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Ethics complaint dismissed against Wayne Co. treasurer

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

An ethics violation complaint was dismissed 5-1 Wednesday against Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree in an investigation of his family's tax foreclosure purchases.

Ethics board Chairman Carron Pinkins was the only dissenting vote, after expressing concerns that members didn't get all the documentation they requested about foreclosure notices sent to Sabree's wife's properties.  

The majority of the board felt the 2012 ethics ordinance didn't apply to properties bought by Sabree's wife because they were purchased in 2011. Board members also found his son's bidding on a client's property in 2017 didn't violate the ordinance, in part because Eric Sabree didn't know about his son's involvement.

"We are very pleased with the outcome," said Sabree's attorney Philip Thomas. "We feel my client has been vindicated." 

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." Sabree had maintained he committed no ethical violations. 

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.

"Nothing on this record shows that Mr. Sabree in any way showed preferential treatment to his wife, his son or his son's client," board member Ed Thomas said before voting to dismiss.

Board member Freman Hendrix said he agreed with Sabree's explanation that because a third-party company operated the online auction in 2011, there wasn't a conflict. And he said work by a public servant shouldn't "preclude my family from making a living."

He called the issue a "media generated" and "politically motivated" complaint. 

"Stories get written to sell papers," Hendrix said. 

Evans said in a written statement he was "not sure" the ethics board's handling of the case resolved questions about the foreclosure sale.  

“This matter raised significant concerns leaving many Wayne County residents to question the integrity of the auction process," Evans said. "Despite multiple lengthy hearings and review of substantive evidence, I’m not sure that the Board’s action today did much to address those concerns, but I accept its decision."

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 asked for additional information in June, including foreclosure notices but Sabree's attorney told the board they were done cooperating after he sat for questions over two days and provided more than 2,000 documents.

Pinkins said he wanted to make sure Sabree's wife and her properties on payment plans weren't treated differently than the public. 

"When you say that you aren’t going to provide it, it makes me think they don’t exist," Pinkins said Wednesday before the vote. 

Board member Sue Carnell said she believed Sabree and his family's actions were at the "edge" of a violation but added, "It's not clear-cut black and white. It's gray."

She said he should disclose his relationship in his wife's company on county disclosure forms in the future to avoid problems.  

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

Sabree has said he is 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. 

Evans didn't attend 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 and that he bore the burden of proof. 

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.