Macomb corruption crackdown heating up, feds warn

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
Macomb Twp. Trustee Clifford Freitas exits federal court in Detroit after being charged in a bribery case.

Detroit — A public corruption crackdown that has led to criminal charges against about 20 politicians and contractors is likely to ensnare more people across Metro Detroit, federal prosecutors warned.

Prosecutors leveled the warning Thursday while urging a judge to send one of the corrupt politicians, former Macomb Township Trustee Clifford Freitas, to 20 months in federal prison.

U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland will sentence Freitas, 45, on May 31 for pocketing $42,000 in bribes in exchange for helping garbage mogul Chuck Rizzo win a $16 million township trash contract.

"The government’s wide-ranging investigation of Macomb County has made it abundantly clear that there existed a culture of corruption and pay-to-play government in multiple municipalities there," Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Gardey and Michael Bullotta wrote in a court filing. "And the 20 contractors and public officials charged thus far are likely to have company in the near future."

There are numerous targets, according to sealed wiretap documents obtained by The Detroit News.

Detroit Council Member Gabe Leland

Federal wiretap documents contain a list of “target subjects” that includes several public officials. Among them: Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland, who has been accused in a separate federal civil lawsuit of trying to extort $15,000 from a Detroit businessman.

The sealed records show FBI agents have tapped at least a dozen phones during a probe that led investigators to start orbiting the lucrative world of municipal sewer projects and former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco talks about four, 300-horsepower vertical turbine solid handling pumps that drop 55 feet below the motor floor into a wet well. Sewage is pumped up and gravity flows to a NE pump station in Detroit. XXXXMacomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco gives The Detroit News a tour of the Clintondale Pump Station in Harrison Twp., Wednesday afternoon, June 15, 2016. Marrocco is running against U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, who is retiring from the U.S. Congress. (Todd McInturf, The Detroit News)2016.

Neither Leland nor Marrocco has been charged with a crime amid a continuing FBI investigation.

Freitas, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to a five-year bribery charge in June.

Freitas was the Republican incumbent but lost an August 2016 primary race. He was elected to the Macomb Township Board of Trustees in 2012 and simultaneously worked as a project manager for Rizzo — a job he held from June 2013 to October 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Freitas immediately cooperated with investigators and helped secure convictions against Rizzo, the trash mogul's father Charles Rizzo and a third man, Rizzo employee Quintin Ramanauskas, prosecutors said.

"Given Freitas’ lack of criminal history, his acceptance of responsibility and his sincere remorse, the public should be adequately protected from further crimes by Freitas should the court impose the sentence recommended by the government," prosecutors wrote.

Current Macomb Twp. Trustee Dino Bucci, center, and his attorney Stephen Rabaut, left, leave federal court, Thursday afternoon, November 16, 2017, after Bucci was arraigned in a pay-to-play corruption scandal.

Freitas, a political neophyte, was groomed by Rizzo and fellow Macomb Township Trustee Dino Bucci into the corrupt world of Macomb County politics, his defense lawyer Daniel Garon wrote in a court filing.

"Freitas, having virtually no political experience, was brought into this world by Bucci and was groomed to be used by the likes of Rizzo and Bucci in the propagation of their well-known political practices," the lawyer wrote.

Bucci, the onetime right-hand man of Marrocco, was charged last year with bribery, extortion, fraud, theft and money laundering in an 18-count indictment. Prosecutors accuse Bucci of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars while extorting engineering contractors who wanted public contracts, forcing county employees to drive his child to school and plow snow at his home.

FBI agents secretly videotaped Bucci receiving a bribe and wiretapped the burner cellphone that was supposed to help him dodge law enforcement surveillance, according to court records that portray the indicted politician as a bungling crook.