Jackson County candidate drops House bid after threat investigations surface

Marrocco pleads guilty in Macomb County corruption scandal

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco pleaded guilty to attempted extortion Tuesday, two years after being charged in a corruption scandal that saw him fall from being one of Metro Detroit's longest-serving and most powerful politicians.

The surprise guilty plea in front of U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland in Port Huron came three weeks before Marrocco was set to stand trial on four extortion charges that threatened to send him to federal prison for up to 20 years.

Instead, prosecutors agreed to a deal that drops three extortion charges and calls for no more than 16 months in prison. It would be a comparatively short stint for a high-ranking official considered the biggest target in an investigation that has led to the convictions of at least 23 contractors and public officials, including former county Prosecutor Eric Smith.

FBI agents spent at least six years investigating Marrocco and used an extensive network of wiretaps during a probe and prosecution that outlasted the government's star witness, former Macomb Township Trustee Dino Bucci. Bucci was convicted of extorting contractors, embezzling money and serving as Marrocco's bagman but died earlier this year after prosecutors preserved his testimony against Marrocco via videotape that was going to be shown to jurors at trial.

Marrocco is 74 years old and will be sentenced by Cleland, who has a reputation for stiff punishment and who three years ago sent former Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds to 17 years in prison for bribery. That is the longest sentence issued during a federal prosecution of public corruption in Macomb County.

"The government made a very fair offer and we accepted it," said Marrocco's lawyer, Steve Fishman. "As Kenny Rogers once sang: 'You've got to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.'”

Marrocco's sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 26.

Former Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, right, prepares to enter the Federal Courthouse in Port Huron on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. Marrocco pleaded guilty to one federal attempted extortion charge.

Marrocco admitted to pressuring an unidentified county developer into buying tables at one of the politician's fundraisers in April 2016. 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said he expected the conviction.

"Everybody knew this day would come," Hackel told The Detroit News on Tuesday.

"I think a lot of people are feeling like their voices have finally been heard about problems with a public official. We need to continue to make sure that we're holding each other accountable. It's necessary. It's unfortunate that you have to do these things, but let's face it, there are public officials that sometimes try to take advantage of their office."

Marrocco was indicted in March 2020 and accused of teaming with an underling to extort county contractors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The indictment portrayed Marrocco as a tough-talking bully, a braggart and a political kingmaker during a decades-long reign, threatening to yank municipal contracts, withhold permits and, in May 2016, removing an unidentified excavation firm from a multimillion-dollar sinkhole repair project because the company held a fundraiser for Marrocco's political opponent.

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.

He is the latest current or former public official convicted of wrongdoing in Metro Detroit. In recent years, federal prosecutors in southeast Michigan have charged more than 110 people with corruption crimes.

“The conviction ... sends a clear signal that public officials cannot use their governmental power to coerce individuals to contribute to their political campaigns," Detroit U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison said in a statement. "This conviction symbolizes our years-long crackdown on corruption in Macomb County that has helped to further the rule of law and good government for the county’s citizens."

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco talks about a pump station in Harrison Township in 2016. Marrocco ended up losing his re-election bid that year to former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township.

The alleged scheme outlined by prosecutors spanned more than two decades, ending in 2016 when Marrocco, a Democrat, lost an expensive reelection fight to former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican. She prevailed 55%-45%.

During the 2016 campaign, Miller accused Marrocco of practicing pay-to-play politics and causing sewage overflows in the county. She was endorsed by Hackel and benefited from straight-ticket voters in Macomb County who supported Donald Trump, who won the county that year.

“Everybody was afraid of him,” Miller said about Marrocco in 2020. “That’s an unfortunate thing.”

Miller declined comment on Tuesday.

The guilty plea Tuesday was unexpected but few defendants charged with corruption in federal court in southeast Michigan go to trial.

Less than 12% of the 101 people convicted of federal corruption charges from 2015-21 in the Eastern District of Michigan opted to stand trial and risk longer sentences, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews

Staff Writer Anna Liz Nichols contributed.