Corrupt Metro Airport official seeks prison break amid virus outbreak

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — James Warner, a former Detroit Metropolitan Airport supervisor convicted of receiving more than $6 million in bribes — the third-largest amount in U.S. history — wants to stay out of prison due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Warner is supposed to start serving a 10-year sentence April 2 but asked a federal judge Wednesday to delay the reporting date while he appeals. Defense lawyer Harold Gurewitz asked U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts to consider the "extraordinary health crisis" caused by COVID-19.

Defendant James Warner, a former field inspector at Detroit Metro Airport who is charged with taking bribes, leaves the Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse in downtown Detroit on May 21, 2019.

"According to some public health experts, incarcerated individuals 'are at special risk of infection, given their living situations,' and 'may also be less able to participate in proactive measures to keep themselves safe; infection control is challenging in these settings," Gurewitz wrote.

Federal prosecutors oppose the request, calling Warner a danger to himself who has a history of depression and suicidal thoughts.

"Six months after confessing to FBI agents that he had accepted bribes and kickbacks from airport contractors in this case, his family found him suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning in a shed near his house," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eaton Brown wrote in a court filing.

Warner is undergoing treatment and has complied with bond conditions, his lawyer said.

Warner is supposed to report to the federal prison in Milan, about 48 miles southwest of Detroit. The low-security prison houses more than 1,400 inmates.

Federal prison officials have taken several measures to protect inmates amid the outbreak. That includes suspending visitation and inmate transfers. New inmates are being screened for COVID-19 and officials are isolating inmates with exposure risk factors.

Warner, 53, of Commerce Township was convicted of 10 crimes in June, including bribery, theft and money laundering conspiracies, and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say he steered $43.7 million worth of airport contracts to three co-conspirators in return for more than $6 million in kickbacks — the highest total in the history of public corruption cases in Metro Detroit.

The bribery conspiracy outlined by prosecutors started in May 2010 when Warner was working as a field inspector at the airport approving maintenance and repair contracts. He headed several related schemes involving Metro Detroit contractors, including Romulus businessman William Pritula, whose company William Pritula & Sons held facilities and maintenance contracts at the airport, prosecutors said.

Warner drafted and submitted inflated invoices for work Pritula was hired to perform at the airport, according to the government. The payments totaled more than $18 million.

In return, Warner received approximately half of the profits from the contracts, or more than $5 million, according to the indictment.

Pritula pleaded guilty to bribery and was sentenced to probation. He agreed to forfeit $5.4 million to the government.

Federal court records describe Warner as a greedy, potty-mouthed felon.

"If it weren't for me, your ass would be out," Warner told one airport contractor, according to the indictment.

That contractor, authorities allege, was Gary Tenaglia of Rochester, who was accused of defrauding the Wayne County Airport Authority of $1.5 million. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison.

Gary Tenaglia leaves the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in Detroit on May 30, 2019.

Warner allegedly gave Tenaglia inside information so the contractor's company, Envision Electric, could win contracts. In return, Warner received 10% of each invoice, prosecutors said.

At one dinner, Warner and Tenaglia discussed contracts and kickbacks, prosecutors said.

"During the meal, James Warner wrote '5k,' a proposed kickback amount, on a napkin," prosecutors wrote in the indictment. "He folded it and slid it across the table to Gary Tenaglia. After Gary Tenaglia acknowledged the meaning of the writing on the napkin, James Warner retrieved the napkin and ate it."

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