Duggan, aides won't face charges in deleted email controversy

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan and several city employees won't face criminal charges over allegations that city resources were used to solicit donations for a nonprofit favored by the mayor.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Wednesday charges won't be filed following a nearly two-year probe by her office's Public Integrity Unit into claims that two Detroit employees were directed by top Duggan aides, including his former chief of staff, to delete emails detailing efforts to line up funding to support Make Your Date, a program aimed at reducing preterm births.

Nessel said preferential treatment "is not against the law" and because Duggan is the mayor, he's able to determine what his priorities are, including prioritizing Make Your Date. 

But there's "ample opportunity" to improve city government transparency, Nessel said. 

Both Duggan and Nessel are Democrats. 

The Attorney General's office, Nessel said, reviewed allegations that public funds were misappropriated and emails destroyed "to hide a personal relationship between the mayor of Detroit and the director of the Make Your Date Program."

"The facts and evidence in this case simply did not substantiate criminal activity and therefore we cannot pursue charges against any individuals,” she said.

Mayor Mike Duggan on Tuesday said several trusted aides will undergo document management training in the wake of an independent investigation that found the workers abused their authority by directing lower-level staff to delete emails related to the controversial nonprofit Make Your Date.

The investigation began following a Detroit Free Press report that Make Your Date received $358,000 in city grants and benefited from a fundraising campaign that a city official led at Duggan's request.

The nature of the mayor’s relationship to the doctor who headed the program, Sonia Hassan, has been called into question. Duggan and Hassan have declined to discuss their personal lives. 

Duggan's wife, Mary Loretto Maher, filed for divorce in May 2019, nearly six months after the couple first defended their commitment to marriage in response to Duggan being publicly challenged about his relationship with Hassan.

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, said Nessel noted Wednesday that the emails in question were recovered and have been posted on the city's website since 2019.

"The decision to try to delete them was bad judgment, not a crime. There was nothing damaging in any of them," Roach wrote. "The City of Detroit last year instituted a policy of automatically backing up all employee emails and retaining them for a two-year period in order to make certain this problem cannot arise again in the future."

The state's Freedom of Information Act is designed to give Michigan citizens access to records that reveal the inner workings of government, said Steve Delie, policy lead for open government at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. 

"The deletion of those records for whatever reason and regardless of whether it's lawful is directly contrary to the purpose and intention of that act," said Delie, who also serves as executive director of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. "If you're taking that action, it seems to me that you're cognizant that it's something people would want to see. It certainly poses a significant question about Michigan's transparency laws and shows just another example of why they need to be improved."

"Circumstances like this could be repeated without us ever knowing about it, which would be a huge blow to government transparency," he added. "This begs the question 'Has this occurred before and how often?'"

Nessel said her office considered whether the deletion of the emails violated Michigan's FOIA law. But she noted that at the time the emails were deleted no FOIA requests had been filed for them. 

"The biggest problem here is there were no public documents that were destroyed. In fact, each and every one of these emails ultimately was recovered," she said. "Even if there was an attempt at some juncture to destroy public documents, there was no success."

Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, added while Nessel's investigation appears to have been thorough, the outcome could hurt public trust.

"While the letter of the law may not have been broken, public trust can still be broken when public documents and records are not properly maintained and readily available," he said. "From the state legislature and governor’s office to local governments, those who are public leaders need to be doing everything they can to promote a culture of accountability and transparency wherever the interests of the public are concerned.”

Chief of staff declines interview

Duggan has maintained the city never directed any money toward Make Your Date. The city grants, he said, went to Wayne State University's foundation, which operated the program.

The university has said the program was launched based on research done at the National Institutes of Health's Perinatal Research Branch at Wayne State and Detroit Medical Center's Hutzel Women’s Hospital, where Hassan played a prominent role. Hassan is a volunteer in her effort to lead the program, the university has said. 

Concerns over the program sparked a six-month probe by Detroit's Office of Inspector General. The IG concluded in the fall of 2019 that Duggan "unilaterally" directed city resources toward assisting Make Your Date and the mayor's now-former chief of staff Alexis Wiley, ex-Chief Development Officer Ryan Friedrichs and then-Deputy Chief Development Officer Sirene Abou-Chakra abused their authority by directing staff to delete emails detailing those efforts, undermining "the public's trust in an open and government."

Nessel said Wednesday her office executed four search warrants, reviewed thousands of pages of financial documents as well as about one million documents seized with the help of Michigan State Police from the city's Information Technology Department.

Investigators interviewed 21 people, but Wiley wasn't one of them. Wiley declined to be interviewed, invoking her 5th Amendment rights, and refused to provide a statement, Nessel said. 

However, days before the Detroit IG's office released its report on Oct. 21, 2019, Wiley wrote an email to her husband, Bryce Moe, from a personal account entitled "Full Draft Statement."

