Detroit council seeks email retention rule in wake of inspector general probe

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — City Council President Brenda Jones is calling for an ordinance to prevent the deletion of governmental emails and a five-year retention policy in the wake of an independent probe that found mayoral aides directed staff to erase correspondence involving a controversial nonprofit.

Jones made the request during Tuesday's formal session in the wake of a report issued this month by the city's Office of Inspector General that concluded three mayoral aides, including Mayor Mike Duggan's chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, abused their authority by directing lower-level staff to delete emails involving the Make Your Date nonprofit.

City Council President Brenda Jones is calling for an ordinance to prevent the deletion of governmental emails and a five-year retention policy in the wake of an independent probe that found mayoral aides directed staff to erase correspondence involving a controversial nonprofit.

"I want a law that will retain documents dealing with any entity from this local government," Jones told the city's top lawyer and the panel's legal staff. "As momma said, 'shame on them the first time but shame on you the second time that it happens.'"

The request for formal laws for city emails came as Inspector General Ellen Ha appeared Tuesday before council to provide an overview of her six-month review into whether mayor and city staff gave favor to the effort aimed at reducing preterm births.

Jones' request was accompanied by a call from Detroit Councilman James Tate for proper punishment over the act that he deemed "problematic" and "goes against the public's trust."

"Eliminating emails is just not the proper procedure in my opinion," said Tate, who made a motion, asking council's legal team to outline the findings in the inspector general's Oct. 21 report and "demand appropriate discipline to the employees" who requested the emails be deleted. "The process that took place is very questionable to me."

Duggan and Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia have repeatedly said that Ha's review found no city rules or policies were broken by the mayoral aides who directed that the emails be deleted. 

But Ha "corrected the record" Tuesday, by noting her investigation did not assess city policy, regulations or schedules pertaining to the email deletion because "another agency is looking into that."

The state attorney general's Public Integrity Unit is in the midst of its own review into allegations emails pertaining to Make Your Date were deleted. 

"We did not look into any of the city's policy, regulations, the record retention schedule or any Michigan statute that would apply in this situation," Ha said. "People may have hastily acted on the report, but I believe in good government, and I hope that we will continue to take the correct and the right path."

Duggan convened a news conference at City Hall last week to announce that 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 Ha's investigation. 

Ha said Tuesday that a universal work rule could be applied for punishment. That wouldn't include document training but could cover a written reprimand or termination, she said. 

When asked whether she was hopeful the mayor would change course and impose a punishment, Ha responded: "I'm always hopeful that people will do the right thing."

In response to Ha's comments, Garcia maintained the administration's statements about the report are accurate. 

Ha's report, he said, notes that her office wouldn't be addressing statute violations based on the concurrent investigation. 

"The report never states or suggests that the OIG’s review of the email issue revealed any violation of city policy or procedure," Garcia said in an email. "Our response to the OIG’s report is appropriate, given that no individual was found to have violated any laws, policies or rules in the report.

In her opinion piece submitted to The Detroit News on Friday, Ha noted the importance of doling out penalties that match the offenses. 

Jones said she wants the city's Law Department to work with council's Legislative Policy Division to draft an ordinance that would prevent the deletion of any governmental emails as well as lay out a retention policy.

Garcia told council members Tuesday that the city has rules in place that govern document retention and state laws are in place for official records as well. 

In this case, Garcia told council, it's yet to be seen whether the documents deleted were considered official records.

Garcia also stressed there was no pending Freedom of Information Act requests for these records when they were deleted.

"It shouldn't be lost in this conversation that the OIG found no rules were violated," he added. 

Garcia told The News later Tuesday that Duggan fully supports council's intention to pass a record retention ordinance, so long as it applies to all branches of government.

Ha's investigation concluded the three workers abused their authority by directing 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.

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

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 and broadcast them on a billboard truck.

Ha also concluded 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. 

Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield on Tuesday said Duggan and other elected officials should ensure accountability and be mindful of city rules so other charitable causes aren't given favor in the future. 

"At the end of the day, the appearance looks bad," Sheffield said. "We are held to a certain standard and the same standard we are held to, he should be held to as well."

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

The inspector general, under ordinance and Detroit's charter, was established to ensure honesty and integrity and is empowered to debar contractors for misconduct. Ha said her staffers are just the fact finders. 

"The charges, if any, would be bought by the attorney general," she said.