Taylor mayor's top aide suspended from job while awaiting corruption trial

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Taylor Community Development Manager Jeff Baum has been suspended from his city job while awaiting trial on public corruption charges alongside Mayor Rick Sollars.

Baum was suspended with pay from his $71,000-a-year job on Oct. 6, one day after federal prosecutors leveled new allegations involving Sollars and the aide in connection with an alleged bribery conspiracy. Sollars is accused of cashing campaign checks at a party store in exchange for cash and scratch-off lottery tickets while Baum, who serves as the mayor's campaign treasurer, allegedly received cash kickbacks in exchange for steering foreclosed properties to a developer.

Taylor Mayor Rick Sollars (left) and aide Jeff Baum.

Sollars and Baum are scheduled to stand trial in federal court in January. Last week, The News reported that two co-defendants are scheduled to plead guilty later this month after reaching plea deals with prosecutors.

“At this point, we have no idea what the allegations against him are but his suspension was not done through the normal process,” Baum's lawyer Mike Rataj told The Detroit News on Wednesday. “His suspension came out of the mayor’s office.

“Mr. Baum denies any wrongdoing. He has been a dedicated public servant to the city of Taylor,” Rataj added. “He treats everyone fairly and with respect.”

City spokesman Karl Ziomek declined comment about the suspension.

"To protect the integrity of the process, and the employees involved, we do not comment on internal matters such as these," Ziomek wrote in an email.

The 33-count indictment against Sollars and Baum was filed in December 2019 after FBI agents raided Taylor City Hall and seized $205,993 found in the mayor's house.

The indictment charges Sollars with crimes punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison. He is free on a $10,000 unsecured bond. 

Baum also is free on bond and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of bribery conspiracy and 18 counts of wire fraud.

Sollars and Baum face mounting pressure from the government.

Shady Awad, left, and Taylor Mayor Rick Sollars discuss a partnership to rehabilitate foreclosed homes in the downriver community. Awad, 41, of Allen Park has a plea hearing Oct. 22, almost two years after he was charged alongside Sollars in an alleged conspiracy involving Jeffrey Baum, the Taylor community development manager, bribes, luxury items and tax-foreclosed properties.

Downriver real estate mogul Shady Awad, who is accused of bribing Sollars with free wood floors and a deck at his lake house, is scheduled to plead guilty Oct. 22. Details of Awad's upcoming plea were not available, and it was unclear whether he will cooperate against Sollars and Baum.

The investigation emerged in early 2019 when FBI agents raided Taylor City Hall, Sollars' home and vacation chalet.

Sollars was indicted in December 2019 on federal bribery and wire fraud charges and accused of helping Awad obtain city-owned properties to allegedly get free work on his home and chalet, including hardwood floors, a humidor, appliances and more.

In exchange, prosecutors said, the mayor allegedly helped Awad's real estate development company Realty Transition and other developers obtain dozens of tax-foreclosed homes in the city.

Sollars received bribes, stole campaign contributions and tried to cover up the crimes, according to prosecutors, who accused the mayor of filing phony paperwork with state campaign finance officials.

A second member of the alleged conspiracy also is set to plead guilty soon.

West Bloomfield Township resident Hadir Altoon, who owns the Taylor party store Dominick’s Market along with two property development companies, was charged in a criminal information, which means a guilty plea is expected.

Sollars and Baum allegedly helped Altoon, Awad and others obtain properties during a conspiracy from June 2017 until February 2019 that led the mayor to receive more than $80,000 in cash payments and $4,000 for Baum, according to the court filing.

The bribes came in several forms, the government alleged.

Taylor Mayor Rick Sollars leaves the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse and is interviewed by members of the media in Detroit, Michigan on December 19, 2019.

Awad allegedly had Altoon charge about $19,000 through the party store to Awad's credit card and give the cash to the mayor, according to the court filing. Altoon also gave cash to the mayor and Baum in exchange for receiving foreclosed properties.

The Altoon case focuses on the city's Right of First Refusal program, which lets developers acquire, redevelop and sell tax-foreclosed properties from the Wayne County Treasurer's Office, including single-family homes and commercial buildings. Taylor had considerable control of the program, prosecutors said.

rsnell@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @robertsnellnews