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Detroit — Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment Wednesday against former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, alleging he teamed with an underling to extort county contractors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The March 11 indictment portrays Marrocco as a tough-talking bully, a braggart and a political kingmaker during a decades-long reign. He threatening to yank municipal contracts, withhold permits and, in May 2016, removed an unidentified excavation firm from a multi-million dollar sinkhole repair project because the company held a fundraiser for Marrocco's political opponent, according to the government.

Builders and contractors bought hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of tickets to fundraisers and some of the money financed Marrocco's luxury lifestyle, prosecutors said. That included flights, car rentals, dinners at expensive restaurants, condominium association fees, spa visits, wedding and holiday gifts and yacht club expenses, prosecutors said.

"They'll convict me of murder before they convict me of corruption," Marrocco repeatedly told an aide, according to the indictment.

FBI agents have spent at least six years investigating Marrocco, 71, as part of a broader focus on public corruption in Macomb County that has led to the federal convictions of 22 contractors and public officials. That includes trash mogul Chuck Rizzo, towing titan Gasper Fiore and former Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds, who is serving a 17-year federal sentence, one of the longest in the history of Metro Detroit.

“For far too long, due to Commissioner Marrocco’s unchecked power over builders and contractors in Macomb County, business owners were forced to pay homage to the commissioner by purchasing expensive fundraising tickets for the sole benefit of the commissioner,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement.

“The two decades of alleged extortion by Mr. Marrocco show an obscene abuse of power and a grave betrayal of the trust of the citizens of Macomb County.”

The indictment is political, Marrocco's lawyer, Steve Fishman, told The Detroit News.

"This case is about politics, not criminal activity," Fishman wrote in an email. "Just like every other elected official, Tony Marrocco held campaign events and invited people to contribute. Whether they did or not was entirely up to them. No one was forced to do anything.

"If that conduct is illegal," Fishman added, "every politician in America is going to jail."

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, helped encourage county contractors to speak with investigators.

“I felt comfortable this day would come. It’s about time,” Hackel told The News. “People were afraid to challenge him. This was a crisis that a public official had instilled in developers and contractors.”

The alleged scheme outlined by prosecutors spanned more than two decades, ending in 2016 when Marrocco, a Democrat, lost an expensive re-election fight to Candice Miller, a Republican.

“Everybody was afraid of him,” Miller said Wednesday. “That’s an unfortunate thing.”

She has pushed for transparency and accountability since beating Marrocco.

“The people that live in our county are people of community, of family and of faith,” Miller said. “What he did is not reflective of the people of Macomb County.”

Marrocco directed top aide Dino Bucci and others to pressure builders and contractors to buy tickets to Marrocco campaign fundraisers, according to the government.

The county politician monitored which contractors bought tickets and which ones did not, the indictment alleges.

Marrocco would inflict economic punishment on contractors who did not buy tickets, prosecutors said.

In all, Marrocco was charged with four counts, including conspiracy to commit extortion, extortion and attempted extortion. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 20 years in federal prison.

The investigation intensified late last year after Bucci started cooperating with investigators. Bucci, who also served as a Macomb Township trustee, plays a prominent role in the unsealed indictment as prosecutors accuse him of helping Marrocco extort contractors.

Bucci is scheduled to plead guilty to corruption crimes Thursday.

While Macomb County's public works commissioner from 1993 to 2016, Marrocco repeatedly received $5,000 bribes from an engineering firm owner, according to FBI interview reports filed in federal court in January.

Heavily redacted summaries of FBI interviews with people embroiled in the public corruption investigation shed light on the ongoing probe involving Marrocco. The documents also hint at a roadmap of potential crimes involving cash payoffs and campaign contributions.

The charges also come more than two years after The Detroit News exclusively obtained sealed federal records that showed FBI agents tapped at least a dozen phones during a probe that led investigators to start orbiting Marrocco and the lucrative world of municipal sewer projects.

A chronology of events outlined in sealed wiretap records shows that by late summer 2014, investigators had started tapping three phones so they could listen to conversations involving Marrocco, a manager employed by a Macomb Public Works contractor and a county employee who worked in the public works office. 

The FBI investigation is detailed in an application to continue tapping the cellphone of Fiore. The 2016 affidavit by FBI Special Agent Robert Beeckman was temporarily unsealed in federal court and obtained by The News before a judge resealed the document.

The filing contains a list of “target subjects” that includes several public officials. Among them: Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland, who was charged with bribery and is awaiting trial.

A court filing by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta from 2016 said there was probable cause that the target subjects “are engaged in the payment and receipt of bribes and corrupt payments.”

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