Detroit's Top FBI Agent Talks About ISIS, Corruption, Flint, Hoffa and the Mafia
June 6th, 2016, 12:20 AM
It has been anything but dull since David P. Gelios arrived eight months ago from FBI headquarters in Washington to head up the Detroit FBI office.
For one, his agents have been busy probing the highly-publicized Flint water crisis. And then there's the kickback scandal in Detroit Public Schools that has resulted in charges against a dozen principals, a school administrator and a greedy vendor. He says the investigation, which is still open, hit close to home because of his previous life as a school teacher.
A native of the Toledo area, Gelios graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He went on to work as a high school teacher in Bakersfield, Calif., a college volley ball coach at Ball State and an outreach officer for the University of California Office of the President.
In 1995, he joined the FBI, first working in the Sacramento Division. He then went on to work in a number of offices including Juneau, Louisville, New Haven and headquarters in D.C., his last stop before Detroit where he served as chief of the Inspection Division, overseeing all FBI field inspections, national program reviews and agent-involved shootings
Of his new assignment in Detroit, he says:
“I like to call it one of the better kept secrets in the FBI.”
In a wide ranging interview, Gelios recently sat down with Deadline Detroit’s Allan Lengel to talk about public corruption, the challenges of encrypted communication devices and apps, cyber crime, ISIS recruiting, the Hoffa investigation and organized crime.
The following interview has been trimmed for brevity. The questions have been edited for clarity.
DD: As a former teacher, did you look at the kickback investigation into the Detroit school principals and the administrator from more than just the perspective of an FBI agent?
Gelios: I absolutely did and in my remarks at the announcement of the charges at the press conference, I said, having been a former teacher, I found it especially disturbing to me knowing what I know about education and knowing what I know about education in the city of Detroit, that people would embezzle such limited funds from a struggling school district.
DD: Being an FBI agent, does it surprise you that people would take advantage of a situation like that?
Gelios: You know in my career, nothing really surprises me any more. School districts have been embezzled from in the past and they continue to be embezzled from.
DD: Do you expect more charges in the school scandal?
Gelios: I would only say that it’s possible. It remains a pending investigation, but that’s as far as I’ll go with that.
DD: In the Flint water system mess, the state has its own investigation and the FBI has an investigation with the U.S. Attorney and EPA. Are you working with state investigators?
Gelios: We have a separate investigation, but the door is open for collaboration between the state investigation and the FBI’s investigation. But I’d best characterize it as an independent investigation being conducted with EPA and the FBI.
DD: Are you concentrating more on federal employees and federal charges?
Gelios: It’s a pending investigation, so I’m not going to be able to say much. But I think we’re investigating the entire situation, so ours would not just be focused on federal employees. Often times when there’s a state investigation and a federal investigation, we work through the appropriate prosecutors at the state level and the federal levels to see where we can most effectively bring charges. It’s conceivable that some charges would simply be at the state level and some charges would be at the federal level, if and when there are federal charges.
DD: What would you say your priorities are for the Detroit office?
Gelios: Our priorities have to mirror those of the FBI and the number one priority today in the FBI remains the counterterrorism mission, and then counterintelligence and then cyber types of crimes. The cyber arena is really becoming a significant challenge for the FBI. And it could increase in priority. But then every field office has an ability to identify localized priorities, and in this area, public corruption is certainly a priority of this office. So is violent crime, gang violence, crimes against children.
DD: This city has a pretty rich history of public corruption. Are there active public corruption cases being investigated?
Gelios: That’s amongst the most sensitive investigations we conduct. So I’m not going to say anything specifically about our public corruption investigations.
DD: You have no need to layoff agents from the public corruption squad?
Gelios: We have no need to diminish the number of people we have working public corruption matters.
DD: We hear a lot about ISIS recruiting on the Internet, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. Is that a hard thing to monitor and do you have any indication through informants or anybody else that there is an effort to recruit here?
Gelios: ISIS or ISIL. They are very very active online. Openly active. You or I a could hop on a computer today and find ISIL or ISIS recruitment types of media, videos. In addition to what’s public, they’re increasingly using encrypted telephone applications to try and communicate, like WhatsApp. Some of that is harder for us to follow. And the issue of encryption is increasingly becoming a challenge for the FBI.
DD: Is the threat of terrorism greater here than elsewhere?
Gelios: I’m asked frequently whether I believe the threat is greater in Southeast Michigan than other places because we have the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. I don’t believe the threat is higher here. What I do believe though, is obviously there’s a lot of connectivity to areas of conflict and upheaval in the Middle East.
DD: How does that connectivity play out here?
Gelios: I think there are certainly some people…but I’m just not talking about Arab Americans, because there’s a good number of people we’ve looked at in the past who are white converts. They find the message of some of these extremist groups appealing. There’s a good number of consumers of this extremist propaganda in Michigan, just like there is in lots of other states.
DD: Historically, particularly the Dearborn area has had a connection to Hezbollah. Are you asked by people in the community what’s allowable in terms of donations to groups like Hezbollah?
