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Port Huron — Federal prosecutors are expected to hitch a ride to a new round of public corruption indictments after towing titan Gasper Fiore was sentenced Thursday to 21 months in federal prison.

Fiore, 58, of Grosse Pointe Shores, was among more than a dozen businessmen and politicians targeted in a wave of FBI wiretaps two years ago that recorded conversations involving public officials, including Detroit Councilman Gabe Leland and former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco. 

Fiore was immediately taken into custody Thursday after Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta dubbed him the "Baron of Bribery," a nickname the businessman earned by bribing politicians while building a lucrative towing empire across Metro Detroit.

"I know I committed a crime and I'm ready for my sentence and I apologize," the burly businessman told U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland, his voice a whisper in the courtroom.

After, Fiore removed his tie and his black Saks Fifth Avenue suit jacket before being handcuffed by Deputy U.S. Marshals.

The former owner of Boulevard and Trumbull Towing struck a plea deal and has cooperated with an ongoing corruption investigation focused on at least three fronts: Macomb County politicians pocketing bribes in exchange for approving municipal contracts with Sterling Heights trash hauler Rizzo Environmental Services, Fiore’s towing empire, and the Macomb County Public Works office. 

The sentencing Thursday secured prison time for a multimillionaire businessman who prosecutors labeled a serial bribe payer with a decades-long track record of corrupting politicians who evolved into a powerful witness after learning about the FBI wiretap of his phone.

"The media dubbed him the 'Titan of Towing' but the FBI knew him as the 'Baron of Bribery,'" Bullotta told the judge. "His bribery was prolific."

Fiore was arguably the most powerful figure among 20 people charged in the Macomb County corruption case, a prosecution that has secured more than a dozen convictions.

Cleland reflected on the broader scandal before sending Fiore to prison and labeling his chosen profession a "corrupt business."

"The behavior is unacceptable, criminal, corrosive and detrimental to the fabric of a law-abiding society," Cleland said.

Earlier Thursday, the judge sentenced Sterling Heights businessman Robert Maechtle to nine months home confinement and a $15,000 fine for bribery conspiracy. Maechtle, a manager at Motor City Electric, conspired with others to give a $2,000 cash bribe to the late Washington Township public works superintendent Steven Hohensee, who was working undercover for the FBI. 

The payment, which was recorded by the FBI, was an attempt by Maechtle’s company to secure a contract with the township in 2014, according to federal court records.

The Fiore sentencing, meanwhile, likely signals that prosecutors are poised to charge more people soon, said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. 

“You don’t sentence a cooperator until you’ve used the person up – not to sound too crass,” Henning said. “That’s usually a signal that the government is moving forward.”

The extent of Fiore's cooperation is a secret but is outlined in a sealed federal court filing that Henning said should concern Leland and others linked to an ongoing public corruption investigation. Earlier this year, prosecutors warned the investigation likely will lead to more people being charged with crimes in federal court.

Fiore happily bought politicians with stacks of $100 bills so the multimillionaire could boost his bank account while robbing residents of an honest government, federal prosecutors said.

He is a prolific bribe payer dating at least to the administration of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the towing titan kept bribing politicians even though he knew it was illegal, prosecutors said.

"He had a front-row seat to watch Kwame Kilpatrick get sentenced to 28 years in prison," Bullotta said, "and he didn't learn his lesson."

The judge also marveled at how Fiore failed to reform after seeing Kilpatrick's conviction.

"It's difficult to understand how someone ... would do anything other than recoil," Cleland said. "There was no recoiling here."

Fiore's lawyer Robert Morgan portrayed the towing titan as a hard-working family man and generous civic leader humbled by having bribed Macomb County politicians.

"The notoriety has made him, or put him, in a position where there will never be a repeat," Morgan told the judge.

He was a dominant figure in the Metro Detroit towing industry and a thread running through several FBI public corruption investigations, including the Kilpatrick racketeering probe. He is arguably the highest-profile person ensnared in a Macomb County corruption scandal that has led to federal charges against 20 contractors and public officials.

Fiore's long-run of bribing politicians ended after he bought Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds for $7,000.

Fiore pleaded guilty in December, admitting he bribed former Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds to obtain a municipal towing contract with the township. Fiore admitted to giving Reynolds cash bribes of $4,000 and $3,000 in March and May of 2016 to buy Reynolds’ vote to select Fiore’s company to receive the Clinton Township towing contract.

By 2016, the FBI was tapping Fiore's phone and agents listened to conversations that focused on Leland, who has been accused in a civil lawsuit of trying to trying to extort $15,000 from a Detroit businessman.

That businessman, Robert Carmack, says he wore a secret recording device for the FBI after alleging Leland tried to extort the money. A second businessman sued Leland last month in federal court, claiming the Detroit councilman demanded more than $5,000 in free club access, drinks and food in exchange for help in a dispute with city officials.

In the Fiore case, an FBI wiretap revealed he was bribing Deputy Detroit Police Chief Celia Washington to get favorable treatment with new towing rotations.

Washington confessed she received $4,000 cash from Fiore.

"She also stated that Fiore attempted to bribe her a second time, but that she refused to accept the second envelope of cash," prosecutors wrote. "She also admitted that Fiore paid for drinks at her birthday party. A receipt from the purchase established that Fiore paid over $600, just months before Washington’s oversight of Fiore’s towing rotations."

Washington was sentenced earlier this year to 12 months in federal prison.

The trail of evidence amassed by investigators, including Fiore’s cooperation, is substantial, Henning said.

“They’ve gotten bank records and wiretaps and consensual recordings – those are gold,” Henning said. "Absolute gold.”

He would not expect Fiore to testify in any future corruption prosecutions.

“Prosecutors would prefer not to put a dirty businessman on the witness stand,” Henning said.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2486

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

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