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Treasurer done cooperating with ethics inquiry, lawyer says

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News
Wayne County Treasurer Eric R. Sabree.

Detroit — Treasurer Eric Sabree is done cooperating with the Wayne County Ethics Board's investigation of his family's tax foreclosure purchases, his lawyer told board members after some asked for additional documents Wednesday. 

Attorney Philip Thomas said Sabree has already given them nearly 2,200 pages of records related to his family's properties and answered questions from members at a May meeting and at Wednesday's session. Sabree maintains he's committed no ethical violations. 

"What we aren’t going to have is a continuation of this proceeding," Thomas told the board Wednesday. "We don’t believe we’ve been treated fairly so far. ... Today is it for us.

"We believe we've cooperated."

The review kicked off in February when Wayne County Executive Warren Evans asked the ethics board to review the real estate transactions detailed in a Detroit News investigation, which he called "extremely troubling."

Among The News' findings: A company Sabree formed in 2002, U.S. Development Services, which he says is now run by his wife, bought three Harper Woods homes in 2011 in the county's tax foreclosure auction while Sabree was running the sale. His son, Adam Sabree, also was listed as a successful auction bidder on a Detroit house in 2017, according to records.

During those years, county rules banned family members of the Treasurer's Office and its employees from participating in the auction, which seizes properties from delinquent taxpayers after three years of nonpayment and resells them to the highest bidder.

Board Chairman Carron Pinkins said Wednesday he wanted the forfeiture notices the Wayne County Treasurer's Office were required to send to Sabree's wife for her tax delinquent properties. Board member Sandra Bucciero asked for previous payment plans Sabree's wife had entered into with the treasurer's office.  

"My concern is whether the general public was treated the same way as your family members," Pinkins said.

The News' investigation found at least 10 properties owned by Sabree, his wife or U.S. Development Services that owed nearly $29,000 in delinquent taxes as of November, debts that were paid off 10 days after The News made inquiries about them. One of those properties by law should have been resold at auction because of the debt, but it was not because of an error, Sabree has said.

Pinkins ended Wednesday's meeting saying the board is expected to rule on the complaint at its meeting July 10 but did not say it would further pursue the requested documents. Bucciero also said she wasn't sure the documentation was needed. 

Penalties for an ethics violation range from a $500 fine to removal in an ordinance. But elected officials typically can only be removed through a recall or governor's order. 

Sabree repeated on Wednesday during questioning what he's said publicly before: he's only a "limited member" in his wife's real estate business, with no ownership interest, and had no involvement in her 2011 auction buys. He said he didn't know his son registered as a bidder in 2017. 

Adam Sabree, an attorney, was helping a client purchase a home through the tax sale because the client didn't have a credit card of his own, Eric Sabree said. 

Eric Sabree has said he thought his wife's purchases weren't a problem because the auction was run by a third-party auction company that year. 

In Evans' complaint, he submitted a portion of the ethics ordinance he wanted the board to review. The ordinance was enacted in 2012, a year after Sabree's wife's auction buys.

Evans hasn't attended or submitted other evidence as a part of the hearings. Sabree's lawyer had argued the complaint should be dismissed in part because Evans has not participated. 

The Detroit News reported in March that the FBI is scrutinizing Sabree family property dealings.

Sabree's lawyer said this spring that the treasurer's family underpaid property taxes by $13,000. Thomas attributed the shortfall to a mistake by Sabree's staff involving about a dozen family properties. The treasurer's wife paid the bills on May 24, 2017, shortly after they were recalculated, he said.