Detroit council members raided by FBI advocated for towing companies

August 27, 2021, 10:00 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Council members Scott Benson, District 3, and Janee Ayers, at-large.

Two Detroit City Council members whose homes were raided this week as part of a widening federal public corruption probe have previously aided the industry reported to be at its center.

Towing operations and allegations of bribery are said to be the focus of the investigation, which brought a bribery charge against council member Andre Spivey and searches of the homes of members Scott Benson and Janeé Ayers, as well as their top aides. Mayor Mike Duggan lent credence to that notion Thursday, saying his observations led him to believe that is "likely to be true."

Benson and Ayers both sit on the council committee that handles towing, and last month helped hold up a proposed ordinance opposed by the industry.

The measure, introduced by Council President Brenda Jones, would create city-level towing regulations and curb predatory practices such as refusing to release a vehicle whose owner shows up before it’s hauled away. It would also require towing companies to maintain reports and take vehicle photos, among other things.

Benson prevented the proposal from advancing at a July 19 meeting of the Public Health and Safety Committee, which he chairs, while Ayers asked a number of questions on behalf of the industry. Both took issue with what they saw as a lack of specificity around various provisions.

“I’ve definitely spoken to more than just one and more than just two (companies) and they’re not clear,” said Ayers, who also mentioned having consulted with the Detroit Towing Association, a local industry group. “And knowing that this is how they make their money and the people that work for them are often Detroiters, I just want to make sure it is abundantly clear… And I don't think we’re there.

“I know … normally we don't have the other side (at a hearing), but in an ordinance that's as exorbitant as this — I don't know why they weren't in the discussion.”

A city attorney responded that the ordinance could not be made clearer, but that towing firms could be educated on the new rules.

Ayers also aligned with industry interests in 2018 when she lambasted  police officials for bringing some towing operations in-house in a move that reduced business for private contractors.

Benson, at the same July hearing, expressed concern about possible misdemeanors for violators of the new rules.

“The big issue is, am I going to wind up in handcuffs for violating this ordinance?” he said, speaking from the perspective of a tow operator. “I don't know the answer to that."

Benson nor Ayers responded to requests for comment.

By contrast, council member Roy McCalister, the other member of the committee, complained the new rules didn’t go far enough to protect Detroiters.

“Towers make enough money,” he said, advocating waiving costs in cases where a car is stolen.

The proposal, which took several years to hammer out and was under committee review for months, would be brought back at a future, undetermined date, Benson said. Jones attempted to interject before the decision was finalized, but he prevented her from doing so. She responded that he was "out of order"

Council member Spivey

Spivey, who is not on the committee, also tuned in for the meeting, but remained silent. At that point, he was cooperating with the FBI, his lawyer has said. A little more than a week later, he was charged with bribery conspiracy for, along with an unnamed staffer, allegedly accepting more than $35,000 between 2016 and 2020 to be "influenced and rewarded" for votes. A charging document alleges he also took $1,000 from an FBI undercover agent. His lawyer has said he’ll plead guilty at a Sept. 28 hearing.

The investigation is the third in recent years to center on the towing industry, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a news conference Thursday. Former towing magnate Gasper Fiore, who served prison time for bribing a Macomb County official, was at the center of a previous federal bribery case. Former Deputy Detroit Police Chief Celia Washington was sentenced to a year in prison in 2018 after she confessed to taking bribes from him to alter the department’s towing rotation, the process by which contractors are selected to handle business. A half-dozen police officers were implicated as well.

Additional public officials, including former city councilmember Gabe Leland, who resigned following separate federal charges and a guilty plea to a lesser charge, were named as targets of that federal wiretap investigation.

According to The Detroit News, the wiretapped calls included a 2016 exchange between Fiore and a man identified as Nicholas Primus about secretly funneling money to Ayers for campaign billboards. Ayers was not listed as a target in that case.

Following Fiore's conviction, council in 2019 voted unanimously to uphold a ban on his working with the city. Spivey, Ayers, and Jones, however, opposed the 20-year length of the punishment. Benson and Leland were not present for the vote.

In the wake of the fresh corruption allegations, Duggan advocated an overhaul of the way the city handles towing, saying the current system is "fraught with potential for abuse." At issue, he says, is a permitting system that puts a preferential group of businesses in rotation. He has asked Detroit Police Chief James White to bring him in the next two weeks “a plan to eliminate this towing rotation practice once and for good.”

Previous decisions surrounding towing have been made by the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, which gave permission for the department to provide towing service in 2018. But when the department increased its fleet of tow trucks from three to nine, Ayers took issue with its failure to consult with City Council.

"When we sat here and DPD did your complete and total presentation of your budget, not one time was it mentioned about DPD doing towing, switching into towing, looking at tow trucks … none of that was mentioned, ever," The  News reported her as saying at the time.

Ayers accused the department of rushing to start towing before a new law took effect barring municipalities from doing their own and a police official of being "continuously disingenuous" about it.

"What I want to know ... is who made the arbitrary decision that we’re going to get into the tow business and then make it come and be pushed down everybody’s throat?" she said.

At least one towing firm has since sued the city over the change.

Ayers, Benson and Spivey have each received between $500 — $2,000 in direct campaign contributions from towing company owners and affiliates, their public records indicate. In each case, $500 — $1,500 came from Fiore, and/or his daughter, Jennifer. Ayers has some additional small contributions from executives of other companies, and Spivey received an additional $1,000 total from the owners of Troy’s Towing, Berry Towing, and LIJBS. 

Politicians are permitted to accept campaign contributions from industries they vote in favor of so long as there are no strings attached, said former Washington U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard, Jr. It’s illegal when contributions or gifts are accepted with stated or implied conditions, but the latter can be “a very gray area,” Howard said.

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