Attorney grievance panel asked to investigate city of Detroit's top lawyer

Detroit News staff

Detroit — The head of a city watchdog agency charged with rooting out waste, fraud and corruption has asked the state's Attorney Grievance Commission to investigate Detroit's  top attorney over claims his office is "improperly intervening in our investigations.”

Detroit Inspector General Ellen Ha on Wednesday described what she characterized as a long-running conflict of interest issue between Ha's office and the office of Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia during Detroit City Council's formal session on Wednesday.

Detroit Inspector General Ellen Ha

"We believe the corporation counsel is improperly intervening in our investigations by providing legal counsel and representation to high-level city officials and employees despite the glaring conflict of interest that looms over law department attorneys under the guise of protecting public officials and employees from the Office of Inspector General," Ha told council members.

"What is at stake here is what kind of an inspector general should the city have? The one who operates in accordance with the charter to act as an independent check on elected or appointed officials, city employees and contractors or the one who happily defers her responsibilities and powers in the shadows of the biding time, afraid to do her job as required by the charter."

Ha said that her office has filed a complaint with a request for an investigation with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission to point out, she said, that "the corporation counsel has a serious violation of conflict of interest."

But Chuck Raimi, a lawyer with the City's Law Department, defended Garcia and the law office, arguing Ha's claims are "distressing" and "disturbing."

"We have never interfered in any way, shape or form in any OIG investigation," said Raimi. 

Garcia joined the meeting later Wednesday morning to defend his actions and said he looks forward to any process that will resolve the dispute.

"I'm not interested in a resolution that will be an abdication of my responsibilty," he said. "As Corporation Counsel, I have a responsibility to assist employees when they are engaged in legal matters arising out of their work for the city. That's in the charter. 

Lawrence Garcia

"Certainly being investigated or interviewed by the OIG is something that only happens to city employees because they are city employees. When that happens, I'm not going to ask them to spend thousands of dollars out of their own pocket to hire private attorneys, as Ms. Ha has asked that they do," he added. "No, I am willing to assist those people ... I will stand firm on that policy to the bitter end."

The Attorney Grievance Commission is unable to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation unless or until it is referred to the Attorney Discipline Board for action,  Michael Goetz, the commission’s grievance administrator, told The Detroit News on Wednesday. 

A commission staff attorney reviews and investigates complaints before forwarding the results and recommendation to Goetz, who would then present that report to the nine-member commission. Investigations can take anywhere from a month to a year and the commission typically receives 60 to 65 complaints a month that it must review, Goetz noted. 

The commission’s decision on whether to send the complaint on to the Attorney Discipline Board determines whether the complaint becomes public, Goetz said.

“It does become a public record once a formal complaint is filed with board,” he said.

At-large member Janee Ayers, who was defeated in her bid for another term in Tuesday's general election, during the Wednesday discussion said "this whole thing is messy" and "it's ridiculous" after a brief discussion over whether the dispute would be better suited for a closed session among council members, Ha and Garcia.

"We can't try to silence attorney Raimi when attorney Ha brought all of this to the forefront," Ayers said. "At this point, whatever needs to be discussed, let's discuss it whether it's public, private or otherwise. I'm actually ashamed of how this is going right now."

Councilman Scott Benson suggested that an arbitrator be called in to help resolve the issue, which he said has become "office bashing between both sides." 

"I'm hoping to move to that venue and quickly end this conversation," Benson said. 

Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López disagreed, saying the matter should be debated in a public forum, telling Ha "I admire your courage" and noted that too often women of color are minimized. 

"I think that's incredibly disrespectful and I think it's dangerous .... making this personal undermines the fact that is about a structural issue and an issue of how our charter is laid out," Castañeda-López said. 

Ha noted the City Council already had authorized $100,000 to cover costs of the outside counsel that Ha said is needed to represent her office in the matter. Her office, she said, has already spent some of that funding, but she hopes not to expend much more. 

"It is really troubling that we had to engage outside counsel so I can do my job," Ha said. 

"This is about the question of the Office of Inspector General being an independent agency. I am the City of Detroit Inspector General and if anybody has issues with my conduct, that I am actually destroying the city, that I am actually abusing my authority, then please remove me because that is what the charter requires," she said. 

Ha said she's made numerous requests to meet with Garcia over the concerns. But Ha and her attorney, Julie Porter, said during Wednesday's meeting that thus far he's declined to meet, Porter said.

Raimi, in response to Porter's claim, noted that Porter had set a deadline and made clear if the Law Department didn't agree with their position that a grievance would be filed.

"I guess they invited us to meet with them, but their position was perfectly clear; you either capitulate within a few days or we're going to go to the grievance commission," Raimi said. "We didn't see it a good-faith invitation. We saw it as a blatant threat, which it was."

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.