Accused Novi spy no stranger to setbacks, squabbles

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
This undated family handout picture obtained on January 3 shows Paul Whelan posing for a picture, an American ex-Marine who Russian prosecutors have charged in Moscow with espionage.

Ann Arbor — Paul Whelan, the Michigan man detained in Moscow on suspicion of spying, launched a successful security career in the auto industry despite quitting one of his first law enforcement jobs under pressure, public records show.

Court records and interviews portray Whelan as an unpopular whistle blower embroiled in small-town squabbles and suffering petty indignities while working as a $7-an-hour, part-time police officer in Chelsea. The records provide a snapshot of Whelan's early career and chronicle another red flag in the past of a man with financial issues who was kicked out of the Marines. 

"On the surface, it sounds like he was successful at working hard to overcome setbacks," brother David Whelan wrote in an email to The Detroit News on Tuesday.

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The portrait is emerging amid questions about Whelan's past and whether the 48-year-old Novi man is a spy or an unwitting pawn entangled in an international incident. He's jailed in Russia and facing a possible 20-year prison sentence.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have granted requests to visit Whelan made by representatives of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada, three countries in which he holds citizenship along with the United States, his brother said Tuesday.

Marine Corps. Staff Sgt. Paul N. Whelan stands in front of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on a two-week trip during his deployment to Iraq. Whalen, now retired and living in Novi, was arrested in Russia during a different trip on allegations that he is a spy. His brother says he is innocent and was there for a wedding.

Whelan faced adversity during a legal fight involving carnies, a bottle of Faygo and $14.79 worth of groceries. The legal fight is outlined in a whistle-blower lawsuit Whelan filed against the Chelsea Police Department in Washtenaw County Circuit Court in 1995.

In 1993, Whelan was a part-time police officer in Chelsea, west of Ann Arbor.

Whelan, who started as a parking enforcement officer, dispatcher and school crossing guard while juggling service in the U.S. Marine Corps, was dispatched to the Chelsea Community Fair for a domestic dispute involving carnival workers.

While on scene, Whelan was told a fellow officer had taken groceries left behind by carnival workers and drank the Faygo at the police station.

Whelan reported the incident to Chief Lenard McDougall.

The chief ordered Whelan to write a report and "keep his nose out of it," according to the whistle-blower lawsuit.

An internal investigation ended with no criminal charges against Whelan's fellow officer, who was suspended five days without pay. 

Retribution was swift and continuous, Whelan alleged.

“Since then I have received harassment and flack (sic), confrontations from fellow officers because of that," he said during a deposition. "Threats of physical harm … also harassing remarks and condescending remarks about the thin blue line …”

Officers laughed at him for carrying two pairs of handcuffs, Whelan said.

“I was harassed and made fun of, some behind my back, some not behind my back," Whelan alleged.

He blamed one colleague for defacing his department photo by scratching out his face.

"My locker was vandalized by, obviously, people taking it and rocking it and knocking everything around and kicking it," Whelan said during the deposition.

Dispatchers would not share information with him, Whelan complained.

“I felt that they were doing some spying on me while I was there, checking up on me," he said, according to the lawsuit filings. "I wasn’t comfortable working with them.”

Whelan had at least one supporter within the small police department.

“I would say Officer Whelan is an outstanding investigator," Officer Richard Foster said during a deposition conducted during the whistle-blower lawsuit. "He does an outstanding job on his reports. He has good investigative methods. Any case that I have worked with Paul on, we have always shared information.”

Foster noticed how colleagues treated Whelan.

"There was a lot of murmuring about Officer Whelan ... causing trouble," Foster said during the deposition. “This was with anger. This was, you know, 'how dare another officer turn in another officer that may have done something wrong.'”

Whelan, who was undergoing active-duty training with the Marines, did not stop pursuing the matter.

In 1994, he filed a complaint with the Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office and the Michigan State Police regarding the alleged larceny. He also raised concerns that Chelsea Police inappropriately spent federal grant funds.

"I feel very uneasy about two incidents that could cast a shadow on my career if the (Chelsea Police Department) were ever investigated and these incidents were brought to light," Whelan wrote to Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Brian Mackie. 

In the letter, Whelan complained that the fairgrounds investigation was quashed and accused McDougall of fraudulently obtaining federal grant funds as reimbursement for volunteer work Whelan performed in Chelsea.

"I don't ever want anyone saying that I was a party to cops stealing from their constituents," Whelan wrote to the county prosecutor.

McDougall denied the allegations and the complaints did not lead to criminal charges.

In November 1994, a month after complaining to the prosecutor, Whelan finished active-duty training with the Marines and asked to return to his part-time job with the police department.

But Whelan was told he wouldn't be added to the schedule until the next year, and he eventually received a fraction of his normal hours, according to the lawsuit.

The chief was angry about the Michigan State Police investigation and did not want to reinstate the officer due to "friction" among Whelan and fellow officers after the fairgrounds incident, according to the lawsuit.

So Whelan filed the whistle-blower lawsuit in April 1995, arguing the department and the chief violated the Michigan Whistleblowers' Protection Act and discriminated against him because he reported the fairgrounds incident and the alleged misuse of federal grant funds.

McDougall, the police chief, denied threatening to fire Whelan or taking any adverse action against the officer.

“It is defendant’s contention that (Whelan's) claim is merely part of a long-standing inability to get along with his fellow employees and is being asserted for the purpose of covering up any wrongdoing on his part," Chelsea lawyer Owen Cummings wrote while asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Whelan was no angel, according to Chelsea's lawyer, who revealed Whelan's paycheck had been garnished because he wrote $370 worth of bad checks.

Tension between Whelan and the department culminated almost one year after he filed the lawsuit.

In March 1996, Lt. Michael Foster sent Whelan a letter indicating he was being suspended amid an "ongoing internal investigation into various complaints made against you over the past several months, and other incidents and concerns relating to your job performance ..."

Four days after Foster sent the letter, Whelan quit.

Whelan backdated his resignation, rendering the suspension moot, according to filings in the lawsuit.

In May 1996, Whelan was suffering from depression and anxiety triggered by his treatment from members of the police department, according to court filings.

The whistle-blower case was dismissed two months later, after Whelan settled the lawsuit. Settlement terms were not available.

The case faded into history until Whelan's arrest late last month drew international media attention and TV coverage.

"I kept saying 'why does this guy look familiar?'" Chelsea's lawyer Gregory Ulrich told The News. "His name didn't register."

A decade after the lawsuit ended, Whelan's military career ended in a court martial. 

Court documents released by the military show he was accused of attempting to steal more than $10,000 while on duty in Iraq, where he worked as a clerk, in September 2006. He was also convicted of using a false Social Security number and profile for a military computer system to grade his own examinations, and of writing 10 bad checks totaling around $6,000.

He was dropped two grades in rank, convicted of attempted larceny and dereliction of duty and given a bad conduct discharge from the Marine Corps.

Despite the complaints leveled against Whelan, he soon was hired by the Troy-based temporary staffing company Kelly Services in the IT department. He was Kelly's head of global security and investigations until 2016.

A year later, Auburn Hills-based automotive components supplier BorgWarner hired Whelan as global security director.

When asked if BorgWarner contracts with federal governments, Russian or otherwise, company spokeswoman Kathy Graham said, “We supply vehicle manufacturers. We don’t supply any government. Our customer is the automakers.”

The company does not have any operations in Russia, Graham said, though it does have customers there.

Staff Writer Breana Noble and Associated Press contributed.