Feds: Detroit airport manager took bribes, ate evidence
Detroit — A former Detroit Metropolitan Airport official was indicted in federal court Wednesday on charges he pocketed more than $5 million in bribes and tried to cover up the crime by eating evidence.
Former airport utilities and infrastructure manager James Warner, 51, of Commerce Township, is the third person charged in a widening bribery investigation involving an airport that has been a recurring setting for corruption scandals in recent years. The money Warner received amounts to one of the largest bribery cases prosecuted by the local U.S. Attorney's Office, which has sent ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and dozens of others to prison for corruption in recent years.
Federal agents have seized $11.4 million during the investigation, including $7.5 million from one contractor and $3.9 million from Warner, who was suspended Wednesday from his job in the West Bloomfield Township water and sewer department.
"Our citizens are entitled to decisions based on the best interests of the public, not the best interests of corrupt public officials and bribe-paying contractors," U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said in a statement Wednesday.
Warner was charged with conspiracy, theft, bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice during a seven-year stretch of corruption that spanned work at the airport and as a water and sewer official for West Bloomfield Township. If convicted, Warner could spend more than 20 years in federal prison.
He was arraigned late Wednesday in federal court and released on $10,000 unsecured bond.His lawyer did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
Warner had the power to approve and extend maintenance projects funded through the Wayne County Airport Authority from 2010 to 2014.
He ruled with a salty tongue and his hand out, according to federal prosecutors.
"If it weren't for me, your ass would be out," Warner told one contractor, according to the indictment.
That contractor, authorities allege, was Gary Tenaglia, 64, of Rochester, who was charged last month and accused of defrauding the Wayne County Airport Authority of $1.5 million.
During one dinner, Warner and Tenaglia discussed contracts and kickbacks, prosecutors said.
"During the meal, James Warner wrote '5k,' a proposed kickback amount, on a napkin," prosecutors wrote in the indictment. "He folded it and slid it across the table to Gary Tenaglia. After Gary Tenaglia acknowledged the meaning of the writing on the napkin, James Warner retrieved the napkin and ate it."
The indictment was filed one day after prosecutors charged airport contractor William Pritula, 69, of Romulus with federal program bribery, a 10-year felony.
In exchange for offering bribes, Pritula received contracts worth more than $18 million during a four-year period, according to the indictment.
Tenaglia and Pritula are expected to plead guilty.
Pritula owned and operated Pritula and Sons, a firm that won contracts to repair and replace pavement at the airport and contracts to repair water mains and install fire hydrants from 2003 to 2014.
Starting in May 2010, Pritula conspired with Warner and others to steal money from federally funded programs and commit bribery, prosecutors said.
Warner provided confidential and proprietary information that helped Pritula win airport contracts, according to the indictment.
Warner created phony invoices on behalf of the contractor’s company that “grossly inflated the cost and scope” of Pritula’s work, the government alleged.
In return, Pritula paid kickbacks to the airport official, prosecutors said.
In September 2013, for example, Warner submitted a $938,000 invoice to the airport authority for work that cost $275,000, according to the indictment.
Days later, Pritula’s firm paid Warner $397,372 and the airport official deposited the money in his bank account.
In less than a year, Warner received more than $573,000 from Pritula’s company, prosecutors allege.
Warner also supervised work by Tenaglia’s firm, Envision Electric, which had contracts to maintain airport parking structures from May 2011 to June 2014.
Warner fabricated reviews of Envision’s work and concealed mistakes made by the company, according to the indictment.
In exchange, Warner demanded kickbacks, prosecutors said.
Warner told Tenaglia he needed to pay kickbacks “to be a part of the ‘brotherhood’ at the airport,” prosecutors allege.
"The allegations against James Warner cheating the citizens of Wayne County are distressing to the many men and women working hard every day with integrity and commitment to protect those public funds provided for infrastructure development,” Timothy Slater, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit field division, said in a statement.
Warner left the airport authority in August 2014. In January 2017, he started working for the West Bloomfield Township water and sewer department as a project manager with a $74,027 salary.
"Within months, Warner proposed to Tenaglia a continuation of the same scheme the two had at the airport— a demand for 10 percent of each invoice West Bloomfield Township paid Tenaglia," prosecutors alleged.
The township suspended Warner with pay Wednesday, Supervisor Steven Kaplan told The News.
Kaplan said he is unaware whether the township was defrauded and that Warner did not have access to money or township checks.
“I think it’s doubtful,” Kaplan said. “He was low in the chain of employees. We had no reason to know or suspect that he might have been involved in skulduggery during his Wayne County employment. Although we recognize he’s presumed to be innocent, the allegation involving West Bloomfield is very disturbing."
Warner also was charged with obstructing justice because prosecutors said he altered a document provided to the FBI during the investigation.
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.
Ficano was never charged with a crime and said federal investigators wrote him a letter after the three-year investigation declaring that he was "never a target" of the probe.
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.