Activist Robert Davis gets 18 months in prison

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Robert Davis, the former Highland Park school board member and self-styled anti-corruption crusader, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison Thursday for corruption.

Davis was portrayed as a reverse Robin Hood who stole almost $200,000 from the cash-strapped Highland Park schools and blew the cash at car dealerships, hotels, bars and a custom-clothing store.

The sentence and conviction caps a downfall for a union activist who was once the youngest elected public official in Highland Park. Davis spent two years purportedly fighting government corruption and mounting serial lawsuits against the school district, state and attempts to restructure Detroit's finances. Prosecutors called the lawsuits largely frivolous and designed to deflect attention from his thievery.

"You were on the way to greatness," U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow told a teary Davis. "Selfishness is a good word to describe why you are here. Greed is another."

The sentence is six months less than the term sought by federal prosecutors, who labeled Davis a bankrupt bully who cheated one of the poorest school districts in the state out of much-needed money.

"He's not the voice of the people," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sheldon Light told the judge. "He's the voice of Robert Davis seeking his own glory."

Davis, 35, was weepy, remorseful and begged for mercy. At one point, he broke down while apologizing to his 10-year-old son and family, then blamed his thievery on youth and immaturity.

"I stand before you a changed and humbled man," Davis said. "I am ashamed and embarrassed and remorseful for the mistakes I've made."

Tarnow interrupted Davis.

"You were old enough to know better," Tarnow said. "I haven't heard why you did it."

"Because I was selfish and trying to be the political star on the rise," Davis said.

The judge interrupted again, asking Davis whether he had read his own lawyer's sentencing memorandum, which noted how Davis was raised by a mother who taught him "the importance of never making an excuse."

"I'm hearing excuses," the judge said. "You took property from a system that couldn't afford it."

Tarnow also ordered Davis to serve two years probation and pay an undetermined amount of restitution.

The sentencing comes three months after Davis agreed to plead guilty to converting money from the school district for his own use and filing a false tax return.

After pleading guilty, he was fired from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

The money Davis stole came from a Highland Park schools contractor hired to boost enrollment at the struggling district.

Davis used two companies to funnel school district cash into a bank account he controlled in the name of a purported charity called Citizens United to Save Highland Park Schools.

"Perhaps it should have been (called): Robert Davis Fund to Loot Highland Park Schools," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

While Davis stole the money, Highland Park enrollment plummeted and the district's deficit ballooned, eventually climbing to $7.6 million.

"This was tragic both financially and in terms of residents' trust of government," Highland Park schools Emergency Manager Gregory Weatherspoon told the judge. "We are struggling to provide educations for families that call Highland Park home. Our students deserve better."

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