Report: Duggan gave Make Your Date favor; chief of staff ordered emails deleted
Detroit — The city’s inspector general released a scathing report Monday that found Mayor Mike Duggan "unilaterally" directed city resources toward assisting a nonprofit, and his chief of staff and other top aides abused their authority by directing staff to delete emails detailing those efforts, undermining “the public's trust in an open and transparent government.”
The finding of preferential treatment for Make Your Date, a nonprofit aimed at addressing preterm births, is the culmination of a sixth-month probe by Detroit's Office of Inspector General, which is calling on the city to reform its policies and staff training, and take disciplinary action against three employees, including Alexis Wiley, the mayor's chief of staff.
While the report's executive summary notes the investigation concluded that Duggan provided special treatment to Make Your Date, it did not rise to the level of an abuse of power because he did not violate city rules or laws, it said. Such treatment, however, "was not best practice or good governance."
"The selection of MYD to partner with the City of Detroit as well as be the recipient of city resources was done in a manner that lacked fairness, openness, and transparency," the report reads.
But most troubling, the OIG writes, is a finding that 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 on Monday said he will be consulting with Detroit's human resources director on potential discipline for the employees. What took place regarding the emails, he said, "wasn't good judgment," but the mayor said he believes that "their hearts were in the right place."
Duggan said he did not give the order nor was he aware of it but said he's since learned it was allegedly done to shield lower-level staff from scrutiny 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 rejected the mayor's assertions, saying they don't make sense and insisting the actions of the city aides were a "cover-up" that "just didn't work."
According to the 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 in November 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.
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."
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.
Wiley, in a provided statement Monday, noted she's spent her life building a career based on integrity.
"I would never knowingly do anything that would jeopardize or undermine that," said Wiley, who was a news reporter for a decade before joining the Duggan administration. "When interviewed by the Office of the Inspector General, I was truthful, and I stand by my statements. Needless to say, I strongly disagree with the OIG findings."
The city also stressed in a Monday statement that the report made no finding that any law, ordinance or city policy was broken in regard to the emails.
Detroit's Chief Financial Officer David Massaron, who led the effort to retrieve the emails, agreed in a provided statement on Monday that the deletion of the emails "was not in the best interest of transparent government" and the administration "made every effort possible to retrieve" them and post them publicly on the city's website.
In a written response to the inspector general earlier this month, Eli Savit, special counsel to Duggan, requested the report findings "be revised and reversed."
"The draft findings, moreover, threaten to impose severe, unwarranted damage to the reputation of several public servants — and further threaten to stymie effective governance in the City of Detroit," Savit wrote.
Inspector General Ellen Ha launched her investigation in April in the wake of a Detroit Free Press report 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.
The report “does not look good,” said Peter Henning, legal ethics and criminal law professor at the Wayne State University Law School, and former prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The OIG report points a pretty damning finger at the Duggan administration, or at least his chief of staff,” Henning said.
“The mayor has enormous power and can exert quite a bit of authority. When you direct employees to help out a private charitable organization, it does not look good. You can see how this could be problematic for city workers. Sometimes, their jobs are on the line, and they have to be very careful of how they act.”
Henning said he isn’t sure whether the issues laid out in the report rise to the level of misconduct in office.
"It’s a difficult charge to prove; you have to prove that they intended to engage in misconduct, and that’s not easy to do," he said.
That, Henning said, would be left up to Wayne County Prosecutor's Office or the state Attorney General's Office.
The Public Integrity Unit of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office is investigating complaints that two Detroit employees were directed to delete emails related to Make Your Date. The office had no comment on Monday.
Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller told The Detroit News her office isn’t involved in the investigation.
“We have not received anything from a police agency at this point regarding the report,” Miller said.
Meanwhile, Ha, in a statement, said the email deletions were the most "egregious."
"The very fact that they were ordered to be deleted alone casts a shadow over transparency,” Ha said.
Among its recommendations, the inspector general's office encouraged the city to establish policies for the selection of organizations, agencies and nonprofits that will partner with Detroit and receive any city resources.
It also called for training for grants office staff and Wiley regarding state record retention laws and "issue appropriate discipline" to Wiley for ordering the deletion of the emails and providing misleading public statements. It also called for discipline for Friedrichs and Abou-Chakra.
The Office of Development and Grants did "successfully" assist the program in raising funds, "in direct contradiction to the initial public statements" made by Wiley, the report notes.
Wiley has publicly stated the city's efforts to raise funds for Make Your Date were unsuccessful and that the city made only preliminary inquiries on behalf of the program. But the recovered emails show otherwise, the report said.
The OIG further said it recognizes the mayor and city's contributions to Make Your Date.
“It is entirely appropriate that city time and resources be allocated to this goal,” the report reads. “However, there must be a process by which any agency, nonprofit, or other organization is selected to receive these resources."
In response to claims of preferential treatment, Duggan, a Democrat, noted the city partnered with Wayne State University on Make Your Date, and it resulted in a 37% reduction in preterm births earlier than 32 weeks.
Ha's office said Monday that it reviewed more than 400,000 pages of documents, interviewed numerous individuals, and conducted extensive research on best practices pertaining to mayoral initiatives and the relationship between public bodies and nonprofit organizations during the course of its investigation.
The release of Ha's report comes after the state Attorney General's Office completed a separate review this month that concluded the nonprofit did not compensate staff or contractors to raise money nor did it take in enough funds to require state registration.
On Monday, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Laura Cox said the OIG report shows several members of the Duggan administration "abused their authority" by ordering city employees to delete emails.
"The revelations in today’s report by the Detroit Inspector General are appalling," she said in a statement. "Ryan Friedrichs and other members of the Duggan administration clearly violated the public’s trust by having their employees delete emails, which showed the misuse of city resources.
"The people of Michigan deserve more than such blatant abuses of power.”