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Ex-Detroit Metro official sentenced to 10 years for bribery

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — James Warner, a former Detroit Metropolitan Airport supervisor convicted of receiving more than $6 million in bribes — the third-largest amount in U.S. history — was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison Wednesday.

The sentence from U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts fell far short of the 25 years sought by prosecutors, and below the national record 28-year sentence for corruption. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick received that record sentence seven years ago, tying the corruption sentence issued to Ohio county politician Jimmy Dimora.

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.

Warner, 53, of Commerce Township was convicted of 10 crimes in June, including bribery, theft and money laundering conspiracies, and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say he steered $43.7 million worth of airport contracts to three co-conspirators in return for more than $6 million in kickbacks — the highest total in the history of public corruption cases in Metro Detroit.

The judge said Warner has redeeming qualities — family and friends called him a good, supportive man — and said his crimes did not cause as much damage as those committed by Kilpatrick, whose racketeering activity included pocketing approximately $1 million in illegal benefits.

"Kwame Kilpatrick mightily contributed to the slide of Detroit both locally and nationally, contributed to (Detroit's) slide into bankruptcy and the city's tarnished image," the judge said.

Kwame Kilpatrick, left, and Jimmy Dimora

"Mr. Warner, while a significantly corrupt public official, is not in the same position," Roberts added. 

Warner, who hung his head at hearing the sentence, apologized to his friends, family and airport colleagues. He also apologized to the judge.

"I respect the system and the role everyone plays in it and I am hopeful the sentence allows me to find work in the future and to be there for my friends and family," he said.

The government has seized $11 million from Warner and co-conspirators during the years-long criminal investigation.

Driven by greed: A database of corruption in Detroit

Warner's lawyer pushed for no more than a four-year sentence.

The money Warner received from airport contractors is the largest bribe total prosecuted in the history of the eastern district of Michigan.

Warner is among more than 109 public officials, bureaucrats and union leaders charged with public corruption in Metro Detroit in the past decade.

Jurors deliberated for about four hours last summer before reaching the verdict following a trial that lasted parts of three weeks. In a rare move, Warner testified in his own defense.

Warner is a dishonest and deceitful man whose time on the witness stand featured "perjury-laced testimony," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eaton Brown said.

"At the end of the day, Mr. Warner robbed citizens and taxpayers blind," Brown told the judge, "and he had no qualms doing it."

Warner, 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.

Two of the most recent politicians to stand trial in federal court —Kilpatrick and Clinton Township Trustee Dean Reynolds — were convicted and sentenced to double-digit prison sentences.

The 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 several related schemes involving Metro Detroit contractors, including Romulus businessman William Pritula, 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 and was sentenced to probation. He agreed to forfeit $5.4 million to the government.

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 of Rochester, who was accused of defrauding the Wayne County Airport Authority of $1.5 million. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison.

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

At 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."

rsnell@detroitnews.com