Gelios: If we’re trying to characterize the nature of our investigations, we’re looking to those who are fundraisers or provide financial support to these groups. We look at facilitators, people who are trying to facilitate the shipment of goods overseas. And of course, finances. And we look at those people who are actually trying to get engaged in the fight either domestically or overseas. In the United States, they estimate about 250 Americans have traveled over to Syria or other theaters of conflict in the Middle East. That is a number that pales in comparison to the numbers in Europe. In Europe and elsewhere in the world I think the number is estimated to be 40,000 or 50,000 travelers from around the world to Middle East theaters of conflict.
DD: Why do you think that’s so?
Gelios: I think it’s difficult as a result of pending investigations and it’s difficult because our border security, the various authorities that look into why people travel overseas, and the investigations that exist. I think it’s difficult to travel to some of these theaters. In Europe alone, I think they’ve had about 7,000 people travel. I think we’re doing a good job preventing that. But the paradox or the dilemma for us is that these extremists are increasingly encouraging people to attack where they’re at. So that becomes the challenge and concern for us in this area, people being exhorted to conduct attacks of soft targets in the United States.
DD: Have you had any indication in the last year or two of any threats locally?
Gelios: We have certainly a publicized one that’s a pending matter. There was an individual (Khalil Abu-Rayyan) arrested approximately two months ago now, that’s working its way though the adjudication process. But this was a young man who was making a variety of comments that led us to believe he might have the potential to conduct an attack in this area.
DD: In that particular case there were some claims by the defense that he was entrapped. When you begin something like that, does it have to be approved by Washington?
Gelios: To conduct undercover operations requires authority to do so, a higher level of approval, headquarter approval. It’s just one of many investigative methods we use to investigate terrorism as well as general criminal matters. The struggle for us in these sorts of cases is we have to balance the public safety threat with trying to stick with an investigation long enough to figure out exactly what an individual is trying to do. And sometimes the public safety threat in our view becomes overriding and we have to move with whatever tools we have to charge, perhaps prematurely from my own peoples’ designs.
DD: The San Bernardino shootings in December raised the issue of encryption with a cell phone. Do you have an opinion on that?
Gelios: In that instance there was a court order, stronger than a subpoena. A court order, in our system of justice, court orders, search warrants, etc., have been incontestable, and I think we go down a dangerous path if those who are subject to court orders and search warrants are asserting a position they can resist those court orders. Encryption is absolutely an increasing problem for the FBI and the intelligence community and all law enforcement.
DD: Do you worry about all the information that you’re missing through all this encryption like the phone app, WhatsApp? I know in the Middle East, WhatsApp is very popular. I know people here are communicating there in the Middle East with that app.
Gelios: I think it’s an absolute concern of the FBI and law enforcement. But the challenges are not unusual. It’s historic. As soon as we develop means to access data and information, others develop means that assure more privacy. There’s the cycle. There’s a continuing improvement in technology to give folks more privacy, and I think that’s a huge selling point for a lot of technology providers today. It’s certainly what the public wants, and it certainly poses problems for the FBI as we conduct our investigations.
DD: Is it hard for the FBI to keep track of peoples’ comings and going between here in Detroit and the Middle East?
Gelios: I think when you look globally at the refugee issues, there’s certainly concerns about terrorist organizations using legitimate refugee organizations to place operatives or whatever, coming in undercover of being a legitimate refugee. That certainly gives us a concern. People coming in or out of Michigan, that doesn’t allow us to predicate a case simply because they came from somewhere. We have to have appropriate predication to look at someone. It’s got to be something that gives us a reasonable basis to believe that they constitute some sort of threat to national security, if we’re talking about the terrorism arena.
DD: In 1995, we had the Oklahoma bombing. There was a connection in the Michigan Thumb. One of the bombers, Tim McVeig, spent time there on a farm in Decker. So did co-conspirator Terry Nichols and his brother James Nichols. Suddenly we realized that there were all these people who were very anti-government. What’s your sense of Michigan regarding domestic groups like that and the Neo Nazis, militias and KKK?
Gelios: My sense in Michigan is we need to do more work to assess the level of threat in the state. There are groups that have historically had a presence in Michigan. Militia groups. Sovereign citizen groups. That’s something we have to look at.
DD: And the KKK. Any presence here?
Gelios: The KKK is not something that has risen to my radar since coming here. I don’t view that right now as being a significant threat in the state of Michigan. But again I think we need to do a little more work to assess some of those threats.
DD: There’s been quite a bit of violence in the city; shootings, murders, carjackings, rapes. What’s the FBI’s role?
Gelios; We participate in a number of initiatives in the Detroit area and elsewhere in the state with gang task forces. We have a gang task force here in the Detroit area that has a variety of local and state law enforcement partner agencies that contribute. We have a violent crime squad here in Detroit.
DD: Particularly since Sept. 11, this office has tried hard to have a good relationship in the Arab American community. How has that gone for you? You still feel a pushback, a distrust between the FBI and the community?
Gelios: That reaction of the public, is always going to be event impacted. In general, what my predecessors created in this area, starting with Andy Arena, Dan Roberts, Robert Foley and certainly Paul Abbate, made it a much easier task for me.
