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Even in the new Detroit, the old demons are still haunting. The indictment of City Councilman Gabe Leland last week is a reminder that the city must be ever vigilant against the corruption and self-dealing that contributed to its financial collapse just five years ago.

Leland stands accused by a federal grand jury of  bribery conspiracy and accepting $15,000 from a local businessman. His campaign staffer, Elisa Grubbs, is also charged. The allegations stem from an investigation in the city’s towing contracts and other incidents of municipal corruption in Metro Detroit that has already produced 14 convictions, including many Macomb County politicians.

Leland is the highest ranking Detroit official to be indicted since former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was charged and convicted of bribery eight years ago.

During that same period, former City Council member Monica Conyers was also convicted of taking bribes. At the time of her death in 2004, former Councilwoman Kay Everett faced an indictment for taking a cash bribe from a city contractor, who flavored the deal with 17 pounds of sausage. And in 2006, Councilman Lonnie Bates was convicted of taking $800,000 in bribes while he was a member of the Detroit School Board.

This is an ugly legacy that should have ended when the city was reorganized under bankruptcy and emerged under new leadership.

Corruption hurts the city in a number of ways. For one thing, it cheats citizens of a government that makes its decisions based on the best interests of residents, and not on who lines the pockets of officials. 

The council should avoid such pitfalls, and that's why we have concerns regarding the potential for public corruption in the shift of some towing to the Police Department.

“A sitting member of the Detroit City Council engaging in bribery is an extreme breach of trust of the people of Detroit that badly undermines their faith in local government,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider in announcing the indictment.

It also sends a message to those considering an investment in the city that the game is rigged, and if they want to play, they have to pay.

That was what Detroit looked like in the Kilpatrick era. It can’t return to  those days.

Credit the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit for being among the most aggressive in the country in rooting out public corruption. The parallel probes of garbage hauling contracts secured by Chuck Rizzo in Macomb County and the towing empire of Gasper Fiore in Detroit is rooting out politicians who believe, despite the number of their peers who are sitting in jail cells, that they won’t get caught when they stick their hands out.

More than 20 people have been charged in the two-year-old probe, including several Macomb politicians and a Detroit deputy police chief.

The charges against Leland say he solicited campaign donations and free automobile repairs from a businessman The Detroit News has identified as Robert Carmack, who had a property dispute with the city. If convicted he faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the two counts.

Pocketing $15,000 and some car work seems hardly worth it in light of the consequences. And that’s the point of these public corruption crackdowns – to remind politicians that the odds of getting away with their misdeeds is low, and the price for getting caught is high.

Unfortunately, despite the success of the U.S. attorney’s office, a lot of politicians haven’t yet got the message.

As for Leland, he should step down from the council while his case is adjudicated. Having an accused bribe-taker deciding on city contracts would be a bad image.

 

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