Election commission rules Duggan recall petition can proceed

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

Detroit — The Wayne County Election Commission on Thursday signed off on a recall petition filed by a west side resident hoping to mount a campaign to oust Mayor Mike Duggan.

The petition, brought by activist Brenda Hill, was filed on April 22 with the Wayne County Clerk's Office. In her petition, Hill cites an investigation into whether the city gave favor to a nonprofit dedicated to preventing premature births and the mayor's alleged ties to the doctor who heads it.

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, signed off on the clarity of Hill's petition. It is now fit for gathering signatures. The mayor's legal counsel has the option of challenging the ruling. 

Hill contends Duggan "has no respect for citizens" and that he should be "very afraid."

"This specifically has brought to the forefront his ability to have relationships and use the city's taxpayer money in relation to an employee ... to get grants for this person and to fundraise as well," Hill said. "We're going to sit down and discuss some strategy. We have 180 days to do what we're going to do."

Gary Gordon, an attorney for the Dykema law firm representing Duggan at the hearing, argued that Hill's language was "sloppy" and "inaccurate" and "demonstrated a lack of due diligence." He also pointed out what he contends are factual inaccuracies in the petitions, saying they are "salacious, unnecessary" and "don't address the conduct of the mayor."

Melvin Hollowell, Detroit's former corporation counsel and an attorney for the Miller Law Firm also representing Duggan, noted the allegations referenced in Hill's petition have to be based on conduct in Duggan's current term. That began Jan. 1, 2018, he said. Ultimately, the commission voted 2-1 on the petition, with Sabree voting no.

"I move that the language is sufficient and clear to warrant distribution of the recall petition," Burton said. "To be very clear, I am not making a determination that anything in this recall petition is true. That's not for this body to decide whether it's true or not."

A second petition with nearly identical wording was rejected by the commission.

Hollowell said that the mayor's legal team is confident the recall ultimately will not appear on a ballot.

"We'll carefully examine the remaining issue and determine whether or not to appeal, but I think it's a pretty safe bet," he said. 

The city's Office of Inspector General launched a review on April 5 to determine whether Duggan and city officials potentially "abused their authority" by providing preferential treatment to the Make Your Date program.

The investigation came after the Detroit Free Press reported that the program received $358,000 in city grants and benefited from a fundraising campaign that a city official led at the mayor’s request.

A third petition filed by litigious activist Robert Davis of Highland Park was unanimously rejected by the panel after a debate over his residency. 

Davis, who will be assisting Hill in the campaign, said a formal political action committee will be formed in the coming days to raise funds for the recall campaign. 

Davis said commitments have been made by “Detroit businessmen” toward the effort. He said the pledged funding is about $50,000 but declined to specify who was planning to kick in funding in advance of the filing.

Political analyst Mario Morrow filed a complaint Thursday with the state Bureau of Elections, accusing Davis of violating the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. 

Morrow, in his complaint, said Davis failed to file a statement of organization in the time required as well as a finance statement to reveal how much funding has been allocated toward the effort and who is supplying it. 

"It doesn't seem above board to me as a political observer and a political watchdog," he said. "I have no problem with people calling for recalls or filing complaints, but if you are going to hold somebody to a higher standard, you better make sure that you are holding yourself to a high standard as well."

Davis said Thursday evening that “Mr. Morrow has 24 hrs to withdraw the complaint that has been filed with the Secretary of State, otherwise my team of lawyers will be suing Mr. Morrow for filing such a frivolous complaint.” 

Shawn Starkey, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, confirmed a complaint against Davis was received and that the state has five days to review it and determine whether it warrants an investigation.

Davis contends that he's complied with the rules, since no donations have been accepted yet, only "verbal commitments."

Davis said that the campaign plans to gather signatures during the summer months.

In response to the prospect of an appeal, Davis said that Duggan is “wasting the taxpayers’ money in the city of Detroit on a useless legal fund.”

Davis argued during the hearing that the statue doesn't require he be a resident for his petition to be valid. A prior recall petition targeting Duggan, he said, was permitted to proceed by a federal judge.

Davis has said that his residency hasn't changed since his last recall petition was filed and it isn't a factor. 

At that time, Davis filed a recall petition against Duggan for his hiring of the city's former corporation counsel. After a legal dispute in Davis' effort, which also sought to recall former Gov. Rick Snyder over his role in the Flint water crisis, U.S. District Court Judge Judith E. Levy ruled Davis could circulate the Duggan recall petition. Ultimately, he did not collect the signatures.

Prior to the commission's vote, Gordon argued that Davis "has no standing to argue Mike Duggan should be recalled,” and that “any petition filed by him in his name is invalid.”

Duggan last week took a shot at Davis over a past criminal conviction and attempt to spearhead a recall against the mayor. 

The activist has a federal conviction for embezzling taxpayer funds while he served as a school board member in Highland Park.

Duggan added that he was sure the recall effort would "work itself out" and that "the people in the city will decide; it's in the charter."

Davis has argued Duggan's remarks are an "absurd" attempt to deflect from his own actions.

Davis served 10 months in prison for stealing $200,000 from Highland Park Schools between 2004 and 2010. The former school board member was accused by prosecutors of funneling money from a school contractor to two separate companies he had created.

Duggan's spokesman, John Roach, on Thursday said the mayor has "tremendous support" in the city.

"They need 50,000 recall signatures from a city where only 22,000 people even voted against the mayor in November 2017," said Roach in an email, adding Duggan's legal representation in the matter is being paid for out of his campaign fund.

Duggan this month said he intends to be "100 percent" cooperative in the inspector general investigation. 

The mayor has said the city didn't direct any dollars toward the nonprofit. The partnership was with Wayne State University directly, which runs the program. 

The News reviewed a 2017 email from Alexis Wiley, Duggan's chief of staff, to the program's leader, Dr. Sonia Hassan, who is affiliated with Wayne State University.

"Dr. Hassan, I’d like to introduce you to Ryan Friedrichs. He is our chief development officer and the Mayor has tasked him with launching a large scale fundraising effort to Make Your Date. He’ll be in touch soon!”

Duggan's relationship to Hassan has been publicly questioned in recent months. 
Businessman Robert Carmack, who has been locked in a legal battle with the city and a public feud with Duggan, recently accused the mayor of bribery and infidelity in banners flown over Comerica Park and Hart Plaza in Detroit.

Carmack last year aired private investigator footage of the mayor's comings and goings on a billboard truck outside City Hall.

On Friday, Carmack called Inspector General Ellen Ha's review a "sham" based on statements Ha made to Carmack during a recently secretly recorded meeting. 

Ha's office stood by its probe and her credentials.