Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is defending three members of his cabinet who are said to have ordered the deletion of emails pertaining to the city's collaboration with a program run by his rumored romantic partner.
A six-month investigation by Detroit's Office of the Inspector General on Monday determined Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley abused her authority in ordering city employees to delete hundreds of emails pertaining to the Make Your Date program headed by Wayne State's Dr. Sonia Hassan, and that Duggan gave the program preferential treatment. The email directive went down the chain of command from Wiley, to Office of Development and Grants Director Ryan Friedrichs, to his deputy Sirene Abou-Chakra, then finally to two staffers involved in fundraising for the program, the report concluded.
Disciplinary action is recommended for the three officials and Duggan has said he's conferring with the city's HR department on what steps to take.
But in a Detroit News interview late Monday, Duggan claimed the staffers were well-intentioned in issuing the directive. They wanted to insulate the junior staffers from the "circus" swirling around City Hall, he claimed, as businessman Bob Carmack was levying personal attacks against him around that time. The high-profile stunts included the broadcasting of private investigator footage showing Duggan with Hassan.
"It was terribly intrusive into folks' personal lives," Duggan said. "They did it in a climate of terrible pressure that they didn't create."
Duggan said the junior staffers were doing their jobs and that Wiley, Friedrichs and Abou-Chakra were motivated to "keep them out of the circus."
"It was a mistake because it made it look like something was being covered up when there was nothing to be covered up," he said.
"On the other hand, Alexis, Ryan and Sirene were in a situation that wasn't their fault. I think that they honestly wanted to protect two junior staff people from having their name dragged into the whole Robert Carmack situation and all the publicity associated. Their hearts were in the right place, but it wasn't good judgment."
There were two directives to delete emails and limit contact with the Make Your Date program: One in December and one in February, according to the IG's report.
Indeed, Carmack was making headlines before the first. And the OIG said Friedrichs and Abou-Chakra referenced a "circus" and press coverage in issuing their orders.
But plotting additional points on the timeline calls Duggan's narrative into question. More quietly, in late November, the Free Press reports it submitted "a public records request to the city for contracts and other documents regarding Make Your Date and Hassan."
In February, another FOIA request was submitted. Whistle-blower Kennedy Shannon, who was fired by the department, has said another directive to delete messages was issued afterward.
According to the Freep:
General correspondence records — which city emails are often classified as — must be preserved for at least two years, according to the state policy followed by the City of Detroit. The policy states that “records cannot be destroyed unless their disposition is authorized by an approved retention and disposal schedule.”
Furthermore, records cannot be disposed of if they are part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, investigation or lawsuit.
The IG's office did not weigh whether the email directive was unlawful, despite the Duggan administration's attempt to suggest it was somehow vindicated by the absence of a determination. The Michigan Attorney General's Office is expected to be looking into that as part of a separate investigation.
In an interview with the News, Carmack rejected the notion that he would have gone after low-level staffers helping with the program:
"What they are saying doesn't even make sense. This is just corruption," he said. "What does it have to do with the billboards or signs or airplanes or anything? What they tried to do is do a cover-up. They tried to cover up what they did, and it just didn't work."
Duggan told the News he plans to detail any further action regarding the staffers on Tuesday.
Duggan steered more than $350,000 in funds toward the Make Your Date program without going through an appropriately competitive selection process, the IG's report found. Tens of thousands of additional city dollars were spent on Lyft rides for program recipients.
The program "received an inordinate amount of city time and resources, considering the fundraising goals and scope of work when compared against other projects of similar size and scope," Inspector General Ellen Ha wrote.
The program was also unique in that it "was created at the direction of Mayor Duggan whereas most, if not all, of the city’s other partners were already established with a proven track record.”