Detroit Councilman André Spivey pleads guilty to bribery, expected to resign

Robert Snell Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — City Councilman André Spivey is expected to resign from office after pleading guilty Tuesday to a federal bribery charge and admitting he and an aide received almost $36,000 in bribes in the latest corruption scandal to hit Detroit City Hall.

Either Spivey or the unidentified aide accepted cash eight times from an undercover FBI agent or an informant from 2018-20 in exchange for consideration of towing issues pending before City Council. The longtime councilman on Tuesday became the second Detroit City Council member convicted of a felony this year amid an ongoing crackdown on public corruption by FBI agents who are targeting at least five other city officials.

"I approached an individual seeking financial help," Spivey told U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts on Tuesday. "In return, there was an ask to help with the (towing) ordinance.

Spivey, 47, will leave City Council soon — politicians convicted of corruption-related crimes are prohibited from holding state or local office — marking the second vacancy on the city's governing board this year since Councilman Gabe Leland quit in May after pleading guilty to a state misconduct in office charge. Meanwhile, a federal investigation of bribery, extortion, mail and wire fraud that is intensifying against the backdrop of a fall reelection race for two FBI targets, Councilmembers Janeé Ayers and Scott Benson, has not resulted in criminal charges.

Councilman André Spivey is the first to be charged as part of the government's investigation known as "Operation Northern Hook," a probe unraveling corruption within the government, the police department and city of Detroit related to towing industry and other matters.

Spivey is out on bond and he will be sentenced by Roberts on Jan. 19. Advisory sentencing guidelines call for 37 to 46 months in federal prison.

Spivey pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy charge punishable by up to five years in federal prison. The conspiracy lasted from 2016 to 2020, and Spivey has spent the last year secretly cooperating with investigators, said his lawyer, Elliott Hall.

Spivey is the first to be charged as part of the federal corruption investigation known as "Operation Northern Hook," targeting corruption within Detroit City Hall and the police department related to towing and other matters.

"The people of Detroit deserve a city government free of corruption and pay-to-play politics," Acting United States Attorney Saima Mohsin said in a statement Tuesday.

The ongoing FBI investigation is the broadest probe of Detroit City Hall corruption in the eight years since former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of racketeering conspiracy and replaced by a new generation of leaders. In the last 12 years, more than 110 labor leaders, politicians, police officers and bureaucrats have been charged with federal corruption-related crimes locally, according to a database built by The Detroit News.

"If the new generation was reasonably clean you could say 'well, that’s how it used to be done in Detroit,'" said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School. "But like lot of things in old Detroit, we're not getting better."

In the Spivey case, on eight separate occasions between February 2018 and February 2020, the councilman, or a member of his staff identified as "Public Official A," accepted bribe payments amounting to more than $1,000 in each transaction, federal authorities said Tuesday. The payments were given to an undercover agent or a confidential source, all in connection with towing issues pending before the City Council. 

On Oct. 26, 2018, Spivey met with an undercover agent at Side Street Diner in Grosse Pointe and was asked to help two people with regards to towing. Spivey accepted $1,000 cash from the agent and another $1,000 cash from a confidential source.

Spivey met with the towing source to receive payments at the Dearborn Meat Market, and on Jan. 22, 2020, he received additional funds for an annual campaign fundraiser in return to help with towing. Spivey was given $10,000 with an additional $4,000 to a staff member.

He was given another $4,000 to help with contracts on Jan. 27, 2020, and on Feb. 21, 2020, his staff member was given an additional $12,000 by the towing source, Roberts laid out in court.

Hall emphasized, "Mr. Spivey ... had an intent but never issued a vote."

Spivey wore a black suit and dark orange bow tie to court and sat across from Assistant U.S. Attorney David Gardey, chief of the public corruption unit. 

During the hearing, Spivey told Roberts he hasn't faced any prior crimes. He noted that he is a Central Michigan University graduate and is a law student at Wayne State University, expected to graduate in May 2023.

The councilman 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 neighborhood and serves as executive minister at Oak Grove AME Church.

"Over the course of four years, I received payments in hopes to help an individual retain a city contract," Spivey told Roberts. 

Spivey and Hall left the courthouse without addressing reporters. Hall did not return a call seeking comment following Tuesday's hearing. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a Tuesday statement that it was a "hard day" for the city and Spivey's family.

"(Detroit Police) Chief (James) White will be bringing forward recommendations shortly to make it much less likely that this occurs again in the future,” Duggan said in a statement to The Detroit News regarding the city's municipal towing practices. 

Duggan has said that the towing operation in Detroit is "fraught with potential for abuse."

Reached Tuesday, Benson, a councilman for Detroit's District 3, declined to comment. Other city council members did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The News. 

Spivey was charged one month ago, a development followed three weeks later by high-profile FBI raids at City Hall and at the homes of Ayers, Benson and their chiefs of staff, Ricardo Silva and Carol Banks.

None have been charged with wrongdoing.

When FBI agents raided Benson's and Ayers' offices on Aug. 25, they were hunting for bank records, check stubs, cash, campaign finance records and documents regarding 501c4 social welfare organizations, according to search warrants obtained by The News.

Members of the Detroit City Council Gabe Leland, from left, Janeé  Ayers, and Scott Benson attended the memorial service of former Detroit City Councilman Gil Hill at St. Phillip Evangelical Lutheran Church in Detroit in 2016.

They ended up seizing electronics, towing paperwork, shredded documents and payroll records for a Benson aide.

The FBI agents are investigating whether anyone personally benefited from campaign contributions or nonprofit donations and whether they extorted business people, sources told The Detroit News.

Detroit Councilman André Spivey walks by a group of reporters as he heads into his plea hearing on bribery conspiracy charges on Sept. 28, 2021.

"Unfortunately, we continue to see corruption by Detroit public officials that erodes the public's trust in government and undermines the City's effort to move Detroit forward," said Timothy Waters, Detroit FBI special agent in charge. "Today's guilty plea is a result of the FBI's commitment to bringing corrupt officials to justice and should serve as a warning to others who think they are beyond the reach of the law."