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City releases previously deleted emails tied to Make Your Date nonprofit

Detroit — The city on Friday released hundreds of previously deleted or missing emails that detail fundraising efforts by city employees for a nonprofit whose relationship to the city is under scrutiny amid claims of preferential treatment.

In emails posted on the Detroit Law Department's website, fund development officers Monique Phillips and Claire Huttenlocher solicit funding for Make Your Date, an effort to combat premature births, from several foundations. 

The public release of the 211 pages of emails comes after Detroit's top lawyer Lawrence Garcia said last month that city officials had discovered in early May "that there was a possibility" that some emails had been "deleted or missing" in the Office of Grants and Development amid a probe into Make Your Date launched by the city's Office of Inspector General in April.

Mayor Mike Duggan

Inspector General Ellen Ha launched her investigation to determine whether Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and city officials potentially "abused their authority" by providing preferential treatment to the program run by Wayne State University. 

The investigation was sparked by a Detroit Free Press report that Make Your Date received $358,000 in city grants and benefited from a fundraising campaign that a city official led at the mayor’s request. 

The state Attorney General's office meanwhile said in July that it's reviewing June complaints that allege two Detroit employees were directed to delete emails related to the nonprofit headed by Dr. Sonia Hassan, whose relationship to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan have been publicly questioned. Hassan and some of her staffers are copied in some of the emails that range from November 2017 through November 2018.

Dr. Sonia Hassan

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, confirmed Friday that the office had shifted the review to "investigation status" within the last several days. She declined further comment.

Duggan and the university have maintained that the city never directed any dollars toward a nonprofit. The partnership, the mayor has said, was directly with the university.

In one email dated Jan. 25, 2018, Phillips told Skillman Foundation employee Terry Whitfield that she is responsible for building and strengthening corporate relations to advance city priorities.

“One of those priorities charged to me is assisting one of metro Detroit’s leading infant mortality nonprofit organizations, Make Your Date,” Phillips writes, “as they seek to expand their service offerings to Detroit mothers in need …”

“I would love an opportunity to connect you (or another designated colleague) with the leadership of MYD to discuss potential partnership opportunities in the coming weeks,” Phillips wrote.

Since the publication of this story, a representative from The Skillman Foundation told The Detroit News in an email statement it is not a funder of Make Your Date.

In another email from Phillips to Hassan and Wayne State University staffer Marisa Rodriguez, Phillips says she came across “a couple of great opportunities that we can apply for” that have upcoming deadlines. 

Those were at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the Health Endowment Fund, according to the Dec. 4, 2017, email.

“Please review them below and let me know at your earliest convenience if you’d like to purse (sic),” Phillips said. 

In an email dated Jan. 24, 2018, and titled “MYD Email to Funders,” Philips tells Hassan and Rodriguez that she has been sending “reacquainting messages and then leading up to MYD discussions.” 

Over the course of a year, Phillips scheduled meetings with the Skillman Foundation, The Carls Foundation and the Children’s Hospital Foundation. In some cases, Phillips says she spoke personally with program officers at some of the foundations and provided background on Make Your Date. 

In a Google document that is part of the email release, Rodriguez sends Phillips a list of “funding opportunities” listing Skillman, Carls, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Children’s Hospital of Michigan, Kresge Foundation, the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, March of Dimes and other organizations. Phillips’ name is mentioned three times on the list.

Garcia, in a provided statement, said that the emails released Friday belong to "two junior staff members" of the city's grants office and concern their work with Wayne State "to identify charitable contributions" for Make Your Date. 

Garcia told The News that Phillips and Huttenlocher "weren't acting outside of their normal scope" and "were just doing their jobs" and "trying to raise money for a program that helps with the problem of preterm birth."

The grant's office staff, Garcia said, coordinated its fundraising efforts with Susan Miller, a director of research philanthropy for WSU's Medical School.

"The two ODG staff members connected to these emails acted with diligence and complete integrity throughout a year-long effort," Garcia said.

Garcia declined to comment Friday on the circumstances that led to the deletion of the emails, citing Ha's ongoing investigation. Deputy Inspector General Kamau Marable said Friday that the investigation is ongoing and remains in the "information gathering stage."

Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Hassan, said Friday that Hassan is unpaid in her role leading the program.

"The only people who have benefited are the thousands of at-risk pregnant women in Detroit who have successfully carried their pregnancies to healthy full terms," he said. 

The mayor and Hassan have not addressed questions about their relationship. On Friday, Nowling reiterated that Hassan "does not comment about personal matters."

Duggan's wife, Mary Loretto Maher, filed for divorce in March nearly six months after the couple defended their marriage in response to the mayor being publicly challenged over his ties to Hassan.

Garcia said Friday said he couldn't discuss the relationship between the two, saying, "I don't know anything about it."

Wayne State declined to comment Friday on the newly released emails. 

Garcia stressed the grants team "has raised tens of millions" for the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, Grow Detroit's Young Talent, the Riverfront Conservancy and other efforts. 

"The emails show ODG’s Make Your Date efforts were less fruitful, producing one lead for the Carls Foundation that WSU staff subsequently pursued independently for a $50,000 grant," Garcia wrote. 

Phillips communicated with Hassan and her staff throughout 2018.

In a June 21, 2018, email with the subject line reading "Thank you," Hassan wrote to Phillips that she appreciated "all of your efforts with us" and that she brings "great knowledge and energy to the table for the process."