Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gets engaged to doctor linked to controversy

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan is engaged to a woman with whom his relationship was publicly questioned after concerns were raised two years ago about whether the city gave preferential treatment to a Wayne State University program she led.  

Until now, Duggan had declined to discuss his relationship with Dr. Sonia Hassan. In the past, although the two had been publicly linked, they refused to talk about their personal lives. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

Duggan and the city of Detroit's dealings with the university's Make Your Date program, led by Hassan, had been the focus of city and state investigations on claims of potential abuse of authority over whether preferential treatment was given to the effort, which is dedicated to preventing premature births.

In April, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said she decided not to levy charges against Duggan or several city staffers over allegations that city resources were used to solicit donations for Make Your Date. 

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.

Hassan is the associate vice president and founder of the Office of Women’s Health at Wayne State University. She is also co-chair of Michigan's Maternal Infant Health and Equity Collaborative.

The two intend to be married in a small family ceremony at a date to be set this fall, mayoral spokesman John Roach said Tuesday. The announcement comes as Duggan seeks a third, four-year term as Detroit's mayor.

Dr. Sonia Hassan

"Sonia and I couldn't be happier, and we're looking forward to building our lives together," Duggan said in a statement. 

Duggan's former wife, Mary Loretto Maher, filed for divorce in spring 2019, nearly six months after the couple defended their marriage in response to the mayor being publicly challenged over his ties to Hassan.

City businessman Robert Carmack, who was locked in a legal battle with Detroit, took aim at Duggan over the relationship. Carmack aired footage of the mayor's comings and goings at Hassan's residence on a billboard truck outside City Hall and hired private airplanes to fly banners asserting the mayor and Hassan had been carrying on a relationship. Carmack could not be reached Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, Detroit's Office of Inspector General investigated the program for six months after the Detroit Free Press reported 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 OIG's office released a scathing report in fall 2019 that found Duggan "unilaterally" directed city resources toward assisting the nonprofit, and his then-chief of staff Alexis Wiley 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 inspector general called on the city to reform its policies and staff training, and take disciplinary action against three employees, including Wiley, who now leads Duggan's reelection campaign.

Wiley declined to comment Tuesday. Previously, the former reporter said she disagreed with the OIG findings, noting that she's spent her life building a career based on integrity and "would never knowingly do anything that would jeopardize or undermine that." 

While the OIG 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 mayor said the city never directed a cent to a nonprofit. The partnership, Duggan added, was with the university directly.

University representatives have reiterated Duggan's stance, that the program has been handled by Wayne State from the beginning. The nonprofit, the university has said, was never activated and has never received or put out a penny.

Wayne State has said Hassan is a volunteer in her effort to lead the program and that it 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 in which Hassan played a prominent role.

Hassan was named Michiganian of the Year by The Detroit News in 2014 highlighting her work on the program.

"This is a wonderful honor not only for me, but because it recognizes the important research and work conducted at the School of Medicine and the Perinatology Research Branch in the fight against preterm birth," Hassan said at the time. "Also, it helps to draw attention to the newly launched Make Your Date program now underway in the city of Detroit."

At the time, in Detroit, 18% of babies were born prematurely, a rate nearly 6% higher than the state average. Studies showed that low birth weight accounts for almost 50% of the city’s infant mortality rate of 14 deaths in every 1,000 births, twice the national average. 

Duggan hand-picked Hassan, a 1994 graduate of the WSU School of Medicine, to lead the effort.

srahal@detroitnews.com