Guilty Detroit Metro airport boss gasps at verdict in $5M bribery case

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
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.

Detroit — A former Detroit Metropolitan Airport official faces the longest corruption crime sentence in U.S. history after being convicted Wednesday of receiving more than $5 million worth of bribes.

James Warner, 52, of Commerce Township, gasped and arched his eyebrows as the jury forewoman said "guilty" 10 times for charges that included bribery, theft and money laundering conspiracies, and obstruction of justice, a charge that carries a possible 20-year prison sentence.

Warner could be sentenced to more than 30 years in federal prison. The sentence would eclipse the current record, a 28-year federal prison sentence being served by former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Warner will be sentenced Oct. 8 by U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts.

"The government is going to come at him guns blazing and seek the maximum sentence," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "Whether Judge Roberts gives that to him is an open question."

Advisory sentencing guidelines call for 24-30 years in federal prison.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who was in the courtroom Wednesday, said his office will pursue a sentence within the guideline range, "at least."

“Today’s conviction reinforces our dedication to prosecuting corrupt public officials who put their own greed over the best interests of the public," Schneider said in a statement. "This is certainly true here, where the defendant showed little concern for the infrastructure of our very own airport.”

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider

Roberts has broad discretion and can ignore the guideline range.

Henning does not expect a record-setting sentence even though Warner was accused of receiving five times as much money as Kilpatrick. The $5 million amounted to the largest bribe in a federal coruption case in Metro Detroit history.

"Being an elected mayor versus an airport official, I’m not sure they’re exactly comparable even though (Warner) took much more money," Henning said.

Prosecutors wanted Warner taken into custody Wednesday, calling him a flight risk and a danger to himself, citing what they believe was a suicide attempt in 2017.

More than $1 million remains unaccounted for and the money could bankroll a flight from justice, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eaton Brown told the judge.

Warner’s lawyer Robert Harrison disagreed. All of Warner’s assets have been frozen or seized, Harrison said, adding that Warner is not suicidal.

The judge read letters from Warner’s doctor before deciding to let Warner remain free until October. The letters convinced the judge Warner was not suicidal and she was satisfied he does not have money to fund an escape.

Warner and his lawyer declined comment.

Jurors deliberated for about four hours before reaching the verdict following a trial that lasted parts of three weeks. In a rare move, Warner testified in his own defense.

Warner, an airport manager and field inspector who also worked for West Bloomfield Township, is the rare indicted public official to stand trial on corruption charges and risk a decades-long federal prison sentence.

Two of the most recent politicians to stand trial in federal court —Kilpatrick and Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds — were convicted and sentenced to double-digit prison sentences.

Kwame Kilpatrick, left, and Dean Reynolds.

Warner's alleged appetites distinguish him from the dozens of public officials who have been accused or convicted of corruption-related crimes in the last decade in Metro Detroit. He fabricated invoices, overcharged the airport for work performed by contractors and received more than $5 million worth of kickbacks during a four-year period, prosecutors said.

The alleged bribery conspiracy outlined by prosecutors started in May 2010 when Warner was working as a field inspector at the airport approving maintenance and repair contracts. He headed three related schemes involving Metro Detroit contractors, including Romulus businessman William Pritula, 70, whose company William Pritula & Sons held facilities and maintenance contracts at the airport, 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.

Pritula pleaded guilty to bribery last year and could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison in September. He agreed to forfeit $5.4 million to the government.

Federal court records describe Warner as a greedy, potty-mouthed felon.

"If it weren't for me, your ass would be out," Warner told one airport contractor, according to the indictment.

That contractor, authorities allege, was Gary Tenaglia, 65, of Rochester, who was charged last year and accused of defrauding the Wayne County Airport Authority of $1.5 million.

Warner allegedly gave Tenaglia inside information so the contractor's company, Envision Electric, could win contracts. In return, Warner received 10 percent of each invoice, prosecutors said.

During one dinner, Warner and Tenaglia discussed contracts and kickbacks, prosecutors said.

"During the meal, James Warner wrote '5k,' a proposed kickback amount, on a napkin," prosecutors wrote in the indictment. "He folded it and slid it across the table to Gary Tenaglia. After Gary Tenaglia acknowledged the meaning of the writing on the napkin, James Warner retrieved the napkin and ate it."

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