Contractor in demolition dispute sues for defamation
Pontiac — A West Bloomfield Township contractor acquitted in July of attempted fraud charges involving Detroit demolition inspections is suing nine people — including Mayor Mike Duggan’s chief of staff — for malicious prosecution and defamation.
Barry Ellentuck, 53, went on trial earlier this year for attempted fraud between $1,000 and $20,000 involving demolition inspection billings. After a week of testimony — including hearing Ellentuck’s secretly taped conversations with his accuser — a jury acquitted Ellentuck.
Ellentuck could not be reached for comment Friday and attorney J. Paul Sugameli, who filed the lawsuit, declined to comment on allegations people were “engaged in a concerted effort to destroy Mr. Ellentuck’s reputation at all costs ... ”
Attorney Joseph Lavigne, who defended Ellentuck in the criminal case, said the trial clearly showed Ellentuck was wronged.
“His name was dragged through the mud for some time by allegations that were completely unsubstantiated and in fact, evidence at trial showed were untrue,” said Lavigne, who is not representing Ellentuck in the civil complaint.
Ellentuck’s company, ADR Consultants, was contracted by the state of Michigan to provide blight demolition management, oversight and inspections around Michigan, primarily in the Detroit area.
Among those named in the lawsuit is Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, who allegedly issued statements in November 2015 that Ellentuck approved contractors under the Michigan blight demolition program and was “personally responsible for offering of bids and awarding of contracts.”
“ ... in light of the improprieties alleged to be connected to the blight demolition bid awarding process (these) are extremely damaging and were made with the intention of causing continued damage to Mr. Ellentuck personally and professionally” the lawsuit filed in Oakland Circuit Court alleges.
Wiley did not return a call for comment, but the mayor’s office provided a statement from Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell. “We are confident that the allegations in the complaint are completely without merit and look forward to vigorously defending this case in court,” he wrote.
According to the complaint, Ellentuck was charged Dec. 15, 2015, after “discussions, plans, actions and agreements” among defendants “to damage, discredit, embarrass and otherwise eradicate his personal reputation and personal status.”
The charge, according to the lawsuit, was intended “to either silence Mr. Ellentuck from cooperating with state and federal authorities in relation to certain improprieties and fraud that he had identified in the Michigan Land Bank (MLB), Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA), Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) and Detroit Building Authority (DBA) blight demolition programs.”
Lavigne confirmed a few days before the charge that Ellentuck had gone to officials in Detroit and Lansing with concerns about demolition practices, including what amounted to millions of dollars in no-bid contracts.
Lavigne said evidence showed his client never broke the law or encouraged others to overbill for demolition work. At the time Ellentuck even “under billed” invoices. He said charges stemmed from the complaint of one disgruntled former employee, Tim McCarthy, a Royal Oak subcontractor who felt “overworked and underpaid,” he said.
When asked about the investigation done on Ellentuck, Lavigne responded: “What investigation? They didn’t interview one ADR employee. They didn’t subpoena or request one document.”
Instead, John Buck, a retired police officer contracted by the state Attorney General’s Office as an investigator, testified he relied exclusively on one witness: McCarthy.
Under cross-examination at trial, McCarthy testified he never received any verbal or written instructions to falsify records but felt pressured because in a December 2015 meeting Ellentuck ordered him to correct his inspection hours in paperwork for billing purposes. Ellentuck felt McCarthy had turned in hours where inspections had not been done.
McCarthy later complained to officials including the Attorney General’s Office that he lost his subcontracting job with Ellentuck when he refused to do something he felt was “ethically wrong.”
McCarthy could not be reached for comment Friday.
Buck said Friday it was the first he had heard of the lawsuit and it’s AG policy “not to comment on something like that.”
Others named are Jeffrey Huntington of MSHDA; Michele Wildman, who has been employed by the MLB and MSHDA; James Wright, a former deputy director at the DBA; Carrie Lewand-Monroe, DLB director; Martha Delgado of the DLB; and Brian Farkas of the DBA. Along with Buck, the six people allegedly were advised or solicited McCarthy statements and even upon learning they were false, continued in an effort to prosecute Ellentuck with fraud.
Several did not return telephone calls on Friday. Huntington referred questions to a MSHDA spokesperson, who declined comment on the pending litigation.
“I received a complaint from an employee (McCarthy) and just passed it along,” said Wright, who resigned from the DBA earlier this year. “That’s really all I know about this and the extent of my involvement.”
Ellentuck seeks damages of at least $25,000.
Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.