Detroit councilman accused of being 'rewarded' for votes

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — A longtime city councilman and a member of his staff are accused of accepting more than $35,000 in bribe payments to be "influenced and rewarded" for votes over several years, federal authorities contend.

City Councilman André L. Spivey, a churchgoing representative for the city's east side, is facing one federal count of conspiracy to commit bribery on claims that he and another unnamed official, identified in federal filings as "Public Official A," accepted the funds in exchange for votes on the Detroit City Council and in subcommittees from 2016 to 2020. The federal filing notes the findings are "concerning an industry under review by the council."

According to the filing, Spivey accepted a $1,000 cash bribe payment from an undercover law enforcement agent on Oct. 26, 2018. Spivey was formally charged Wednesday in a criminal information, waiving his right to a grand jury.

The criminal information specifically notes Detroit received more than $10,000 in federal assistance during each year of the alleged conspiracy, with no other context given. The charge of theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds carries a penalty of returning the funds and imprisonment of not more than five years, or both.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment Wednesday.

Spivey's Detroit-based attorney, Elliott Hall, has said Spivey "did nothing in his official capacity as a city councilperson that they're claiming." On Wednesday, Hall noted in regards to the councilman's charge: "Spivey is only being charged with the $1,000, but that he and Public Official A collected together over $35,000." 

Hall said Spivey has been "fully cooperating with the federal authorities for over a year."

"At no time has he been combative or elusive," he said. "Mr. Spivey has a great deal of faith in the justice system and is hoping to have this issue resolved very soon."

Some legal experts view the lack of details in the criminal information as significant.

"The fact that this is an information instead of an indictment tells me it’s likely he’s pleading guilty," said Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan who now teaches at the University of Michigan.

More would be needed, she added, if authorities were building a case to present and prove in court. "If he’s pleading guilty, then you don’t need to include all of those details."

Larry Dubin, an emeritus professor of Law at the University of Detroit Mercy, added: “Perhaps the facts are vague to help facilitate the further investigation of other people involved in this matter."

Spivey is out of town until Tuesday, Hall said, and an arraignment is anticipated later next week. 

He also has said Spivey has not resigned his seat: Federal authorities "might require him to," but "we're trying to keep him in to finish his term."

Spivey is among a handful of council members who announced earlier this year that they would not be seeking another four-year term in this year's election. President Brenda Jones and member Raquel Castañeda-López also aren't seeking reelection in the Aug. 3 primary. 

Spivey is the second Detroit councilman this term accused of accepting bribes in favor of votes at the council table. This spring, indicted City Councilman Gabe Leland resigned after pleading guilty to a state charge of misconduct in office.

Spivey was first elected citywide in 2009. He was subsequently elected to represent the council's District 4 in 2013 and 2017. He lives in the district's historic East English Village.

Residents in shock

Although Spivey has been less visible in recent months in his district, residents and community leaders said Wednesday that they are saddened and blindsided by the allegations. 

For Donna Givens Davidson, president and CEO of the Eastside Community Network, who has known and worked with Spivey even before he became a public official, it's been a painful shock. 

“He’s always opened his door and extended his hand when I’ve asked for help,” said Givens Davidson, noting Spivey has been responsive and supportive and his council staff has aided her group in events and with holiday meal giveaways.

She hasn’t always agreed with Spivey's legislative decisions and, at times, wished he’d been more forceful in addressing some concerns. But has "always believed him to be a man who acted according to his vision of what the community needed."

“I want people to understand that you have the politics and you have the person. This is a man, a husband, a father, and from what I understand, he’s good at those roles," she said. "I don’t want to have all of his years of public service defined by this one thing, especially when we don’t know what, if any role he played or whether he’s guilty or not."

Toson Knight, a resident and candidate for the District 4 seat in the August primary, said he has offered his prayers to Spivey, with whom he often interacted during Knight's time working for Mayor Mike Duggan's administration. 

The claims, he said, make it challenging for Knight and others seeking office who are working to rebuild public trust. 

"We don’t need any more bad coverage. We have enough of it," he said. “It (the allegations) doesn’t reflect the entire city of Detroit. We’ve come a long way from that type of behavior. Hopefully, this is just a bump in the road."

Other candidates for District 4 include former journalist M.L. Elrick and retired judge Virgil C. Smith as well as retired social worker Ane Bomani, former Wayne County sheriff deputy Kenneth Snapp, veteran Daivon Reeder and community advocate Latisha Johnson.

