Ex-contractor pleads guilty in Detroit Metro scheme

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — A former contractor has pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal more than $100,000 from Detroit Metro Airport officials, federal authorities announced Thursday.

Douglas Earles, 60, owned and operated North Star Water Management and North Star Plumbing, which provided plumbing installation and maintenance at the airport, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.

A plane takes off at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus.

He worked with James Warner, a field inspector at the Wayne County Airport Authority, who was indicted last year on charges he pocketed more than $5 million in bribes and tried to conceal the crime by eating the evidence.

Between June 2010 and August 2013, "Warner, posing as Earles, would draft and submit fraudulently inflated invoices for work which Earles purportedly performed at the airport," the release read. "Some of the invoices Warner submitted on Earles’s behalf listed parts that Earles had not in fact replaced or repairs that Earles had not in fact performed."

When the airport authority paid Earles, he would give about 40% of the profits to Warner, investigators said.

“The crime to which Mr. Earles pleaded guilty is part of a pattern of corrupt and illegal conduct by a WCAA high-level manager and contractors who were hired to improve the infrastructure at the airport,” said Timothy Slater, special agent in charge of the FBI's Detroit field office.

The arrangement was similar to another Warner was accused of engaging in with William Pritula, a former contractor who pleaded guilty in July to paying more than $5 million in kickbacks to him for pavement and hydrant repairs and maintenance at the airport.

Authorities have seized $11.4 million in criminal proceeds related to the investigation, including $7.5 million from Pritula and $3.9 million from Warner.

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.

Warner’s trial is scheduled for May.

Earles' theft charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“Today’s guilty plea signifies another step forward in dismantling this massive fraud and bribery scheme that stole millions of dollars from the WCAA,"  U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said.