New corruption scandal hits Detroit Metro Airport

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal prosecutors charged a Detroit Metropolitan Airport contractor Monday in a conspiracy that defrauded the Wayne County Airport Authority out of $1.5 million, the first public indication of a broader corruption conspiracy.

Gary Tenaglia, 64, of Rochester was charged with wire fraud conspiracy and is expected to plead guilty. The court filing describes a year-long conspiracy involving an airport that has been a recurring figure in area corruption scandals and a multimillionaire businessman with a checkered past who gained notoriety two years ago by buying the landmark Big Buck Brewery building in Auburn Hills.

The conspiracy involves Tenaglia’s firm, Envision Engineering & Maintenance, and a $1.5 million contract to remove snow and ice from the Blue Deck parking structure at the airport. According to court records, Tenaglia conspired with at least two other people who are not named in the court filing.

Envision charged the Wayne County Airport Authority approximately $1.5 million to remove snow and ice from the parking structure from May 2011 through June 2014. An internal audit revealed Tenaglia fraudulently charged the authority for applying a deicing substance that was never applied, according to federal court records.

Tenaglia’s lawyer, Mark Kriger, declined comment Monday.

A Wayne County Airport Authority spokeswoman said the agency is cooperating with the FBI investigation.

“However, we cannot comment further at this time given the pending proceedings,” spokeswoman Erica Donerson wrote in an email.

Tenaglia’s company bought Big Buck Brewery two years ago, sold the giant beer bottle visible from alongside southbound I-75 and converted the cavernous building into a called HUB Stadium.

His past includes a 2009 misdemeanor conviction after being accused of stealing $7,811 in electricity to power his $1.6 million mansion in Washington Township. His criminal conviction and $15,000 fine was chronicled in the Wall Street Journal.

Tenaglia now lives in a $5 million mansion in Rochester. He recently listed the 9,150-square-foot home for sale. The French country manor estate features a helipad, six bedrooms and eight bathrooms.

Prosecutors are eyeing Tenaglia’s assets. The criminal charge filed Monday includes a forfeiture provision that would let prosecutors seize assets linked to proceeds from the alleged conspiracy.

The case against Tenaglia is unrelated to a separate corruption scandal involving Macomb County politicians that has since spread to Detroit.

The airport authority manages and operates Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports. The authority is managed by a seven-member board, to which the county executive appoints four members, two are appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder and one by the county commission.

“The administration has not been contacted as part of the investigation and doesn’t expect to be,” Wayne County spokesman Jim Martinez said in a statement. “However, we would fully cooperate if contacted. We trust all appointed to the board would do the same.”

The airport handled almost 35 million passengers last year — a nearly 1 percent increase from the year prior — and 477 million pounds of cargo, up 5.2 percent from a year earlier. Its budget last fiscal year was $362.5 million.

“There’s a large pot of money, and given the volume of passengers coming through, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people try to grab a slice of the pie, lawfully or unlawfully,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor.

The airport has periodically been embroiled in corruption investigations.

Airport authority CEO Turkia Mullin, a former Wayne County economic development chief, was fired in 2011 after the FBI served subpoenas demanding information about a nonprofit she ran and deals she engineered for the county.

Mullin was never charged with a crime.

The investigation coincided with a probe of then-Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, who lost re-election in August 2014.

The FBI spent three years investigating county government before declining to pursue criminal charges against Ficano and two former high-ranking deputies.

In 2004, former top airport official Wilbourne Kelley III and his wife, Barbara, were convicted of accepting cash, home improvements and other gifts from former airport contractor Frank Vallecorsa. They were sentenced to 44 months and 41 months in prison, respectively.

Kelley was the only official sent to prison as a result of an FBI investigation of Wayne County government under Edward H. McNamara, the late political boss.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews