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Detroit area police accuse each other of wrongdoing

George Hunter
The Detroit News

In a case that has ties to the ongoing Detroit towing corruption scandal, police officials from multiple agencies are squabbling over allegations that officers misused a law enforcement computer system as part of a stolen vehicle scam, while another cop is accused of lobbying on behalf of crooked tow companies.

Accusations are flying over how officers in Detroit, Ecorse and Highland Park handle towing and stolen vehicles, while similar allegations have been made by two Ecorse cops who are suing their chief. 

Ecorse Police Chief Michael Moore

Ecorse police Chief Michael Moore claims Detroit police Chief James Craig told him during a meeting last year, "you're doing illegal stuff," because of how his officers were processing stolen vehicles. Craig denies making the remark.

However, Detroit police Lt. Michael Parish, who runs the department's towing operations, says Ecorse officers have improperly used the Law Enforcement Information Network computer system when logging stolen vehicles.

In turn, Moore says Parish last year asked Ecorse cops to funnel more tow jobs to corrupt former Detroit towing magnate Gasper Fiore.

Meanwhile, Detroit assistant chief James White sent a memo last year to Highland Park's police chief, claiming an officer also was improperly logging stolen cars into the LEIN system. Highland Park officials have not commented on the allegation.

The three police departments worked together, along with Hamtramck, as part of the COBRA stolen car task force until the unit disbanded last year, following complaints by Detroit officials about how cops in Ecorse and Highland Park processed stolen vehicles.

Similar issues are raised in a Wayne County Circuit Court lawsuit filed by Ecorse officer Cornelius Herring, who alleges he was subjected to a hostile work environment for exposing the alleged wrongdoing by fellow Ecorse officers.

Herring says the officers did not alert citizens that their vehicles had been stolen, which allowed the vehicles to become Ecorse's property, to be auctioned off and then purchased by Ecorse officials. The city's police chief and mayor acknowledge they bought two of those vehicles for private use, although the chief and the city's attorney insist there was nothing improper about the transactions.

Ecorse Sgt. Geoffrey Howard also told his superior officers about the alleged LEIN improprieties, according to correspondence between attorneys and city officials. Although Howard also has filed a lawsuit claiming he was mistreated by department officials, the LEIN charges aren't included in his complaint, which alleges racial discrimination over how a coworker's social media post was handled.

Moore told The Detroit News he looked into the claims by Herring and Howard and found nothing wrong.

Moore also said Craig told him and other Ecorse police officials during a meeting in Ecorse police headquarters last year that they were improperly processing stolen vehicles.

"At that meeting, (Craig) started telling everyone they were doing things illegally," Moore said. "Someone tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'let's go out for a minute.' Then, when he came back, he backpedaled on everything he said. I don't know what was said outside the room, but he clearly realized he was out of bounds by saying we were doing illegal things."

Craig called Moore's account "nonsense."

"I would have never came out and told him that — especially if I thought they were involved in criminality," Craig said. "If I thought they were doing something illegal, I would've taken that to the FBI.

Detroit Chief of Police James Craig

"Did I possibly say I had some concerns? I may have, but I don't even remember that," he said. "I dispute these allegations. I don't know what (Moore) is talking about."

Moore also claimed Parish last year asked Ecorse officers to give more work to Fiore's tow firms.

 "There were tow companies that were getting kickbacks, and they were upset that our officers weren't using those companies enough," Moore said. "(Parish) was here on behalf of (former Detroit police civilian deputy chief and department attorney) Celia Washington. He wanted us to use (Fiore's) tow companies more often."

Washington was sentenced in April to a year in prison for taking bribes from Fiore, who also was convicted by federal authorities last year in a widespread corruption case. 

Parish insisted his discussion with Ecorse police was about his investigation into how Ecorse officers weren't properly entering stolen vehicles into the LEIN system.

"There were several issues with how information was being put into LEIN by Ecorse officers," Parish said. "So I went there trying to get more information about their practices."

Parish said the notion that he would advocate for Fiore is "ridiculous," and pointed out that he testified against Fiore before the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners and in federal court, advocating for Fiore's companies to be banned from the Detroit police towing rotation.

The department in May adopted Parish's recommendation, suspending six tow companies city officials said were affiliated with Fiore, who was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for taking bribes in Macomb County.

Moore said he was concerned about Parish's visit. "We brought this to the feds and Michigan State Police," he said.

FBI spokesman Mara Schneider declined to comment. Michigan State Police spokeswoman Shanon Banner said Ecorse officials asked about LEIN procedures, but that no specific allegations of wrongdoing were made.

"We checked with our detectives in Metro Detroit and no one has awareness of this matter," Banner said. 

