Editorial: Examine conflicts in Wayne Treasurer's office

The Detroit News
Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree speaks from outside his Detroit residence on Thursday August 31, 2017 as people carried signs in a peaceful protest outside his home in peaceful protest to ask Sabree to stop homes from being auctioned.

Eric Sabree must decide whether he wants to be the guy who administers Wayne County’s tax auction program, or the one whose wife and other relatives profit off that program.

In trying to be both, the county treasurer has created some serious conflict-of-interest concerns.

Reporting by The Detroit News revealed that Sabree’s wife, son and other family members have been active bidders in tax sales that the treasurer administers, despite county rules that ban relatives of officials from participating in the auctions. (Oddly, violating the rules carries no penalties.)

More:Wayne County treasurer breaks tax auction rules

Sabree joined the Treasurer’s department as a deputy in 2011, and became treasurer in 2016. When he went on the county payroll, he says he transferred control of a family business, U.S. Development Services LLC, to his wife. He started the firm in 2002 to walk investors through the tax auction process.

As the new owner of the company, Sabree’s wife, Badriyyah Sabree, continued to purchase properties through tax auctions that were being administered by her husband. His son, Eric, has also been involved in tax sale transactions, as has a nephew.

In at least one incident, a property owned by Sabree’s wife escaped tax foreclosure even though it should have been sold at the annual auction. A home purchased by Sabree’s wife through the county auction is now occupied by his son, and the treasurer’s name is listed on the deed as a co-owner.

Sabree’s response to this very clear appearance of conflict has been cavalier. He first refused to answer The News’ questions about the family business, and then in written responses downplayed his connection to the firm he started and then placed in his wife’s name.

It stretches belief that Sabree would have so little knowledge of his wife’s business, particularly since it dovetails so neatly with his own.

Sabree also said he considers the rules against family participation in tax sales to be “intrusive,” and intends to allow relatives to bid in the 2019 auction.

Elected officials should not flirt so shamelessly with conflicts of interest. Tax foreclosures and sales are a very sensitive issue. The public needs to know they are being handled entirely above board. 

The county should not give the impression that it is seizing property so that it can sell it to the relatives of the officials who control the process. 

The Wayne County Commission should order an immediate audit of Sabree’s office, and all transactions involving firms run by his kinfolk. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel should also put an examination of the Treasurer’s department on her to-do list. 

Beyond that, the county commission should tighten its ethics rules to make it crystal clear to public officials that family members should in no way profit from the operations they run. 

Eric Sabree should understand that appearances of conflict of interest erode public confidence in his integrity and that of his office.