Inspector general questions integrity of Detroit officials

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city's inspector general is urging Detroit leaders to "restore integrity" in the wake of recent investigations that uncovered abuse of authority within city government.

Detroit Inspector General Ellen Ha stressed the importance of proper punishment in light of the probes that accuse Detroit's police board and mayoral aides, who ordered staff to delete emails involving a controversial nonprofit, of wrongdoing.

In an opinion piece submitted to The Detroit News on Friday, Ha noted several recent published reports from her office have called for discipline against certain employees. She noted the importance of doling out penalties that match the offenses. 

Ellen Ha

"While we are mindful of management’s reluctance to discipline hard-working employees who may have meant well, when discipline does not match the wrong-doings, it can easily be viewed as favoritism," wrote Ha, who noted some "well-intended" decisions can impact the public's trust in government.

"Rules and discipline should apply universally and equally to all employees regardless of the position they hold."

Ha's letter comes three days after Mayor Mike Duggan convened a news conference at City Hall to announce that his chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, and two other aides — Chief Development Officer Ryan Friedrichs, the husband of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Deputy Chief Development Officer Sirene Abou-Chakra — would undergo document management training in the wake of a six-month probe by Ha into the city's dealings with the Make Your Date nonprofit.

"Let us restore integrity to our government so that we can continue to move forward," Ha wrote Friday.

In the report released Monday, Ha concluded the three workers abused their authority by directing two lower-level staffers to delete emails detailing efforts to seek out support for the program aimed at addressing preterm birth that's headed by a doctor linked to Duggan.

On Monday, Duggan told The News that it was "a mistake out of the best of motives."

Ha also concluded that the mayor gave preferential treatment to the program by "unilaterally" directing city resources toward Make Your Date. But his actions, the investigation found, did not violate rules or rise to the level of an abuse of power.

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, said Friday that the administration takes every inspector general report seriously.

"Anytime the OIG finds that any city employee violated the charter or anytime the OIG makes a finding that an employee violated any city ordinance, policy or rule, that employee is disciplined appropriately," he said. 

Duggan contends that Wiley, Friedrichs and Abou-Chakra hadn't broken any rules, nor did they delete any of their own emails. The directive, he said, was motivated by stress fueled by scrutiny from Detroit businessman Robert Carmack, who hired a private investigator to obtain secret footage of the mayor's comings and goings.

According to the inspector general, two grants staffers were directed to delete the emails "in an attempt to hide the amount of work done by the department to secure grant funding."

Make Your Date, the report said, received a total of $358,368 in grant funds from the Detroit Health Department. 

The Public Integrity Unit of state Attorney General Dana Nessel's office, meanwhile, is conducting its own investigation into claims that workers had been directed to delete Make Your Date emails. As of Friday, the office said there was no update on the matter.

In a separate investigation, Ha's office this month concluded the city's police oversight board abused its authority by delegating hiring power to its secretary, Gregory Hicks, who manipulated job postings for hand-picked candidates, and that the board violated Detroit's charter and the Open Meetings Act. 

The board, according to the report, rejected Ha's recommendations, including her call to discipline the secretary over an abuse of authority and to punish others who Ha contends provided false statements during the inspector general investigation. 

Police Chief James Craig said this month he was "extremely troubled" by the allegations in the inspector general's report.

A spokeswoman for the board referred The News to public statements made Thursday by the police board's chair. Board Chairwoman Lisa Carter pushed back in a statement she read aloud during Thursday's meeting, saying the allegations are "administrative, not criminal."

"Due process," Carter said, "even in administrative reviews, is a critical guarantee for all personnel including the BOPC and staff."

The board has not issued any punishments, and Carter said Thursday the board remains at odds with the inspector general's office over interpretations for applying the charter.

In her Friday letter, Ha notes that not long ago, the city experienced "public humiliation and embarrassment" in the wake of the public corruption case involving ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, federal oversight of the city's police and water departments and Detroit's financial crisis.

The inspector general, under ordinance and Detroit's charter, was established to ensure honesty and integrity and is empowered to debar contractors for misconduct. The charter does not address what authority the office has over recommendations against public officials and employees.

"Management must set the tone and let the public know that what is wrong is simply wrong regardless of intent," Ha's letter said. "The City of Detroit cannot afford to go back where darkness lingers, where friends, family, and certain favored people are treated differently."