Former embezzler lands gig as Michigan House staffer

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing -- A former Highland Park school board member convicted of embezzling thousands of taxpayer dollars from the beleaguered district has landed a new gig on the state payroll.

Robert Davis, a well-known litigious activist released from federal prison early last year, is working as a policy analyst and legislative aide for state Rep. LaTanya Garrett, D-Detroit.

Garrett hired Davis in July and said he has a “very good background in policy,” making him a solid pick for her staff despite his past legal troubles.

“Robert reviews policy,” she said. “He doesn’t touch money. Oil and water, it don’t mix. Very loyal to me. I have no concerns with Robert being my policy director. It doesn’t involve cash.”

Davis is earning $41,000 a year in his new job, according to salary data voluntarily disclosed by the Michigan House.

Davis had styled himself as an anti-corruption crusader before he was convicted and served 10 months in prison for stealing $200,000 from Highland Park Schools between 2004 and 2010. The district has been under control of a state-appointed emergency manager since 2012 but no longer operates any of its own schools.

Prosecutors accused Davis of funneling money from a school contractor to two separate companies he had created. They allege he spent the money on a pricey car and expensive clothes.

“I’m very thankful for getting a second chance,” Davis said Wednesday when asked about his new job in Garrett’s office, telling The Detroit News he is excited to help her assist constituents in Detroit and Highland Park.

While Garrett chose Davis for the position, the standard hiring process includes review by the offices of both House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, and Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt.

Leonard “would not have made this decision for the Republican caucus,” but he did not step in to stop the hire, said House GOP spokesman Gideon D’Assandro.

Leonard gives Democrats “a lot of latitude” in personnel matters so long as they adhere to House rules, D’Assandro explained. He told The News there are several layers of oversight on financial decisions involving legislator staff budgets.

“The Democrat caucus has decided to trust Robert Davis with the responsibility of serving the 7th District and Rep. Garrett’s constituents, and the speaker allows them to make that decision so long as there is no evidence of wrongdoing against the House,” D’Assandro said.

Despite his own legal woes, Davis has continued to position himself as a crusader for justice. In June 2016, he formed a nonprofit corporation called “A Felon's Crusade for Equality, Honesty and Truth.”

He has filed several lawsuits against the state, Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit. This summer, he was part of a suit seeking to block taxpayer funding for Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, arguing the tax revenues were intended for Detroit schools and parks.

Davis has also pursued recall petitions against elected officials, including state Sen. Bert Johnson, a fellow Highland Park Democrat who is fighting federal corruption charges for allegedly hiring a “ghost employee” in his office to repay a personal loan.

Davis said taxpayers should not be worried about his new job as a state House staffer.

“My role is basically to do research for (Garrett) and serve in various capacities with respect to assisting her with district issues,” he said. “I don’t have any authority over any finances or over any policy. I am just simply an aide to the legislator.”