DD: Do you feel some distrust still?
Gelios: Let me give you an example to answer that. A couple things. When the director visited, we had over a hundred law enforcement partners from around the state. I think he was surprised by the level of turnout. And then our community partners came in from all diverse populations and they numbered well over 100 as well. It speaks to the health of the partnerships.
And secondly, do we experience distrust? Yes, more than a month or so I go I did a “Know Your Rights” panel at University of Michigan Dearborn. And there were some community activists, community groups representatives, and there was some law enforcement: Homeland Security, FBI, Immigration, etc. One of the people on the community-interest side of the house started out saying to the audience, if you’re ever have your door knocked on by the FBI, the first thing I recommend you do is never talk to the FBI without an attorney. And frankly, I don’t think that’s always a productive thing to do. It does bother me. It demonstrates an absolute level of distrust for us as an agency. But the only reason I bring it up is within two to three weeks, we were working a missing person case here in the area. It was not something I really saw any evidence of foul play. I could not see there was definitely federal jurisdiction here. But sometimes we want to forward lean a little bit just to make sure.
And this was someone from the Arab American community who had gone missing. And by fate would have it, I ended up working with that representative and our response to that missing individual. After about week of that person being missing, there was a dissatisfaction amongst the community from which he came, and in perhaps, the response of law enforcement. We were in a matter of a day of two, able to locate him, determine he was safe and sound. He’s an adult. That’s as far as I’m going to go. I will tell you, that community representative sent me an email. it was a transformative experience with the FBI and she really expressed a willingness to help us anytime in the future. It doesn’t mean she’s withdrawn the advice to have an attorney, but it means we built trust with that individual as a result of our response to that incident.
DD: Some of the sons and nephews of the older generation mobsters are still out there. Is there much of a traditional Mafia here these days? Do you still keep a full squad for organized crime?
Gelios: We have personnel who work organized crime. But organized crime matters today for us are a much broader swath of groups throughout the country. We have Asian organized crime groups, Eastern European organized crime groups. It’s my view that the traditional Mafia, Italian organized crime, isn’t as significant in this area or many places in the United states today. But there are other organized crime groups, some Eastern European crime groups, that we have to keep our eye on.
DD: What kind of crimes are they involved in?
Gelios: I guess I’m going to decline to talk about the things they are involved in this area?
DD: Do you still get tips on the Jimmy Hoffa case?
Gelios: I think we still get tips, but I would say it’s probably unlikely you’ll see another dig in any immediate time frame. It would really have to be a very very significant piece of credible information to see something like that happen. I would not say the Jimmy Hoffa case is at the forefront of our investigative efforts or attention today.
DD: In terms of corporate espionage, the White House at times has been critical of China. With major auto companies here, do you have concerns?
Gelios: In Michigan with our auto industry and a lot of high-tech companies and major universities that do very very sensitive research, the threat of our foreign adversaries trying to take the route and become involved in those things and stealing their propriety information is a very very significant threat.
DD: Do you have a group here that monitors hacking?
Gelios: We have a cyber squad and we have a counter intelligence squad. I would tell you there’s the foreign state types of computer intrusions that go on and I’m not going to talk specifically about that, but there are adversaries out there who are trying to hack into computer systems and steal information, be it personally identifiable information or technology information. Then there’s the criminal intrusions that result in financial losses to a variety of companies. One of the biggest threats we now face, is ransomware. Ransomware is where a criminal actor tries to introduce malware into a company’s computer system and they do it by spear phishing or whatever the case may be. The criminal actors will then come back and basically issue a ransom demand. And they often ask for the ransom to be paid in Bitcoin which is a new environment for this sort of thing. They’ll come in and say in exchange for a certain amount of money, they will then send decryption keys to allow you to regain access to your information that’s absolutely necessary to function as a business.
DD: There’s recently been reports about the FBI’s interest in the city’s demolition program. Can you comment?
Gelios: I’m not going to comment on that specifically. I would say though, wherever there are federal funds dedicated to state and local projects, where there’s allegations, perhaps the funds have been squandered or misapplied, or whatever the case may be, that could be something that predicates a public corruption investigation.
DD: You’ve been here since October. What are your impressions of the city?
Gelios: I was raised just west of Toledo, Ohio. But my father was born and raised in Detroit and I have a lot of family in the Detroit area. My impression of Detroit: I like to call it one of the better kept secrets in the FBI. As an FBI agent, if you love the work of the FBI, you want to go somewhere where there’s good work. In all our investigative programs here, there’s good work, and good cases being investigated.
I think this is an incredibly exciting time to be in the city of Detroit, and in Michigan.
DD: Were you looking forward to coming to Detroit?
Gelios: I certainly asked for the job. I was absolutely looking forward to Detroit. Detroit is basically home or the Midwest is certainly home for me. I couldn’t be happier about this being my assignment. There’s something about the Midwest and I think only a Midwesterner who has been all over the rest of the country can describe the Midwest culture. I love being in the Midwest.