Complaint: Regulator threatened to shut down MMA event after paying for parking
Lansing — A member of Michigan's commission that regulates boxing and mixed martial arts allegedly threatened to shut down an event in November after not receiving free parking, according to emails obtained by The Detroit News.
Bruce Hundley, the member of the state's Unarmed Combat Commission, said the situation was a misunderstanding. But the commission's then-chairman, Jeff Styers, labeled it "intentional" in a Nov. 20 message to state officials.
"I believe it was flagrant, intentional and follows a trend set forth by Mr. Hundley that undermines the integrity of this commission," Styers wrote.
Two months after the November allegation — which wasn't the first against Hundley — he continues to serve on the 11-member commission in charge of licensing and safety standards for professional boxing and mixed martial arts events in Michigan. Its members are appointed by the governor and don't receive salaries.
In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave the commission new power to act independently of the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which housed the commission. But less than a year later, one of the commission's members, Hundley, is facing allegations from event promoters, and Styers revealed he is stepping down from his chairman post a day after The News asked him about Hundley.
The News discovered the situation through a request under Michigan's open records law. The documents showed that both Styers and Orlene Hawks, director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, had been made aware of the November allegation against Hundley.
State law requires event promoters to provide commission members seats "in the area immediately adjacent" to the ring or cage where a bout takes place. The promoters must also provide an additional seat somewhere in the venue for one individual to accompany the commission member.
In October, the commission put a "rule update" into effect that defined “immediately adjacent” as a seat "in the first or second row from the ring or cage."
Weeks later, Total Warrior Combat, a promotion company, held a Nov. 16 mixed martial arts event in Lansing. Hundley and a guest attended the Lansing event. When he entered the venue, Hundley allegedly asked Pete Keung, who runs Total Warrior Combat, why he was charged $5 for parking, according to an email Keung sent state officials.
Hundley then said "that if he wants, he doesn't have to pay because he will just shut down my show anytime he wishes," Keung wrote.
"This is one big reason why I'm contemplating not having another show ever again in the state of Michigan," the Total Warrior Combat owner added in the email. "Having commissioners threaten and maybe have the power to close down my shows because the venue charged him a parking fee is unreasonable."
Keung called his email "truth" in a brief phone conversation this week, but he declined to provide further details. He said he hadn't heard from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which is supposed to be looking into the situation.
"I don't know what happened," Keung said.
Hundley, a businessman who was appointed to the commission in 2018 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, said the incident was a "total misunderstanding." Keung was under pressure because an ambulance needed on standby at the event was running late, the commissioner said.
"We were standing there joking around," said Hundley of Howell.
Hundley said Keung took his joke the wrong way and he's willing to apologize.
But Styers, who then headed the commission, apparently didn't take the matter as a joke. After Keung informed a state employee of the situation, his message was eventually forwarded to Styers, who labeled it "flagrant" and said it "follows a trend" from Hundley, according to emails obtained by The News.
Styers, a former professional fighter from Northville and Snyder appointee, said this week that he was "very familiar" with it but declined to comment further because, he said, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs is investigating.
Asked about whether the department is looking into the matter, David Harns, a spokesman for the department, said Styers had followed up with Hundley and "reminded him that that type of behavior is unacceptable."
The News obtained a second complaint sent to the department in April 2018 from a promoter named Carlos Llinas. Hundley came to one of his events, Llinas alleged in an email, and demanded that his guest have "full range" and "access" like he was provided as a state regulator under the law.
After being told the guest wouldn't receive that level of access, according to Llinas' email, Hundley asked, "What the hell is going on here?"
When an official at the casino explained to Hundley there were 50 "high dollar seats" on the stage and it would be difficult to financially continue holding boxing and mixed martial arts events if each commission member and guest were given free seats, Hundley's "answer was 'I don't care — cancel the shows here,'" according to the email.
Hundley said simply "no" in an email when asked if he remembered the event and if it happened.
On why the commission changed its rules to require members get free seats in the first or second rows, Styers said another rule change would be coming in the future to undo it. The new policy will require seats in "direct sight" of the ring or cage, the panel's then-chairman said.
The commission's job is to regulate, Styers said, and commission members in attendance at events need to be able to see what's going on. The commission is working on policies related to fighter safety and concussion protocols, he explained.
The debate over free seats has been a "thorn" in his side, Styers said. Some promoters argue it's unfair that they must give up high-price seats for free to commissioners.
Most commission members are at the events to oversee them and better the sports, Styers argued.
Until March 2019, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs oversaw the Unarmed Combat Commission. In the same executive order, in which Whitmer created the state's new Marijuana Regulatory Agency, she also gave the Unarmed Combat Commission new powers, shifting responsibilities from the department to the commission.
Styers said effectively, the commission previously reported to the department but now the department works for the commission. He called the move "unusual" and said he couldn't explained why it happened.
“If you find out, let me know," the then-commission chairman said.
Harns, the department's spokesman, said the change was made "to provide more authority to help the commission promote its mission of providing safety for the athletes and elevating the profession."