Wiley wrote: “I also say I don’t recall because while I did not direct Ryan (Friedrichs) to tell his staff to delete all their emails, I can’t with complete certainty say that nothing in that short conversation gave him that impression. As the report states, neither Ryan, Sirene, nor I at the time saw anything wrong with deleting routine emails.”

Reached Wednesday, Wiley declined to comment on Nessel's investigation. She is now Duggan's campaign manager as he seeks a third term.

Nessel's office evaluated whether evidence could lead to charges of misconduct in office, bribery, embezzlement or destruction of public records. While the actions of city employees "might not rise to ethical behavior, they also don't rise to criminal behavior," the attorney general contended. 

Nessel said it would be difficult to take the claims to a jury and "have any chance of a successful outcome and the ability to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

None of the records reviewed, the investigative report notes, revealed a personal relationship between Duggan and Hassan, which "undercuts a motive to hide or destroy these records," the AG's investigative report notes. 

Inspector General Ellen Ha, in her review, called on the city to reform its policies and staff training, and take disciplinary action against three employees, including Wiley. 

Most troubling, the OIG has said, was a finding that Wiley ordered workers in the city's grants office to delete emails pertaining to the program through Friedrichs, the husband of Democratic Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Abou-Chakra.

The three staffers later were ordered to undergo document retention training. 

Investigative documents released Wednesday note Friedrichs told investigators that he talked with Duggan in June 2019 about Wiley's alleged order to delete the emails.

"Wiley denied to Mayor Duggan she gave the order and the mayor did not know who to believe," investigators wrote. "The Mayor appeared genuinely upset about the deleted emails."

Duggan never held Wiley accountable for the order to delete the emails, which frustrated Friedrichs, the report notes. Wiley, Friedrichs said, changed her story from “I didn’t do it” to “I don’t remember doing it.”

Friedrichs spoke with investigators after he and Nessel's office agreed to an immunity agreement that he requested.

Grants staff get orders

The lower-level grants staff members first were instructed to delete Make Your Date emails around December of 2018.

Duggan has said he did not give the order nor was he aware of it but said he later learned it was done to shield lower-level staff from scrutiny he contends was fueled by Detroit businessman Robert Carmack.

The auto shop owner aired footage In November of 2018 from a private investigator on a billboard truck outside City Hall of the mayor's comings and goings, calling into question Duggan's relationship with Hassan. 

Wiley, Friedrichs and Abou-Chakra, Duggan claimed in October 2019, acted in response to worries over Carmack and associated Freedom of Information Act requests that could have landed a pair of junior staffers "on his radar screen," and "they were going to become part of the media circus."

Duggan has said the order to delete the emails was "wrong" but it was a decision "made out of the best intentions."

Detroit's former Chief Financial Officer David Massaron, according to Nessel's office, was asked by Duggan in early 2019 what he knew about the deleted emails. The mayor was angry and ordered Massaron to "figure out what happened."

Massaron knew a FOIA was filed with the city after Carmack aired the video in front of city hall, and the request sought information about Hassan's employment and related emails.

"Regarding the intentional deletion of relevant emails after a FOIA is received, Massaron stated that violated the records retention rules and, '100%, no you don’t do that. It’s the Hillary Clinton rule,'" the report reads. Massaron is now the budget chief for Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The city’s Law Department that summer publicly released hundreds of pages of the previously deleted or missing emails that detail fundraising efforts by city employees for Make Your Date.

In the emails, city fund development officers Monique Phillips and Claire Huttenlocher solicited funding for Make Your Date from several foundations. Hassan and some of her staff are copied in emails that range from November 2017 through November 2018.

According to the AG's report, Huttenlocher, a development officer who reported to Abou-Chakra, was contacted by Abou-Chakra about Make Your Date in February 2019 and asked about the mayor's relationship to Hassan. 

"There was an “urgent tone” to AbouChakra voice," according to the report. "Abou-Chakra said Wiley had come to her about a “building press inquiry” regarding the mayor and Dr. Hassan, and that was why Abou-Chakra was directing Huttenlocher to delete her MYD emails. There was no discussion about a FOIA request during the call, however the directive from Abou-Chakra was for Huttenlocher to delete all her emails."

Abou-Chakra now heads the city's grants office. Friedrichs left his job with the city in March 2020 to take a position with the development firm of philanthropist Steven Ross. 

The state investigation also found no evidence to support abuse of authority by Wiley, Friedrichs or Abou-Chakra. 

Former city employee Kennedy Shannon and another staffer wrote letters to the attorney general in 2019 flagging the deleted emails involving Make Your Date. 

Shannon on Wednesday expressed frustration with Nessel over a decision she contends was politically driven. She also questioned why the review took two years. 

“It makes absolutely no sense and I feel like she’s protecting him (Duggan) because he’s got a D behind his name,” said Shannon, who is suing the city over her dismissal in spring of 2019. “I guarantee you if this person was a Republican, this wouldn’t be the outcome."