Bankole: Wayne County treasurer should come clean

Bankole Thompson
Eric Sabree

Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree needs to know that flagrant violation of law is not all that matters for office holders. The appearance of impropriety or any kind of conflict that questions your standing as a public official also matters. 

Those who serve in the public interest have an obligation to carry out their functions with openness, fairness and probity. Serving above board is not a substitute. It is a mandate, because this town has experienced many efforts to deceive taxpayers by those who view public office as a way to get ahead. 

That is why the crisis facing Sabree detailed in a recent Detroit News investigation should concern Wayne County taxpayers as well as everyone interested in good governance and integrity.

According to the report, U.S. Development Services, a Sabree family company created in 2002, purchased three foreclosed homes for $58,000 in a 2011 auction at the time Sabree was deputy treasurer. The rules forbid employees of the treasurer’s office and their families from bidding and buying property in the auction.

Sabree’s laughable defense is that the purchases were not a violation because the auction was run by a contractor selected by the treasurer’s office. It makes no difference, because the auction was carried out on behalf of the office.

What Sabree hasn’t fully explained is why some of his family’s properties that were tax-delinquent properties were not confiscated right away by his office, as is the case with many distressed and economically disadvantaged homeowners.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans swiftly called for a review of the report both by the county’s ethics board as well as the county prosecutor. That was the right call, because the growing political scandal could once again sully the reputation of the county after all the issues regarding malfeasance during the era of former county Executive Robert Ficano.

I thought Sabree knew to avoid circumstances that will raise legitimate ethics concerns with the treasurer’s office, which has foreclosed on many people who aren’t connected like his family.

When he was promoted in 2016 to run the treasurer's office, after longtime Treasurer Raymond J. Wojtowicz retired, I invited Sabree for an interview on my 910 AM radio show. I wanted him to explain the growing foreclosure crisis and how he plans to provide relief to the poorest residents.

During the interview he sounded like a government bureaucrat, one with a clear and educated understanding of the dos and don’ts of county government. He was pumped up during the conversation and sought to assure listeners that he would do everything he could to mitigate the impact of the foreclosure crisis in Wayne County. He promised an open and transparent administration under his leadership, and one that would put the interest of the taxpayers above everything else.

The interview became his political debut; shortly after that, Sabree launched a full-blown campaign to become Wojtowicz’s permanent replacement. He won largely because he was in the catbird seat as the incumbent.  

With the reports now surfacing about his office makes me wonder if Sabree was just blowing smoke during our interview. 

It should matter to him that what happened gives the impression that he may have protected properties personally connected to him from being seized, while everyone else is told to follow the book.

Even if the rules that were ignored here provided no penalties, that doesn’t make the conduct right. It is simply wrong for any elected official to conduct themselves in ways that suggest they are playing by two sets of rules: one for their family and the other for everyone else. That kind of approach and philosophy to governance has gotten a lot of people in trouble and landed them in uncomfortable places.

We don’t need “All the Treasurer’s Family,” movie to remind us of the dangers of elected officials crossing the red line. Wayne County should be moving away from that way of doing business. Sabree needs to immediately hold a media roundtable and fully explain what transpired and where he missed the mark.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.