

“Our focus is making sure the dirt used in our demolition program meets our environmental standards, not on the backgrounds of the suppliers who provide material to demolition companies," Farkas said. 

Under program protocol, the building authority's environmental consultant evaluates backfill sources and if they meet standards, they are approved and listed as a "Public Approved Source" on a backfill platform used by participating demolition contractors. 

Farkas confirmed Burrell's facility on Haas Road in Lyon Township is an approved source of residential backfill. 

Demolition vendors are then able to contract with the owners of each approved source site for fill.

"It is up to each individual demolition contractor to determine from which approved source it receives its backfill," Farkas said. 

Katie Bach, a spokeswoman for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which administers federal demolition funding through its Michigan Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corp., reiterated the building authority's position. 

"DBA was not aware of Mr. Burrell's criminal history, but given the lack of a contractual relationship, would never have needed to review it," Bach said in an email to The News.

Detroit has been awarded about $259 million over multiple rounds of the federal program to take down more than 11,000 houses.

According to Oakland County property records, Burrell's company, Burrell Investments, LLC, entered into a land contract with Holloway Sand and Gravel Company in October 2013 for several parcels on the Lyon Township site. 

The site on Haas Road has supplied material for the program for at least several years, and it's been used to fill holes demolished by one of the program's most prominent contractors, Adamo Group. The company did not respond for comment on Friday.

The site was used for more than 500 transactions overall. About half under the federal program, according to Koscielniak's analysis of state and city data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. 

In November 2010, Burrell pleaded guilty to claims he was given $188,000 in rehab work at the former Herman Gardens Housing project after falsifying a bid. He and Dodds took plea deals to testify against Ferguson, who later was convicted alongside Kilpatrick in the City Hall corruption case.

Burrell, a Northville-based contractor, was accused of knowing about a conspiracy to defraud the government and giving misleading and incomplete testimony to a grand jury in February 2009.

Burrell admitted to falsely inflating his company's bid on the Garden View project so it would appear Ferguson's construction company was the low bidder.

In exchange, Burrell's company was hired to haul materials from the construction site and paid $188,000.

U.S. District Judge David Lawson, while issuing the sentence in September 2012, noted that Burrell's cooperation with federal authorities was the "tipping point" in bringing the case against Ferguson, and Burrell should have some benefit for his cooperation. But the sentence, Lawson added, had to be "punitive enough for people to take notice."

Lawson said the city had an atmosphere that "condoned an attitude that permitted a sense of corruption" and Burrell "participated in that."

"He was perhaps a small cog, but without the small cog, the big gears don't turn," Lawson said.

In the bid-rigging case, Ferguson was accused of robbing taxpayers and capitalizing on his friendship with the former mayor.

Burrell's and Dodds' firms were hired and paid as subcontractors between November 2007 and January 2009 in return for participating in the scheme, according to court records.

During his 2012 sentencing hearing, Burrell said he used "poor judgment in the beginning of this" and "made some mistakes that I wish I could take back."