Ecorse ousts public safety director in whistleblower lawsuit

George Hunter
The Detroit News
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Ecorse — In the latest twist to a years-long public corruption scandal that's the subject of multiple investigations and lawsuits, the City Council has voted to oust Public Safety Director Joseph Thomas.

Former Ecorse Public Safety Director Joseph Thomas

Thomas' attorney alleges his client was fired because he filed a whistleblower lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court claiming he was retaliated against after exposing wrongdoing in City Hall and the Public Safety Department.

On Tuesday, the council voted, 5-2, to remove Thomas, who oversaw the city's police and fire operations, and replace him with two people who had filed complaints against the city: former Public Safety Director Michael Moore and Deputy Public Safety Director Narda Bruno.

Under settlement agreements obtained by The Detroit News, the council also voted to pay Moore and Bruno $300,000 each in exchange for dropping their complaints.

Moore's agreement appoints him as part-time fire chief and consultant. He was fired as public safety director Oct. 9, a week after The News published an affidavit in which a Michigan Attorney General special agent and FBI task force member accused Moore of engaging in an "orchestrated cover-up" over the handling of stolen vehicles.

As part of the settlement, Moore agreed to drop a federal wrongful termination lawsuit.

Bruno's settlement promotes her to public safety director and requires her to drop a discrimination charge she had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Former Ecorse Public Safety Director Michael Moore was named fire chief on May 4, 2021.

The agreements also allow Moore and Bruno to review their personnel files and remove anything they and the city agree is "objectionable."

Bruno declined to comment Wednesday, and attempts to reach Moore were unsuccessful.

Thomas told The News on Wednesday he's leaving the department amid three separate investigations into police corruption.

In one of the probes, Peter Ackerly, a Michigan Attorney General special agent and FBI task force member, alleged in a 2019 search warrant return affidavit that "false statements" were made by Moore and other Ecorse officers over how a stolen truck was processed.

Attorney General spokeswoman Lynsey Mukomel declined to comment Wednesday. But Thomas said the probe is ongoing, as is a federal investigation that "is looking at a bigger operation (than the handling of the stolen truck)," he said. Thomas noted he's cooperating with all investigations. 

"I'm sworn to cooperate," he said. "I will never get arrested for obstructing justice because of somebody else. My badge isn't for sale, and it never will be. Most of this stuff happened before I got here."

Phone calls and emails Wednesday to Mayor Lamar Tidwell and the city's other six council members were not returned. FBI spokeswoman Mara Schneider said she couldn't confirm or deny the federal investigation.

Thomas' attorney, Leonard Mungo, said the council's vote was motivated by a whistleblower lawsuit filed in February in which Thomas alleges he was discriminated against because he ordered an investigation into how Tidwell and police Cpl. Kevin Barkman had handled stolen vehicles.

"There was a whistle blown, and my client got terminated," Mungo said. "It's not any more complicated than that. There was no talk of replacing him until after he blew the whistle."

Two stolen vehicles that were recovered by police are central to the controversy. Tidwell told The News in earlier interviews that he paid Barkman $500 for a stolen 2006 Chevy Trailblazer in February 2017. But Thomas wrote in an October memo that there was no record for the sale, and the mayor improperly handled the SUV's transaction.

The second vehicle, a 2014 Ford F-150 Tremor Edition truck, is the focus of a state-federal joint investigation. The truck was reported stolen out of Chesterfield Township on Oct. 1, 2016. Chesterfield Township police entered the truck's information into the Law Enforcement Information Network system the same day, Ackerly wrote in his affidavit.

Ackerly wrote that he and an FBI special agent interviewed Ecorse police officers Cornelius Herring and Geoffrey Howard, who told the investigators that Barkman had improperly processed the stolen truck.

"Herring and Howard told Agents that the F-150 was towed to Mars Towing in Ecorse," Ackerly wrote. "Sgts. Herring and Howard provided Agents a recorded interview with (a Mars employee). In the recording, (the employee) stated that he was directed by Barkman ... that if an insurance company called Mars inquiring about the condition of the F-150, to advise the insurance company it was frame and wheels only.

"The investigation has revealed that the vehicle was in fact an intact F-150 at that time." 

Herring and Howard told investigators that in August 2017, Barkman had the truck listed with the Secretary of State as an abandoned vehicle.

"Barkman obtained a new title for the F-150 and converted the F-150 to a City of Ecorse owned vehicle," Ackerly wrote. "Herring and Howard assert this was done with the knowledge and consent of Ecorse Police Chief Michael Moore.

"Barkman regularly drove the F-150 as his assigned take-home vehicle (until 2018).

"Sgts. Howard and Herring assert that Barkman provided other vehicles for the City of Ecorse, including a 2010 Nissan Armada which is driven by Chief Moore," Ackerly wrote. "Chief Moore currently drives the Nissan as his departmentally issued take-home vehicle."

During an earlier interview, Moore told The News his department handled the truck properly.

"This is a situation where a few police officers don't like Barkman because he's openly gay," Moore said. "That's what this is all about."

In a January letter advising city officials of the pending whistleblower lawsuit, Mungo wrote that Tidwell and city council members Montel Love, LaTonya Lamb, Kimberly Alexander and Roger Parker Sr. harassed Thomas after his investigation found that the mayor had acted improperly.

On Tuesday, Tidwell, Love, Lamb, Alexander and Parker voted to remove Thomas. Dissenting were Mayor Pro Tem Darcel Brown and Devonte Sherard.

Former City Administrator Richard Marsh and Public Works Director Mark Ragsdale are co-plaintiffs in Thomas' whistleblower lawsuit, which seeks more than $25,000.

The lawsuit claims Marsh found out that Tidwell had "fraudulently" obtained the Trailblazer, and ordered Thomas to launch a "criminal investigation" into the mayor.

"Thomas's investigation and report established ... that a police officer employed with the City of Ecorse facilitated a fraudulent transfer of a city vehicle to Defendant Mayor Tidwell," the lawsuit alleges.

In a separate matter, the lawsuit says Marsh hired a consultant to investigate "apparent fraudulent billing" from city contractors to the Department of Public Works.

The consultant "determined that the company responsible for submitted the billing statements to the city for payments apparently did not exist," the lawsuit said. 

Marsh told Ragsdale to further investigate the billing issue. Ragsdale issued reports that laid out "the possible involvement of certain city officials in the fraudulent billing scheme," the lawsuit says.

"Ragsdale reported the results of his investigation to County, State and Federal (FBI) law enforcement agencies," the lawsuit said, adding that Tidwell and council members Alexander, Lamb, Love and Parker were "displeased" and retaliated by shortening his contract by a year, among other allegations.

In a separate ongoing federal whistleblower lawsuit, Ecorse Cpl. Rick Mercado claims he was wrongfully disciplined and suspended after he tried to expose how stolen vehicles were being improperly processed.

For years, there have been questions of impropriety surrounding how Ecorse handled stolen vehicles. Detroit police Lt. Michael Parish, who runs the department's towing operations, told The News in 2018 that Ecorse officers were improperly using the Law Enforcement Information Network computer system when logging stolen vehicles.

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