Duggan says emails were deleted to keep staff 'out of the circus'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Amid swirling controversy over the city's support of a program to stem preterm births, Mayor Mike Duggan said he stands behind the work, admitting a directive from several top aides to have staff delete emails about the effort linked to the mayor was "a mistake out of the best of motives."

Duggan's defense of directing city resources toward Make Your Date came in response to findings from a six-month probe by Detroit's Office of Inspector General that found he gave the nonprofit favor and recommended three Detroit employees, including his chief of staff, should face discipline for directing workers in the city's grants office to delete emails. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

The mayor told The Detroit News on Monday that he wasn't aware nor did he direct staff to delete the emails but has since learned that the decision came amid scrutiny that he contends was fueled by Detroit businessman Robert Carmack.

The auto shop owner had aired private investigator footage on a billboard truck outside City Hall of the mayor's comings and goings, calling into question the mayor's relationship with Dr. Sonia Hassan, who heads Make Your Date. Duggan and Hassan have not publicly addressed their relationship. 

Carmack, who is locked in a legal battle with the city over a land dispute, also hired pilots to fly airplane banners over downtown arenas during major sporting events to broadcast his claims against Duggan, among other stunts. 

"It was terribly intrusive into folks' personal lives," Duggan said. "They did it in a climate of terrible pressure that they didn't create."

The inspector general report concluded that Duggan's chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, abused her authority by ordering workers in the city's grants office to delete emails pertaining to the program through Chief Development Officer Ryan Friedrichs, the husband of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Deputy Chief Development Officer Sirene Abou-Chakra.

Duggan said the junior staffers were doing their jobs and that Wiley, Friedrichs and Abou-Chakra were motivated to "keep them out of the circus."

Duggan said he'll be speaking with Detroit's Human Resources Director Denise Starr about potential disciplinary actions in light of the inspector general's findings. He expects to further detail any decisions on Tuesday.

"It was a mistake because it made it look like something was being covered up when there was nothing to be covered up," he said.

"On the other hand, Alexis, Ryan and Sirene were in a situation that wasn't their fault. I think that they honestly wanted to protect two junior staff people from having their name dragged into the whole Robert Carmack situation and all the publicity associated. Their hearts were in the right place, but it wasn't good judgment."

Carmack said Monday he wasn't interviewed by the inspector general during the review and denied Duggan's assertion that he would have gone after the grants staff members.

"What they are saying doesn't even make sense. This is just corruption," he said. "What does it have to do with the billboards or signs or airplanes or anything? What they tried to do is do a cover-up. They tried to cover up what they did, and it just didn't work."

Wiley, in a statement provided Monday, said she's built her career on integrity.

"I would never knowingly do anything that would jeopardize or undermine that," said Wiley, adding she was truthful when interviewed by the inspector general and stands by her statements. 

According to inspector general's report, two grants staff members were directed to delete emails regarding Make Your Date by a high-ranking official in the mayor's office "in an attempt to hide the amount of work done by the department to secure grant funding."

The staff first was instructed to delete Make Your Date emails around December.

Friedrichs said Wiley called him soon after the surveillance video of Duggan was broadcast outside City Hall and told him to have the two staffers — Claire Huttenlocher and Monique Phillips — delete the outreach emails pertaining to the program.

Wiley justified her direction to Friedrichs by stating she did not want to "pull the grants department into all of this," the report notes. 

Friedrichs then provided the same direction to Abou-Chakra. Phillips deleted emails but only after forwarding some to her personal account to retain a record. Huttenlocher, the report says, did not receive the message and continued to reach out to Make Your Date via email.

Wiley admitted she spoke with Friedrichs. But she "did not recall" directing him to have his staff delete the Make Your Date emails, the report says. 

A second directive from Wiley was given in February to stop contacting Make Your Date and to delete all emails, according to the report. Friedrichs relayed the order again, noted that a "full stop" occurred to "let the circus settle."

Huttenlocher was told by Abou-Chakra that the request was made to "protect you guys," according to the inspector general's findings, from "press coverage."

Wiley, in her interview with the inspector general, said she asked Friedrichs to stop all communication about Make Your Date, saying with "Bob Carmack and all of the craziness going on" the intention was that the grants staff should stop reaching out.

But she denied requesting that emails be deleted. 

"I do not recall saying that, and when I learned emails had been deleted, I was surprised," it reads. 

Carmack noted that a former city staffer, who had been employed as an associate director in the office of grants management, reported the deleted emails to the inspector general. 

Kennedy Shannon also filed a July whistleblower lawsuit against Detroit, arguing she was fired last spring for flagging the federal government about concerns tied to a grant program to aid entrepreneurs. 

Shannon on Monday reiterated she brought the allegations of the deleted emails to the inspector general while she was still an active employee, prompting the office to widen its investigation into Make Your Date. 

"I was pleased with the OIG report," she said. "I feel like the truth has finally come out."

During his OIG interview, Friedrichs said that the emails were recovered to "avoid the appearance of impropriety." He did not know if the emails would have been recovered if not for Shannon's allegations, the report says. 

Duggan told The News that he only learned of the deleted emails this spring. Once the administration found out, he contends, they acted quickly to produce the emails.

Ultimately, the hundreds of previously deleted pages of correspondence were posted on the city's website. 

"We've been trying to be completely transparent from the moment we realized they were deleted," he said. "There's nothing in them that's in any way problematic."

The inspector general's report concluded Duggan provided special treatment to Make Your Date. But his actions, it reads, did not rise to the level of an abuse of power because he did not violate any city rules or laws.

Such treatment, however, "was not best practice or good governance," the inspector general wrote, saying it lacked "fairness, openness, and transparency."

Duggan said he stands by the city's decision to partner with Wayne State University —the leading research institute on preterm birth — on the program and doesn't agree it was preferential. 

The effort, he said, resulted in a 37% reduction in preterm births earlier than 32 weeks. 

"To me, that shows that this was the right decision, and my goal was to reduce the number of moms miscarrying and the number of babies who died in their first year," he said. 

In response to the report's warning of findings that undermine "the public's trust in an open and transparent government," Duggan said the public "will make its own determination."

"I sit once a week in the living rooms of people in this city, and this issue never comes up," said Duggan, noting residents want to talk about jobs and abandoned houses. 

The mayor reiterated the findings that no laws or policies were broken, adding: "I'm glad that this is finally at an end."

Duggan had no comment Monday on the pending investigation being conducted into the claims of workers being directed to delete emails by the state Attorney General's Public Integrity Unit.