Maureen Dritsan, a 29-year resident of the neighborhood and an executive board member of the East English Village Association, said she and other board members were also shocked and disappointed.

"His first term, he showed up regularly at our meetings and was very responsive with his staff," said Dritsan, adding she was disappointed that Spivey "waited until the very last minute to note that he was not going to run for an at-large council position, but certainly gave the impression that he was to a number of people that live in D4."

Dritsan contends Spivey didn't talk to constituents following recent historic flooding that hit the city's east side particularly hard, nor did he show up at a planned July 19 meeting with the directors of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the Great Lakes Water Authority. 

"We now know why he was keeping a low profile," said Dritsan, 73. "I think he needs to resign."

Duggan, meanwhile, said Wednesday it's "not my place" to weigh in on whether Spivey should resign.

"Just like everybody else in this country, he's entitled to be presumed innocent," he said. "We'll see how the criminal justice process plays out."

Earlier this year, Duggan said Leland's case had been a "negative cloud" over the city and that Leland's plea and resignation were allowing Detroit to move forward. 

Leland was sentenced last month to two and a half years probation on a state charge. The 38-year-old Democrat was accused of agreeing to accept $15,000 in cash and free car repairs from a Detroit businessman in exchange for his vote on a controversial land deal.

The state case came after Leland was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2018 on bribery conspiracy and two counts of bribery stemming from the allegations. The federal case against Leland was dismissed as part of his plea agreement.

Leland was the highest-ranking Detroit politician to be charged with a federal crime since former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was indicted a decade ago and subsequently sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. Kilpatrick was released in January after former President Donald Trump commuted his sentence. He served seven years.

The Detroit council has long been mired in other public corruption cases and scandals.

At the time of her death in 2004, former Councilwoman Kay Everett faced an indictment for taking a cash bribe from a city contractor.

In 2006, former Detroit councilman Alonzo "Lonnie" Bates was convicted of theft and bank fraud for placing "ghost employees" on his payroll. Bates was sentenced to 33 months in prison for taking $800,000 in bribes while he was a member of the Detroit School Board.

Former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers was convicted of taking bribes while in office. Conyers pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 2010 and was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting money in exchange for her vote on a $1 billion sludge-hauling deal. At the time of her death in 2004, Everett was under indictment for taking a bribe from a city contractor, who flavored the deal with 17 pounds of sausage.

Former council President Charles Pugh resigned in 2013, months after leaving City Hall amid allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a teenage boy. In 2016, he pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges and was sentenced to 5 1/2 to 15 years in prison.

'It's all a mystery'

Scotty Boman, chair of the District 4 Community Advisory Council, said at its July 12 meeting the advisory council passed a resolution calling out Spivey for not appointing a youth member to the advisory group nearly six months after the deadline and after the board provided a list of candidates to select from.

"He has not been doing his job following the city ordinances as far as community appointments are concerned," said Boman, 59, who lives in the city's Morningside neighborhood. "It shows a disrespect for the legal process. Up until this disagreement, he had shown integrity." 

As an ordained itinerant minister, Spivey has served as pastor of several African Methodist Episcopal Churches and is executive minister at the Oak Grove A.M.E Church on Cherrylawn Avenue in Detroit.

"Rev. Spivey has faithfully served Oak Grove AME Church with honor and distinction," Senior Pastor Cindy Rudolph said Wednesday. "As his church family, we are offering prayers and support for him and his family during these challenging times."

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson declined to comment Wednesday on the allegations involving Spivey. Other council members could not be reached. 

Jackie Grant, who ran against Spivey in 2016, said she had assumed Spivey decided not to run this cycle because he's been in law school, with hopes of going in a different direction. But now, "it's all a mystery," she said. 

Grant, a 35-year resident of Detroit's Morningside community, noted Spivey appointed her to the city's board of zoning appeals. She's worked closely with people in his office about community issues especially, blight, she said. 

"I'm blindsided by this," said Grant, 73. "We have a history of people behaving badly. I'm so disappointed, and I really can't wait to see a new council."

Detroiters, Grant said, need to pay attention to who is running for office and not just pick candidates based on name recognition.

"It has to be about who can do this work," said Grant, adding she wouldn't run for council again because "it's a dirty business." "And it's a heavy lift for whoever is on council if they're doing their job."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.