Man who allegedly ate evidence appears in federal court for corruption case

Robert Snell
The Detroit News
Defendant James Warner, a former field inspector at Detroit Metro Airport who is charged with taking bribes, leaves the Theodore Levin Federal Courthouse in downtown Detroit on May 21, 2019.

Detroit — A former Detroit Metropolitan Airport official accused of eating evidence to hide that he was receiving a record amount of kickbacks will stand trial Wednesday in federal court.

James Warner, 52, of Commerce Township, an airport manager and field inspector who also worked for West Bloomfield Township, is the rare indicted public official to stand trial on corruption charges and risk a decades-long federal prison sentence.

He is accused of taking the largest amount of kickbacks in a public corruption case in Metro Detroit history.

Two of the most recent politicians to stand trial in federal court — former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds — were convicted and sentenced to double-digit prison sentences. Opening statements in the Warner trial start at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

James Warner

Warner's alleged appetites distinguish him from the dozens of public officials who have been accused or convicted of corruption-related crimes in the last decade in Metro Detroit. He fabricated invoices, overcharged the airport for work performed by contractors and received more than $5 million worth of kickbacks during a four-year period, prosecutors said.

"That is an enormous amount of money to keep hidden for that long," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. "It shows the allure of the airport and how lucrative the contracts are at Metro Airport."

James Warner is being tried on charges of accepting more than $5 million in bribes and kickbacks related to contracts at Detroit Metro Airport.

The $5 million figure is five times as much money as Kilpatrick received. Federal prosecutors have seized more than $11.5 million from Warner and a co-defendant and are armed with secret recordings, bank records and help from a businessman who admitted sharing kickbacks with Warner. 

Warner is facing 10 charges, including counts related to bribery, theft and money laundering conspiracies, and obstruction of justice, a charge that carries a possible 20-year prison sentence.

His lawyer, Robert Harrison, declined comment Tuesday following jury selection in front of U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts. 

The alleged bribery conspiracy outlined by prosecutors started in May 2010 when Warner was working as a field inspector at the airport approving maintenance and repair contracts. He headed three related schemes involving Metro Detroit contractors, including Romulus businessman William Pritula, 70, whose company William Pritula & Sons held facilities and maintenance contracts at the airport, prosecutors said.

Warner drafted and submitted inflated invoices for work Pritula was hired to perform at the airport, according to the government. The payments totaled more than $18 million.

In return, Warner received approximately half of the profits from the contracts, or more than $5 million, according to the indictment.

Pritula pleaded guilty to bribery last year and could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison in September. He agreed to forfeit $5.4 million to the government.

Warner, meanwhile, did not appear to live lavishly.

He lives in a $190,000 ranch on Pinto Drive and owns an 8-year-old Jeep.

But his bank accounts were bulging.

One account held $469,000. Another held $2 million when federal agents froze the account. A third contained $806,000 and the government froze $628,000 found in two other accounts.

"That's not the norm in corruption cases," Henning said. "Normally, they spend it as soon as they get it."

Federal court records describe Warner as a greedy, potty-mouthed felon.

"If it weren't for me, your ass would be out," Warner told one airport contractor, according to the indictment.

That contractor, authorities allege, was Gary Tenaglia, 65, of Rochester, who was charged last year and accused of defrauding the Wayne County Airport Authority of $1.5 million.

New corruption scandal hits Detroit Metro Airport

Warner allegedly gave Tenaglia inside information so the contractor's company, Envision Electric, could win contracts. In return, Warner received 10 percent of each invoice, prosecutors said.

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."

Gary Tenaglia

Tenaglia pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud conspiracy and could be sentenced in August to almost three years in federal prison.  

A third scheme involved White Lake businessman Douglas Earles and bills for plumbing, maintenance and installations at the airport, prosecutors said. Many invoices were inflated and phony and Warner received money from each contract with Earles' company, North Star Plumbing.

Earles, 60, pleaded guilty to a theft conspiracy charge and could be sentenced to up to 18 months in prison in September.

Warner left the airport in August 2014 after an internal audit uncovered some of the fraud, prosecutors wrote in a trial brief. Three years later, Warner started working for the West Bloomfield Township water and sewer department.

There is no indication township officials were aware of the alleged airport schemes before hiring Warner. 

"He had excellent credentials," township Supervisor Steven Kaplan told The News. 

Tenaglia contacted Warner and proposed continuing their kickback scheme, prosecutors said.

Warner agreed, according to the government.

But he didn't know Tenaglia was cooperating with federal investigators.

"They reached an agreement (during recorded conversations) wherein Tenaglia would continue to give Warner 10 percent of each invoice paid by West Bloomfield Township," prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

Warner was suspended and later resigned after being indicted in May 2018.

"When I heard about this, as an elected official, I said 'Oh my God, did we lose money?'" Kaplan said. "Fortunately, no, but this demonstrates the need for checks and balances."

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Twitter: @robertsnellnews

The quid pro dough

Former Detroit Metropolitan Airport official James Warner is accused of receiving more than $5 million in kickbacks from contractors, the largest amount in Metro Detroit history. Here’s how Warner compares with others convicted of public corruption-related crimes in recent years, and the sentences they received.

Detroit Public Library official Timothy Cromer
Kickbacks received: $1,400,000
Prison time: 10 years

Detroit Public Schools official Carolyn Starkey-Darden
Money received: $1,275,000
Prison time: 18 months

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick: 
Kickbacks received: $1,000,000
Prison time: 28 years

Detroit Police Lt. David Hansberry
Money received: $960,000
Prison time: 12½ years

Detroit Police Officer Bryan Watson
Money received: $916,000
Prison time: nine years

Source: U.S. District Court