In wake of scandals, Macomb Twp. offices draw plenty of candidates
Once home mostly to farmland, Macomb Township prides itself as being one of the fastest-growing communities in Michigan, with a population estimated at more than 90,000 and crops of new homes only dreamed about by other municipalities.
But it also has more than its share of corruption. In the past two years, two of its former trustees have been convicted of offering or taking bribes.
Another township employee filed a whistleblower lawsuit this spring against Supervisor Janet Dunn and other officials, alleging they retaliated against him for reporting corruption to the board of trustees and the federal government.
In the wake of those controversies, an unprecedented field of 21 candidates — some running on promises of reform — will vie in the August primary for four open seats as township trustees. Three other newcomers seek the township’s top job, as Dunn has decided not to run for re-election, and a half-dozen more hope to be the next township clerk or treasurer.
The potential turnover is welcome, say people like Mark Grabow, who’s back for another run at the supervisor’s job with a “time for a change” theme.
“I look forward to cleaning it up,” said Grabow, who was the township’s supervisor from 2008-12 but lost a re-election bid and a subsequent attempt to win back his old job. “I want to make the township’s reputation a shining star again rather than known as the epicenter of Macomb corruption."
Grabow, who will face off against fellow Republican Frank Viviano in the Aug. 4 primary, points to the number of candidates for office in the township, many of them running for the first time.
"The number of people running for trustee is unheard of; normally you might find about seven," he said. “But people are tired of corruption and they want to get involved.”
Among three Democrats and 18 Republicans running for trustee is attorney Frank Cusumano, who says there’s a “culture of corruption” in Macomb Township built on money donated by special interests in pay-to-play schemes.
Cusumano likened the township's situation to "a loaf of moldy bread," saying once the mold is discovered, the entire loaf should be discarded.
A tale of two trustees
Since the corruption scandal unfolded in Macomb County, two former members of the township board have been convicted of seeking or taking bribes.
Clifford Freitas was elected to the township board in 2012 and used his position to help secure a $16 million waste-hauling contract for his employer in return for $42,000 in bribes.
Freitas pleaded guilty to bribery in 2018 and is serving a 20-month federal prison sentence, while his onetime boss, former trash titan Chuck Rizzo, is serving a 66-month term for bribing Freitas and other Macomb County politicians and embezzling money from Rizzo Environmental Services.
Freitas’ mentor, former trustee Dino Bucci, pleaded guilty last month to embezzling money, extorting contractors and serving as the bagman for ex-county public works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco during a decades-long extortion conspiracy.
Bucci, elected to the township board in 2000, resigned in November 2017 after being charged in a kickback scheme in which vendors purchased political fundraising tickets for Marrocco under threat of having Bucci hold up needed permits. Bucci is expected to be sentenced Oct. 1 to between 108 and 120 months.
The fallout from Bucci’s crimes continues to hang over the township hall, according to current Trustee Tim Bussineau, who’s up for re-election. Bucci was known to handle the political campaigns of other township officials who ran as a slate, soliciting their campaign funds, arranging literature, and obtaining permission to erect yard signs.
“Dino took care of everything — and others were happy to let him do it,” said Bussineau, a high school government and law teacher who said the township’s travails are an object lesson for his students.
“We talk about what has happened, and I often relate scenarios to students. I ask them what questions they might ask, like when an official is seeking a closed board session to discuss matters privately, rather than hold discussions all in public. Whether it is necessary. Whether it is legal under open meetings laws.
"They listen and they get it.”
Infighting and litigation
Thomas Esordi, the township attorney and human resources director, stunned board members in January with an email that he had learned of inappropriate behavior of township officials and reported it to federal authorities. The same day, he was placed on administrative leave and subsequently fired by the township board.
Esordi challenged the action and was later reinstated. Two months ago, he filed a lawsuit under the state Whistleblower Protection Act against the township, alleging officials retaliated against him for reporting the allegations.
In court records, Esordi said he confronted Dunn, and was told he was being fired for just cause “for circulating the email … blackmail and insubordination.”
Reached for comment for this story, Esordi would not discuss the lawsuit. At township meetings, he has stated, “I have not now nor ever have been in violation with any township rules.” His attorney could not be reached for comment.
Dunn would not discuss the lawsuit either. Township Clerk Kristi Pozzi, who is listed alongside Dunn as a defendant, said "it’s a bunch of nothing," and added she expects to ultimately be dismissed from the complaint.
"He alleges I and others coerced the supervisor against her will," Pozzi said. "That’s false and ridiculous and there is no truth to that. Janet Dunn has publicly said there is no truth to it."
Pozzi said Esordi, who was hired in 2017, tried to deflect employee complaints and negative evaluations from department heads by concocting problems between Dunn and others, including Pozzi.
"If anything, he was attempting to blackmail her," Pozzi said. "And the only reason I am even named in it is an effort to hurt me. It’s a political ploy to splatter my name out there in an effort to hurt my chance at re-election."
The case is pending before Macomb Circuit Judge James Maceroni.
Free soap and a pink pig
Dunn self-reported some knowledge of unspecified misconduct by a township official to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. In a recent interview with The News, Dunn said she recalls meeting and being questioned by federal employees about a year ago but could not remember the substance of the interview other than it involved “Mr. Bucci.”
When asked why she is not running for re-election, Dunn said: “I’m 79 years old, and I’m done. I’m tired, and I want to enjoy life.”
Dunn has worked for the township over four decades. She was hired as an assessor with the township in 1984, retired in 1995, was appointed as a trustee and spent 17 years in the position until running for supervisor in 2012. She is in her second elected term.
Karen Goodhue is seeking her third term as township treasurer. She cites her experience and record as the reason for voters to return her to office.
“I’ve never done anything wrong, and never plan on it,” Goodhue said. “All of this (controversy) has had an impact on the township, but we continue to grow.
Goodhue said the township has about 500 new home permits each year, and "it’s estimated we will have more than 100,000 residents in the next decade."
"We are the fastest growing township in the state," she said.
Among the new, although not unfamiliar faces, seeking a township office is veteran county commissioner Leon Drolet, who along with newcomer Brianna Marie Kirk, is challenging Goodhue. All three are Republicans.
“I was so alarmed by township’s politics that I decided not to run for my county seat but instead, seek the township treasurer’s job,” Drolet said.
“I hate to see the township’s reputation be tarnished."
In this age of COVID-19 AND social distancing, when many refrain from traditional campaigning, Drolet has taken an unconventional approach. He's going door-to-door in the township, hanging campaign literature (“Time to clean up Macomb Township”) with bars of soap on doorknobs.
Drolet’s giant pink pig statue, “Mr. Perks,” is a common sight to motorists in the township. In bold letters on the pig's side, it reads: “Keep Your Money In Your Piggybank" and "Elect Leon Drolet The Taxpayers Best Friend for Macomb Township Treasurer.”
Drolet insists it’s not just a stunt. He has a history as an anti-tax crusader, frequently opposing proposed taxes and founding the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance. He annually raffles off a $3,500 raise he shunned as a commissioner. Each of his doorhangers contains a raffle ticket.
Kirk did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Despite her status as an incumbent, Goodhue said she sees this year's crowded ballot of office-seekers as a positive.
“As far as the large field of candidates seeking office, I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “Fresh minds and views are always good.”