Detroit City Council member Gabe Leland was looking down, his brow furrowed in thought.
It was June 7 and he was in the hot seat, fielding questions in a downtown office building during a deposition stemming from a bribe he’d allegedly taken from a local businessman.
Bob Carmack — now a well-known city government agitator — had sued Leland, alleging he demanded $15,000 and auto body work in exchange for a political favor. The incident has since led to Leland’s indictment.
The stress was starting to show on the embattled councilman. Dark under-eye bags sagged below his cheekbones; he seemed to have lost hair.
Leland had blown by questions pertaining to Carmack; pleading the Fifth in what looked like a game of call-and-response. But now, as the questioning shifted to whether he’d also taken bribes from somebody else, Leland looked stumped.
“Have you ever received a monetary or other bribe from Dennis Archer Jr. for your vote on any issue that came before Detroit City Council pertaining to any business that he was involved in?” Carmack’s lawyer, Andrew Paterson, asked.
Leland looked down. A full 10 seconds passed before he asked that the question be repeated.
“Have you ever received a monetary or other bribe from Dennis Archer Jr. for your vote on any issue that came before the Detroit City Council pertaining to any business that he was involved within the city?” asked Paterson.
Leland looked down again. Six more seconds went by.
“Can you ask the question — a-ask the question again, please?” he stammered.
Paterson tried a third time. Leland waited some more before pleading the Fifth.
As he faces a crisis that could end his political career and land him in prison for more than 10 years, Leland appears in over his head. The 36-year-old is not known for being cunning or even particularly sharp; he was first elected by trading on his politician father’s name and has maintained only a precarious grip on power in the years since.
Though it’s unclear what, exactly, may have driven him to accept a cash bribe in the form a campaign contribution, as prosecutors and a lawsuit allege, a look back at Leland’s political career reveals a pattern of morally questionable and even arrogant behavior that may have served as the foundation for future misdeeds.
The political playbook he used belonged to his father, Burton Leland, but, as many people close to the councilman tell it, he lacked his father’s skill in execution.
“The name of the game he was a part of was poli-tricks,” said Wayne County Commissioner Reggie Davis, a friend of the father and son. “It’s a type of game (where) if you’re not really ready to play it, then you’ll mess up. But it was his father’s game. Gabe never really wanted to be involved.”
Leland did not respond to multiple interview requests for this report.
His father’s son
Gabe Leland was born in Detroit in 1982, just as Burton Leland was embarking on a 37-year political career in which he’d never once face defeat.
Burton was elected more than a dozen times to represent a portion of the west side of Detroit, first in the state Legislature, then in the Wayne County Commission. But voters did not bet on him to be a political power broker; in his more than two decades in Lansing, the elder Leland was known for passing only one law. An ex-social worker, he instead maintained support by tending to the day-to-day needs of the people in his district. If a stolen car, for example, wound up parked on a constituent’s property, he’d contact the local police precinct to have it removed, free of charge.
“He was the epitome of ‘do the job,’” said Tony Bradford, who was Burton’s close friend and former campaign manager. “He’d never leave a resident’s house without helping them, he wouldn’t even want to give them another number to call. And chances are, if you take care of something for someone, they’re gonna vote for you the rest of your life.”
Those Burton helped were so loyal to him that, once, when he was locked in a tight reelection battle, Bradford recalls hearing an old woman say she’d “shoot the shit out of” anyone who tried to steal her Leland yard sign.
In 2004, Burton leveraged his popularity to get a then-23-year-old Gabe elected to a Michigan House seat in a district to which he had little connection.
Gabe, as Davis tells it, was "looking for some stuff to do" and was encouraged by his father to get involved in government.
“He said, ‘Hey, I can help you win,’” said Davis.
What happened next roils critics of the Lelands to this day. Gabe, who spent most of his childhood in East Lansing, near his father’s work, and attended college at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, entered a primary against six African-American candidates to represent Detroit’s 10th state House District.
His candidate profile listed limited credentials: Leland had knocked doors for his dad’s campaigns and helped with voter registration drives. But the profile prominently featured a half-truth, opening with, “Gabe was born and raised on Detroit's west side.”
Not mentioned was a detail that would have hampered the chances of a young candidate with a different last name: Just before he turned 20, Leland was charged with back-to-back marijuana crimes, one for dealing. Both cases were dismissed, reportedly, after intervention by his father.
In spite of all this, Gabe registered at an address in the district — his dad’s buddy’s house — and went on to win a decisive primary by just under 230 votes.
He’d arrive at the Capitol grossly underqualified: LaMar Lemmons, a former state rep who served alongside Leland in the Detroit delegation, recalled that, when asked about the schools in his district, Leland couldn’t name a single one.
Critics paying attention were stunned by the Lelands’ audacity.
“They felt they owned that part of Detroit,” said a former lawmaker who served in the Legislature with them and asked to remain anonymous. “It stems from a sense of arrogance, which is at the DNA of Gabe’s political makeup. But I just can't blame him all the way. I mean, he learned everything he knows about this business and how he does it from his father.”
Still his father’s son
Burton, though by and large beloved by voters, was, according to Bradford, “paranoid” about maintaining power and willing to play dirty when he thought he needed to. That meant going negative, running black candidates in his own races to “dilute the black vote,” according to Lemmons, and sometimes paying someone who shared a last name with his strongest opponent to register to appear on the ballot and siphon some votes.
Similar tactics emerged in Gabe’s time in the state House, and now city council.
Leland created a rift with his Detroit colleagues in 2006, when he voted for Andy Dillon to be House speaker, despite promising otherwise. Dillon won, and Leland, then just 25, was rewarded with a chairmanship role on the House Committee on Urban Policy. (He pulled a similar move upon joining City Council, serving as the swing vote to name Brenda Jones council president, and in exchange, getting appointed to run the prestigious Planning & Economic Development Committee.)
“He cut a deal behind our backs,” said the ex-lawmaker who asked to remain anonymous. “His loyalty was never so much to the delegation, but to the white male majority within our party, who, sometimes, their interests were different than the Detroiters’.”
“Gabe’s agenda was the enrichment of Gabe,” he said.
When he ran for Detroit's 7th council district in 2013, after term limits forced him from the state House, Leland is said to have resorted to some slimy political maneuvers to eke out a win against a formidable adversary, Detroit police officer John Bennett.
First, Leland is believed to have tried to eliminate Bennett in the primary by running a Robb Bennett — an apparent dummy candidate who, according to John Bennett, was a friend of Burton’s. Robb Bennett pulled in 400 votes, almost enough to keep John Bennett from advancing to the general. Leland then sent out a negative mailer to voters in the district. It pictured an ice cream cone and described “the John Bennett Triple Dip.” Bennett, the mailer said, had taken “three scoops” from taxpayers: He had sued the city and won, was collecting a pension and now wanted another check in the form of a council salary. In reality, Bennett successfully sued to get his job back after he was wrongfully terminated for creating a website that criticized a police chief, who eventually resigned in disgrace. Bennett also wasn’t collecting a pension; he was still a police officer.
Bennett chalks up his loss, in part, to Leland’s shady political tactics and last-minute support from now-Mayor Mike Duggan, whom Leland worked for while the mayor was president of the Detroit Medical Center. (A spokesperson for Duggan disputed this, saying the mayor, who was seeking his first term in 2013, did not support any other candidates that year.) But he believes an additional, racial element was at play.
“We were coming off a time where a lot of black elected officials participated in malfeasance,” said Bennett, who was a vocal critic of Kwame Kilpatrick. “At the same time I was running for council, Benny Napoleon was running for mayor against Mike Duggan and I can tell you the general feeling amongst a lot of people in the city is that they were tired and weary of that leadership and that leadership happened to be black.”
The irony that Detroiters saw a person they could trust in Leland is not lost on Bennett.
“Here we sit today with a council member who is now in trouble with the law, and I can tell you as someone who lives in the community that there's a lot of concern from people about their representation,” he said.
Though Leland has taken great pains to fill his father’s shoes — pushing some progressive policies and going back to school to earn a degree in community service at Central Michigan University — some residents in his district are quick to point out he’s fallen short. They complain he hasn’t addressed their quality-of-life issues to the extent his father did, or that he’s sold them out to downtown developers.
But residents also speak to Gabe’s likability, or lack thereof. He’s less personable than his father was, less charismatic, and nowhere near as sharp.
“I thought his dad was a much better politician,” said 7th District Police Commissioner William Davis. “I don’t know how to put it politely, but I think he was better at thinking on his feet.”
Indeed, Leland does not have the polish of even an average politician. He relies on long, rambling sentences laced with “ums” to convey simple ideas and, when speaking publicly, has a habit of rolling his eyes upward in the middle of a statement as if grasping for what to say next. He appears easily distracted, and it’s not difficult, when scrolling through council videos, to find him disengaged, fidgeting with a pen or transfixed by a speck of dirt on his tie. His demeanor has earned him the nickname of “Goob” with some reporters.
Others point out Leland’s gaffes. In 2017, when an activist from his district blasted councilmembers for voting to allow city employees to buy Land Bank-owned homes at a discount — homes that in many cases came into the government’s possession only after their owners were displaced by tax foreclosure — Leland defended the program for growing the city’s tax base, but also for allowing city employees to “get a piece of the pie.” Bennett described Leland as socially inept, recalling an incident when, during an election cycle, Leland knocked on his door and pressed him on why his wife wasn’t listed as living at the home. Bennett was recently divorced.
“Just jaw-dropping goofiness,” said Bennett.
Carmack, the star witness in the bribery case against Leland, alleged that Leland tried to squeeze him for money while Carmack was tending to his dying father in the hospital. He said Leland even asked to meet him there.
“This guy’s insane,” said Carmack. “There’s nothing normal about this guy.”
Leland also appears to embrace the job’s more morally objectionable perks, and has developed a reputation for soliciting expensive meals from lobbyists and other donors. While serving in Lansing, campaign finance records show he was cashing in on free meals from lobbyists at a much higher rate than his colleagues — more than $1,400 in free food per year, on average. Leland is also alleged in a federal lawsuit to have extorted thousands of dollars in free food, booze, and entry to parties in exchange for promising a downtown Detroit bar owner political influence.
Isaac Robinson, a former Leland council staffer who was recently elected to the Michigan House, rejected the characterization of Leland as solicitous, saying lobbyists were more likely chasing him.
As bad as the alleged misbehavior has been, a more basic complaint about Leland from block-club presidents and community leaders in his district pertains to how he does the job he was elected to do. It’s a common one in the city’s neighborhoods amid Detroit’s revival: Leland has forsaken them in favor of building up the city’s downtown.
District 7 is home to some of the highest levels of poverty, crime and blight in the city. Many blocks are riddled with vacant lots and abandoned houses and, on some, there’s not a single occupied home left standing. Median income in the district was $15,000 as of the 2010 Census — not much higher than the federal poverty line — and the average home in its three main zip codes sold for a little over $20,000 last year. On Joy Road, there’s a combination McDonald’s restaurant and gas station that’s seen so many carjackings and killings residents have dubbed it “Murda Mac.”
Residents expressed disappointment with a number of actions taken by Leland during his first term, including a vote to approve $34 million in incentives to lure the Pistons downtown and another to authorize millions in spending for continued water shutoffs. Almost every community leader Deadline Detroit spoke with brought up his role in torpedoing a community benefits ordinance that would have required developers receiving massive tax breaks from the city to provide things like jobs and affordable housing to residents. Leland held up the proposal as chair of the Planning & Economic Development Committee, forcing it to a ballot vote in 2016, where it was defeated after development interests backed a watered-down alternative. Unions providing labor for the downtown construction boom are some Leland's largest contributors.
“He doesn’t stand for anything,” said Lemmons. “You would expect a white city council member to be like a Maryann Mahaffey — an advocate for the poor and for the disenfranchised. Gabe is none of that. Gabe is for Gabe.”
A caricature, or a man of character?
But the picture of Leland as a morally slippery politician who spends his days OK-ing big downtown deals and nights sipping free cocktails is incomplete.
Unlike his father, Leland has opted to live in humble digs in the district he represents. He does not live in one of District 7’s nicer neighborhoods — he stays near Plymouth and the Southfield Freeway, in a modest bungalow across from a boarded-up, vacant house. It’s the home that belongs to his dad’s friend, the first address he listed in the city when running for office in 2004. Servers at the original Starter’s Bar & Grill, up the street, say he comes in often.
Over the course of his career, Leland has fought for a number of policies that would help the residents of his district. In 2009, during his final term in Lansing, he introduced a pioneering bill to ease requirements for poor people to obtain property tax exemptions to stave off foreclosure. The bill would have allowed the exemptions to be retroactive and required reimbursements for qualifying individuals. Housing advocates have blamed the difficult-to-access exemption for the wrongful foreclosure of thousands of Detroiters and the city recently settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, promising improvements.
Leland also called for a moratorium on tax foreclosures when a record number of occupied homes were set to go to auction in 2015. More recently, he crossed the Duggan administration in his vote to eliminate a notary requirement for the poverty exemptions.
Separately, Leland serves as chair of the city’s disability task force, and added language to an inclusionary housing ordinance requiring developers to make new residential units ADA-compliant.
“In his short time as a council person he’s taken up some issues focused on social justice,” said Robinson. “I think Gabe really has a goal of being a progressive voice.“
Council member Mary Sheffield also offered some positive words about her embattled colleague. Leland, she said, took her under his wing early on, as he had come to the role with previous legislative experience and she was the youngest person on council.
“I can't talk to his personal life or what's going on with him, but my experience with him has been very pleasant,” she said. “He kind of just embraced me ... he definitely treated me like a big brother.”
She also pushed back on the notion that Leland isn’t bright.
“I think Gabe actually is very smart and in my conversations that I have with him, he may not come across as charismatic as most politicians, but ... he knows the issues,” she said. “He's informed, for sure.”
The legal undertow
But the negative perceptions persist — and are further fueled by Leland’s legal troubles.
“He’s misrepresented us in this district,” said Raymon Jackson, a community activist known as the Advocate. “But not only the lack of development and his track record of voting against everything that affects the citizens — on top of that he’s got a federal probe.”
Jackson went on to tick off Leland’s ethical lapses: He voted to approve more than $2 million in city contracts with companies affiliated with his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Fiore, the daughter of Gasper Fiore, who was convicted of bribery a year ago, and did not disclose their relationship prior to his votes. When he learned the Fiore family’s towing operation was under federal investigation, he met with Police Chief James Craig to pump him for information, making Craig so uncomfortable he told The Detroit News he “contacted the FBI as soon as [Leland] left the room.”
Then, there are the two federal lawsuits alleging extortion. The one from Carmack alleges Leland sought $15,000 days ahead of the August 2017 primary — at a point when Leland’s campaign coffers were flush and he was facing a weak opponent. This is in addition to the extortion suit brought by the former owner of Centre Park Bar.
And of course, there’s the indictment that backs up much of what Carmack alleges in his suit. Prosecutors have said they have recordings of meetings between Carmack and Leland, one in which he acknowledges receiving an envelope of $7,500 cash from a Leland associate. Leland allegedly said he’d help Carmack with a property dispute in exchange for the money, and hinted he would take more, saying, "I should ask for 30 but I'm nice to you."
Leland’s lawyer, Steve Fishman, declined to comment for this story.
Some wonder what it will take to remove Leland from office.
“Like, what he got to do to? Murder somebody?" asked Jackson. “Ain’t no community he would ever be able to [stay in power in]. Ain't no suburb he could go to and have all this on him.”
And yet, Leland has refused to resign, positioning his sticking around as a favor to the people in his district.
At an October council hearing, he told a constituent who asked him to step down that “residents in District 7 . . . deserve representation.”
In the event of a resignation, the remaining council members would appoint a replacement with a two-thirds vote.
Absent a resignation, Leland could be removed from the body if he pleads or is found guilty, or if District 7 residents recall him. Jackson and Detroit Charter Commission member Joanna Underwood plan to soon begin gathering signatures for a recall.
Leland’s colleagues on council have made no effort to reprimand him. They have not called for his investigation and he has not been removed from the committees on which he sits. When the indictment came down, the body issued a statement simply saying that it would “not affect the work of the Detroit City Council. We will continue to do our jobs, as elected by the citizens of this city."
District 2 representative Roy McCAlister was the only council member willing to speak on council’s inaction.
“It’s the people that voted him in, so he represents his district. We did not vote him in,” said McCalister. “It’s an issue but, it’s still under [federal] investigation.”
A final push from the old man
Leland’s father died of cancer in February, just as his son's troubles began to unfold. Two months earlier, it emerged that Leland had been named a “target subject” in the same public corruption probe that has ensnared Fiore and other Detroit officials. Shortly after Burton’s death, Carmack filed his extortion suit against Leland, and disclosed he’d worn a wire for the FBI.
From his “deathbed,” Reggie Davis said, Burton Leland tried to ensure his son would be insulated from harm once he was gone.
“Burton tried to help,” said Davis. “He was advising some of the people close to Gabe to help him in certain ways.”
Davis didn’t provide specifics, but Leland’s lawyer, Fishman, is an old high school friend of Burton’s. Bradford, who called Burton “a brother,” said he was asked to come on last December as Gabe’s constituent services director.
People who know Gabe well have different theories for how he wound up in the mess he’s in. Some chalk it up to hubris, others say he simply wasn’t sharp enough to play politics in the way his father did, and slipped down the slope from immoral to illegal.
But there was one thing on which people with differing theories agreed: Gabe wouldn’t be in trouble were his father still around.
“The greatest vulnerability to him now is that his father has transitioned,” said Lemmons. “So now Gabe is really out there by himself.”