FBI seized towing docs, electronics and records for Benson aide during Detroit City Hall raid

Robert Snell Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — FBI agents investigating Detroit City Hall corruption seized electronics, towing paperwork, shredded documents and payroll records for an aide of Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson during a high-profile City Hall raid last month.

Items seized from the City Council suite — including shredded documents, thumb drives, towing records and checks and W2 records for 35-year-old Benson aide Emberly Vick — are listed on a search warrant inventory form obtained Tuesday by The Detroit News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

FBI employees carry boxes to vehicles from the Detroit City Hall building, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, in Detroit.

The document confirms an exclusive August report by The News that said the corruption investigation was focused on Detroit towing operations in what amounts to the broadest public corruption probe in the eight years since former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of racketeering conspiracy. Vick has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The Aug. 25 search at City Hall coincided with raids at the home of Benson, at-large Councilwoman Janeé Ayers and their chief of staff, Carol Banks and Ricardo Silva. The searches were the latest development in a scandal that has led to bribery charges against Councilman André Spivey.

Federal agents searched all offices, rooms and containers in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center associated with Ayers and Benson and their staff members for evidence of possible crimes, records of nonprofit social welfare organizations, committees to elect, campaign financing, including bank records and council meeting agendas and minutes, according to the search and seizure warrant.

Authorities also were seeking any money or evidence of virtual currency with a value in excess of $1,000, records of possible post office boxes, safety deposit boxes, or safes where the records could be located. 

The search documents also list an envelope that was taken labeled "Troy's Towing," which is located on Grinnell on the city's northeast side. Troy's is one of the multiple towing companies that holds regular vehicle auctions with Detroit's police department. Troy's did not immediately respond to a phone call Tuesday seeking comment. 

“Because the investigation is ongoing, I am unable to provide any additional information about the search warrants executed last month at Detroit City Hall,” FBI spokeswoman Mara Schneider said Tuesday. 

Benson's attorney, Steve Fishman, said he couldn't believe the District 3 representative was "lumped into the probe."

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

Ayers, meanwhile, could not be reached for comment.

The documents provide a partial roadmap of where FBI agents are headed in an investigation that sources said started in summer 2018.

The FBI corruption investigation embroils three Detroit City Council members: Clockwise from left: André Spivey, Janeé Ayers and Scott Benson.

Search warrant documents listing probable cause to search the locations remained sealed in court and no criminal charges have been filed.

All council members were present for Tuesday's formal session, where a change to how the city charter's towing ordinance is up for review. A date has not been set for a formal hearing and vote. 

It proposes the change of establishing a competitive bidding process to replace a permit system, which the city began using in 2011.

The Detroit Board of Police Commissioners voted 8-1 on Thursday to lessen its role in selecting the city’s towing companies, moving the process to the Detroit Office of Contracting and Procurement to oversee the selection, said Commissioner Willie Bell. Commissioner Linda Bernard voted no on the issue. 

“It should not be DPD engaging in (selecting towers)," Bell said Thursday. "... We’re trying to move them out of that particular setting of involvement. (Changing the selection process) is one way to do it.”

After FBI agents conducted raids at several locations simultaneously last month, 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" after calling the process "fraught with potential for abuse."

Duggan has said the Police Department had been working toward eliminating a preferential rotation.

"The amounts of money that are involved are just breeding potential for abuse," the mayor said at a press conference a day after the raids.

The city's towing operations have been a source of controversy and scandal for years. A series of audits in 2005 found former police officials gave an inordinate amount of towing business to Gasper Fiore, the former owner of Boulevard & Trumbull Towing in southwest Detroit, in violation of towing rules. 

Fiore was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison in 2018 after his conviction in a Macomb County public corruption scheme.

The audits called for the city to change its towing operations, but the process, beginning in 2009, stalled amid accusations of intimidation, stalking and corruption.

Detroit's auditor general found that towing contracts were being approved without City Council approval in a 2011 report. Instead of fixing the contract process, the city began allowing towers to work under permits, which don't require as much documentation and scrutiny as contracts, and are not competitively bid.

The five-year towing permits were extended in 2016. In April, the Board of Police Commissioners extended the contracts a third time.

In 2017, White, then assistant chief, was ordered to clean up the process and suggested the Police Department take over part of the city's towing operations.

In September 2018, the department bought six trucks, keeping 22 private companies in the towing rotation. Towers balked, and then-police Chief James Craig agreed that the department would tow less than 25% of all vehicles, leaving the rest of the jobs for the private companies.

Since taking over part of the towing operations, six of the private firms have been removed from the rotation for various infractions, including three instances of fraud.

Bell said under the new plan, companies would be selected through a contract process that would include Detroit City Council approval.

Mayoral candidate Anthony Adams, who served as deputy mayor under Kilpatrick, told The News the only way to "clean up city hall is to clean everyone out who's down there."

 "There seems to be some information that's missing in this whole plan of how they want to deal with what they call the 'towing issue.' I believe it's much deeper than just towing itself," Adams said. "There's a lot of favoritism and contracts and awards that need to be addressed, and you can only change that by changing the people who were there."

Staff writer George Hunter contributed.