Ecorse police officers Herring and Howard in July brought separate lawsuits against the city of Ecorse, Mayor Lamar Tidwell and Moore. Herring's lawsuit says he was demoted from sergeant to officer in part because he “exposed Moore and a coworker for violation of LEIN procedures, possibly being a criminal offense." 

Moore and city attorney Charles Wycoff insist the lawsuits are baseless, saying there were legitimate reasons for punishing both officers.

"These are two employees who are disgruntled because they were being disciplined," Moore said. "That's all this is. They both have a long record of disciplinary issues."

Barry Keller, attorney for Herring and Howard, said: "This isn't disgruntled employees. According to my client (Herring), stolen cars weren't being properly entered into the LEIN system."

According to Herring, the alleged scheme involved officers manipulating the LEIN system to hide recovered stolen vehicles from their owners until they became Ecorse property. The vehicles were listed in the system as abandoned, not stolen, and the owners were never notified, Herring said.

Under Michigan law, if the owner of an abandoned vehicle doesn't respond within 20 days after it's towed, the vehicles become property of the police department that oversaw their recovery. The vehicles are then scrapped, retained by the police department or auctioned off.

Herring said Ecorse's police chief and mayor ended up driving stolen vehicles that were towed from other jurisdictions and not properly entered into LEIN. Moore and Wycoff insisted the vehicles — the chief's 2010 Nissan Armada and the mayor's 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer — were legitimately purchased.

Oakland University criminal justice professor Daniel Kennedy said officials purchasing vehicles that were confiscated in their own jurisdiction opens up questions of impropriety.

"My opinion is that (police and city officials) should try to avoid even the appearance of impropriety," Kennedy said. "The most important thing would be to make sure the (officials) had no advantage over other citizens in being able to bid for those vehicles, and that it was an open process."

Moore said a 2008 Cadillac Escalade, which was stolen in Detroit in 2016, kicked off the allegations about LEIN misuse.

"The issue which created this whole thing was one of our officers, (Cpl.) Kevin Barkman, recovered a vehicle in Detroit and put it in LEIN through the city of Ecorse," Moore said. "(Herring and Howard) are trying to say it was illegal for Barkman to put that car into LEIN using the Ecorse ORI (Originating Agency Identifier) number, because the vehicle was recovered in Detroit."

Moore acknowledged the stolen Escalade was initially logged into the LEIN system as an abandoned vehicle.

"Cpl. Barkman didn't have a report that the vehicle had been stolen," Moore said. "He found it on cement blocks with the window knocked out, so he listed it as abandoned. The Detroit ORI wasn't used because Barkman is deputized as a Wayne County sheriff, so he has countywide jurisdiction."

The SUV eventually was returned to the Detroit woman who owned it — "but the tow company (B&G Towing in Detroit, which has ties to Fiore, according to Detroit police) never told us the owner had picked it up," Moore said. "If they had, we'd have taken it out of LEIN immediately."

Six months later, the SUV was stolen a second time from in front of the woman's house on Detroit's east side, Moore said.

"The woman went to the Detroit precinct to report her vehicle was stolen, but the Detroit sergeant was unable to put it into LEIN as a stolen vehicle because it was still in our system as a recovered vehicle," Moore said. "The Detroit police sergeant called us and said the vehicle was still listed in the LEIN system as an abandoned vehicle." 

Moore said Herring refused the Detroit sergeant's request to remove the vehicle from LEIN, for which he was charged with neglect of duty and insubordination, and demoted. His case is pending. Howard was reprimanded for smoking in the police station.

Flat Rock attorney David Grunow was retained by Ecorse to look into the allegations made by Herring and Howard. In a Feb. 23, 2018, letter to Wycoff, Grunow wrote that he'd interviewed the two officers about their claims.

Grunow's letter says Moore investigated the allegations of LEIN abuse "and found no justification for the complaint ... and found that there was insufficient evidence to discipline Cpl. Barkman."

Detroit police officials also have had problems with how Highland Park Cpl. James McMahon used the LEIN system. In a June 28, 2017, memo to Highland Park Police Chief Chester Logan, White, Detroit's assistant chief, wrote: "McMahon was not using the ... stolen vehicle recovery notification as required by ... LEIN.

"Several vehicle recovery notifications were being sent by Administrative Message, missing pertinent recovery information," White wrote, adding: "Corporal McMahon failed to reply or follow up when request for required missing information was sent to him.

"These failures raised some concerns within the Detroit Police Department, due to the fact that the ultimate outcome led to substantial tow fees to be paid by the citizens," White wrote.

A federal lawsuit filed in August accuses McMahon and Hamtramck Officer Michael Stout of conspiring with Fiore to illegally seize vehicles to collect towing and impound fees.

Highland Park spokeswoman Marli Blackman did not respond to a request for comment.
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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN