Detroit cops accused of pocketing cash, steering towing work, offering to leak info

Detroit — Two Detroit police officers, including a lieutenant assigned to root out department misconduct, allegedly pocketed cash and received free cars and other bribes while steering work to a towing company and offering to leak inside information, according to an indictment that marked an escalation of a citywide public corruption investigation.

FBI agents early Wednesday arrested Lt. John F. Kennedy, 56, of Rochester Hills, and Officer Daniel Vickers, 54, of Livonia, and raided their homes before unsealing the indictment charging both with multiple counts of bribery and bribery conspiracy. 

The 20-page indictment cites text messages, hints at secretly recorded conversations during an undercover investigation and describes a multi-year conspiracy that portrays Kennedy and Vickers as greedy co-conspirators with their hands out, allegedly demanding cash and competing for bribes both big and small, from $280 to repair a broken vehicle window, and a free BMW.

“I’ll take care of you guys and make sure you guys are always under the radar,” Kennedy allegedly told one unidentified towing company official after receiving free car repairs, according to the indictment.

The arrests are in connection with “Operation Northern Hook," a broader FBI investigation of bribery, extortion and fraud within City Hall and municipal towing operations that late last month yielded its first conviction: Detroit City Councilman André Spivey. He faces up to five years in federal prison after admitting he received almost $36,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent and informant in exchange for supporting a towing issue pending in front of City Council.

“The search warrants and unsealing of the indictment are indications the government appears to be wrapping up the cover part of its investigation,” said Michael Bullotta, a Detroit defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

The alleged conspiracy lasted from October 2018 to March. In all, Kennedy received more than $14,000 in cash, cars and car repairs from the unidentified towing company and an undercover federal agent, prosecutors said. During a five-month period in 2018, Vickers received $3,400 in bribes from the towing company, prosecutors alleged.

Kennedy and Vickers are each charged with three bribery counts and one count of bribery conspiracy and face up to 10 years in federal prison, if convicted. Both have been suspended with pay from the police department.

Kennedy and Vickers received court-appointed lawyers following brief, emotional federal court appearances in which both men were restrained with handcuffs and ankle chains.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Stafford barred Kennedy and Vickers from possessing firearms and released each on a $10,000 unsecured bond. 

An emotional Vickers, who spent part of the hearing with his hands clasped in a prayer pose, cried and professed his innocence during the court hearing.

"I did not do this," Vickers said three times.

Prosecutors allege Kennedy and Vickers conspired to accept bribes in exchange for steering towing work to an unidentified towing company. The move violated city towing rules and an ordinance that bars companies from receiving referrals if they are not included in the department’s towing rotation.

“Police officers who compromise the integrity of the police department by prioritizing personal gain over policing excellence will not be tolerated, and this type of betrayal of the police department and the citizens of Detroit will be thwarted at every turn,” Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said in a statement.

Amid a series of alleged payoffs, the towing company official, listed in the indictment as "Tower A," sought assurances that the illegal benefits would result in favored treatment from police officials, prosecutors contend.

Retired Detroit police officer Alonzo Jones is one of several officers charged in connection with “Operation Northern Hook," a broader FBI investigation of bribery, extortion and fraud within City Hall and municipal towing operations that in September yielded its first conviction: Detroit City Councilman André Spivey.

In response, the government alleges, Vickers told Tower A that Vickers was Kennedy's alleged "go-between," and that Kennedy would have told Vickers if Tower A had any problems with the police department.

In November 2017, Vickers reassured the towing official that he did not have to worry about the police department’s integrity unit investigating the company, the government alleged.

The towing official said he would give Kennedy and Vickers free cars.

“Yeah, if I know I’m good, if I know I’m good, I’m gonna line them up,” the towing figure said. “I got two, two for (Kennedy’s) kids and the one for you. He's got a Chrysler 200, the Fusion, and the Beamer.”

Three months later, in January 2018, Vickers reassured the towing official. Vickers told the tower he "ain't got no problems," according to the indictment.

Free cars and corrupt cops have factored into earlier corruption investigations.

Celia Washington

Celia Washington, the former Detroit deputy police chief, received a free car and was sentenced in April 2018 to one year and a day in federal prison. She was convicted of accepting a $3,000 bribe from Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore in exchange for giving him favorable treatment. 

“Police officers take an oath to protect and serve their community. Kennedy and Vickers allegedly used their official positions to benefit themselves personally," said Timothy Waters, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, in a statement. "Their actions are not in keeping with the integrity and professionalism exhibited by the Detroit Police Department every day.”

Detroit Police Chief James White said Wednesday he was "profoundly disappointed with the crimes allegedly committed by members of the Detroit Police Department."

"We hold ourselves to a high standard and these actions fall far short of those standards," White added.

Vickers could be impatient when demanding bribes, according to the indictment. He asked the towing official for free carpet on March 1, 2018, the government alleged.

"I really want to get on this carpet thing, because my ... even my wife's f------ with me a little bit about that," Vickers said.

"Oh, the carpet?" the tower said. "I'm gonna get the carpet handled right now. I'll get it handled. You don't gotta talk to no one, or whatever, just pick out the carpet you want, take a picture of it, and then I'll handle it from there. You know how many square footage and all that you need ..."

Three days later, carpet installation was finalized, and Vickers confirmed he would help steer work to the towing figure's company, according to the government.

"...I  will do whatever I can to return the favor," Vickers said. "That's why I call u GODFATHER."

Eight months later, the towing figure gave Kennedy a used, 2016 Ford Escape worth $5,600 and provided $1,625 in free repairs, according to the government.

Days later, Kennedy texted the towing figure about the location of a stolen Dodge Challenger, prosecutors alleged.

Kennedy also received a $5,000 cash bribe from an undercover federal agent in December 2019 and another $2,500 this March, according to the indictment.

Former Chief James Craig headed the police department during the alleged conspiracy, but he retired in June to mount a campaign to become governor of Michigan. White was appointed in August by Mayor Mike Duggan.

Willie Bell, who has served on the Board of Police Commissioners since 2013, said the years of towing controversies “are like a shadow we can’t get rid of.”

Bell, a former Detroit police officer, said the allegations against the two officers are “extremely disturbing,” particularly a claim that Kennedy leaked information about an internal investigation to the subject of the probe while Kennedy headed the Integrity Unit.

“You want to have confidence in internal affairs because they’re supposed to be the ones investigating police criminality,” he said. “They’ve got a long history of having an unblemished record, and if these allegations are true, this is a significant letdown.”

The broader corruption investigation, meanwhile, also is looking into whether councilmembers Janeé Ayers, Scott Benson or others personally benefited from campaign contributions or donations to social welfare organizations. FBI agents raided City Hall in late August and searched the homes of Ayers, Benson and their chiefs of staff, Ricardo Silva and Carol Banks. None have been charged with wrongdoing during the ongoing investigation.

Corruption within City Hall, the police department and Detroit's towing industry has persisted for decades and led to high-profile scandals. In recent years, towing has factored into the convictions of Fiore and six officers. It also has sparked ongoing reform efforts by the mayor and chief.

The indictment Wednesday validates the urgent need to implement reforms, Duggan said.

"In the next month, we will implement...a completely transparent process for contracting tow companies through the city's central procurement office," Duggan said.

Federal court documents, interviews and financial records portray the towing industry as a treacherous trade filled with backstabbing, allegations of price-gouging and dark alliances between the companies and Detroit cops.

The industry in Detroit is lucrative — motorists routinely have been required to pay $1,600 or more to reclaim vehicles — and a flawed towing system breeds corruption and predatory pricing, experts say.

"Towing has long been an area ripe with corruption because of the big money involved and the rotation system that allows individual officers discretion to call a particular tower of their choosing, sometimes in exchange for a kickback," said Detroit defense attorney Michael Bullotta, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted Fiore.

Julie Semma, owner of Seven D's Towing in Detroit and vice-president of the Detroit Towing Association said in a statement all towers shouldn't be painted with a broad brush.

"It is unfortunate that the towing industry is referenced as 'corrupt' every time a government official, (police officer or city council member), is charged with corruption in Operation Northern Hook," Semma said. "There are bad actors in every industry and government organization that need to be brought to justice.  Just as we shouldn't label all police as corrupt, nor should we be labeling all towing companies as corrupt."

Wednesday's arrests come three months after the last of six Detroit Police officers convicted in an extortion scandal involving the towing industry was sentenced to prison. Former Officer Deonne Dotson was sentenced to 80 months for accepting bribes from owners of automobile collision shops in return for referring stolen and abandoned vehicles.

Come back to www.detroitnews.com for more on this developing story.

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.