How Detroit council spent its first day back amid corruption probe

The Detroit News

Detroit — The City Council returned Tuesday from summer recess with one member facing a federal conspiracy charge and two others targeted in FBI raids last month in a corruption probe tied to municipal towing operations.

District 3 Councilman Scott Benson and at-large Councilwoman Janeé Ayers took part in the virtual formal session. The pair haven't spoken publicly about the raids conducted late last month at their homes, the homes of their chiefs of staff as well as offices inside Detroit City Hall. Search warrant documents listing probable cause to search the locations are sealed in federal court and no criminal charges have been filed against Benson or Ayers. FBI agents were focused on Detroit towing operations and accusations city officials received bribes, sources have told The Detroit News. 

Detroit City Council returns from summer recess on Sept. 7, 2021, and holds a virtual formal session. The meeting comes after Councilman  André Spivey was charged in a criminal information with conspiracy to commit bribery and follows FBI raids at the homes of Councilman Scott Benson and At-large Councilwoman Janeé Ayers.

The raids were the latest development in the probe that resulted in charges this summer against longtime Councilman André Spivey, who also participated in Tuesday's meeting.

Neither the federal raids nor the corruption probe were addressed by council members on Tuesday. 

Spivey, before the close of the nearly two-hour meeting, said he's "glad to be back in session." Ayers provided a brief rundown of recent community meetings hosted by her office and urged constituents to "please stay connected with our office" about other upcoming dates. Benson said he's "glad to be back serving the people."

Just over a dozen people called in Tuesday for public comment. Only a few made remarks pertaining to the federal investigation, mainly individuals who did not provide their names. Hydrate Detroit leader DeMeeko Williams submitted a written statement urging members to "please do the right thing and take action" regarding the three council members.

Williams asked that Spivey, Benson and Ayers be "formally suspended from their duties and responsibilities on Detroit City Council until the FBI corruption investigation is completed and they have official clearance releasing them from the investigation."

Scott Benson

"It is not appropriate, nor is it possible to allow these members to serve while an investigation is hanging over their heads," Williams contends in the statement. 

Spivey was arraigned in federal court last month on one count of conspiracy to commit bribery over claims he accepted more than $35,000 to be "influenced and rewarded" for votes. The councilman was formally charged in a criminal information in July, and he waived his right to a grand jury.

Spivey's Detroit-based attorney, Elliott Hall, has said Spivey "did nothing in his official capacity as a city councilperson that they're claiming." 

Ayers, 39, is seeking a second, four-year term as an at-large council member in the Nov. 2 general election and faces three other candidates for two at-large seats. Benson, 51, was unopposed in the August primary and advanced to the general election. He is seeking a third term representing northeast Detroit.

Council President Brenda Jones called on the council's legal counsel, David Whitaker, to address Williams' request to strip Ayers, Benson and Spivey of their duties. 

Whitaker said council members, like other U.S. citizens, have a constitutional right of being presumed innocent of any charge. Spivey has been formally charged, Benson and Ayers have not. 

"All three (council members) have been elected by the public and are entitled to serve the entire term of election unless they have been found guilty or plead guilty to a criminal offense. That has not happened," he said. "Neither has the conduct, public or otherwise, been exhibited in such a way that would make it a forfeitable event."

"People have to sort of relax and let the process run its course. Let the investigation that the FBI presumably are doing run its course and let the criminal justice system work," he added. "But as far as I know, we don't have sufficient evidence to bring any allegations under the charter to require forfeiture of office." 

Janee Ayers

Christina Kennedy, an attorney from the Detroit Law Department also weighed in, saying only that she agreed with Whitaker's interpretation.

Just after the August raids, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan vowed to overhaul the city's municipal towing system, which he contends is "fraught with potential for abuse."

Duggan directed Detroit Police Chief James White to bring him a plan to eliminate the city's towing company rotation practice "once and for good."

Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López was the sole council member last month to speak publicly about the investigation, saying she was "horrified and heartbroken" over the raids and the criminal complaint against Spivey.

Castañeda-López also said she intended to introduce a new section to the council's training rules to "foster accountability." 

Reached Tuesday, Jones and President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield did not have an immediate comment on the investigation. The council's other members did not return calls from The News. 

Benson hired Steve Fishman, one of the city's top criminal defense lawyers, days after the FBI agents raided his home. 

The home of Detroit Councilman Scott Benson was raided in late August as part of a federal investigation into towing operations in Detroit. Benson has not been charged with any crime and search warrants are sealed in federal court.

Fishman, in a statement last week, said Benson "will rely on my advice and have nothing to say publicly about this situation." 

"Suffice it to say that he has done nothing wrong, let alone criminal, and expects to be exonerated when the investigation is completed," Fishman said. "As Gladys Knight once said, 'believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.'"

The charges against Spivey come after a second Detroit councilman, Gabe Leland, resigned from the council this spring as he pleaded guilty to a state charge of misconduct in office and was sentenced to two-and-a-half years' probation. 

The 38-year-old Leland 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.

The recent raids are part of the broadest federal investigation into City Hall corruption in the eight years since former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. President Donald Trump commuted the sentence in January.