Witness gives bite-by-bite insight into Detroit airport kickback scheme

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
Gary Tenaglia leaves the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in Detroit on May 30, 2019.

Detroit — The restaurant was "It's A Matter of Taste" and the menu on the night a Detroit Metropolitan Airport official and a bribe payer met for dinner included wine, kickbacks and a cocktail napkin appetizer, according to federal court testimony Thursday.

The restaurant played a prominent role in the criminal trial Thursday of former airport manager James Warner, who is accused of fabricating invoices, overcharging the airport for work performed by contractors and receiving more than $5 million worth of kickbacks during a four-year period.

That is the largest amount of kickbacks in a public corruption case in Metro Detroit history and five times as much money as former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick received during his racketeering conspiracy.

Defendant James Warner, a former field inspector at Detroit Metro Airport who is charged with taking bribes, leaves the Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse in downtown Detroit on May 21, 2019.

A former airport contractor, Envision Electric owner Gary Tenaglia, provided jurors bite-by-bite insight into an alleged bribery scheme that involved threats, lies and payoffs hidden in inches-thick envelopes.

Tenaglia testified during the second week of a rare corruption case in federal court in Detroit. He said he feared losing multi-million dollar contracts unless he paid bribes that totaled as much as $1 million to Warner, an airport inspector who approved invoices and oversaw maintenance work performed at the airport.

During dinner at the Commerce Township restaurant in late 2008 or early 2009, Tenaglia said he was ordered to remove a sweater and unbutton his shirt to prove he wasn't wearing a secret recording device. Then, Warner made clear how much one kickback should total by writing on the cocktail napkin "5K," meaning $5,000, Tenaglia testified.

Warner retrieved the napkin, the contractor said.

"And put it in his mouth," Tenaglia, 65, of Oakland Township, said.

"His mouth?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow asked.

"Yes," Tenaglia said. "He ate it."

"How much?" Chutkow asked.

"A quarter of it," Tenaglia said.

The testimony was part of the government's multimedia case against Warner, 52, of Commerce Township that included text messages, secretly recorded phone conversations and undercover video. He is facing 10 charges, including counts related to bribery, theft and money laundering conspiracies, and obstruction of justice, a charge that carries a possible 20-year prison sentence.

Detroit Metropolitan Airport

The cocktail napkin and the amount Warner ate was debated during cross examination by the indicted airport manager's lawyer, Robert Harrison. He attacked Tenaglia as a liar and a convicted cheat who bilked the airport for $1.5 million and testified to reduce his own prison sentence.

Tenaglia admitted grossing more than $16 million from airport contracts, money that the defense lawyer noted bankrolled a luxury lifestyle. Tenaglia owns a $5.9 million French country manor with a helipad in Oakland Township.

Tour Gary Tenaglia's home in Oakland Township.

"Your helicopter: Do you still own it?" the lawyer asked.

"I sold it," Tenaglia said. 

"Your asset situation, until it fell apart, was awfully good, wasn't it?" the lawyer asked.

"Yes," Tenaglia said.

Tenaglia was wrong about why Warner wanted him to remove the sweater during dinner, his lawyer said.

"Didn't he ask you to take if off, saying it is the ugliest thing he ever saw?" the lawyer asked.

The lawyer tried to show Tenaglia's testimony was inconsistent with what he earlier told FBI agents. Tenaglia told the agents Warner ate the whole napkin, the lawyer said.

"It is very unlikely anyone could take a whole bar napkin, put it in their mouth and swallow it," the lawyer said.

"I agree," Tenaglia said.

Tenaglia pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud conspiracy and could be sentenced in August to almost three years in federal prison. He received immunity for paying bribes and could get a reduced sentence after cooperating with the government.

The trial continues Monday in federal court. 

Tenaglia was part of a broader scheme Warner is accused of orchestrating at the airport and while later working for West Bloomfield Township.

The largest alleged airport scheme involved Romulus businessman William Pritula, 70, whose company William Pritula & Sons held facilities and maintenance contracts, prosecutors said.

Warner drafted and submitted inflated invoices for work Pritula was hired to perform at the airport, according to the government. The payments totaled more than $18 million.

In return, Warner received approximately half of the profits from the contracts, or more than $5 million, according to the indictment.

Warner's wife Elizabeth Warner played a key role in the scheme involving Tenaglia, according to testimony Thursday.

Warner concealed the bribes by having his wife send invoices to Tenaglia for marketing and website consulting, Tenaglia testified. Her company received more than $65,000, according to the government.

Elizabeth Warner, however, never performed any marketing or website consulting, Tenaglia said.

"I don't believe we even had a website," he told jurors.


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Twitter: @robertsnellnews