Detroit council corruption probe involves nonprofit that helped kill grass roots initiative

September 22, 2021, 11:30 PM

Councilmembers Benson and Ayers.

New information on the focus of the FBI probe into several city council members and their staffers is emerging. 

The Detroit News, citing anonymous sources, reports that besides towing, the feds are "looking into whether anyone personally benefited from campaign contributions or nonprofit donations and whether they extorted business people."

In late August, FBI agents raided the homes and offices of Councilmembers Scott Benson and Janeé Ayers and staffers. 

Interviews, an FBI search warrant and nonprofit records reveal a new thread of a conspiracy investigation that is focused on finding evidence of bribery, extortion, wire and mail fraud. Federal tax filings and state business records, meanwhile, link Benson to a dark-money nonprofit with a felon on the board.

When FBI agents raided Benson's and Ayers' offices on Aug. 25, they were hunting for bank records, check stubs, cash, campaign finance records and documents regarding 501c4 social welfare organizations, according to search warrants obtained by The News. They ended up seizing electronics, towing paperwork, shredded documents and payroll records for an aide of Benson.

The non-profit tied to Benson is Save Detroit Jobs, which helped torpedo Prop A, a 2016 grass roots community benefits initiative opposed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the development industry. The Free Press reports the group paid out more than $14,000 in unspecified reimbursements and $4,000 in campaign wages to Benson chief of staff Carol Banks, whose home was also raided last month.

Donors include Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which gave $25,000; Paradise Valley Real Estate Holdings, of Detroit, which donated $10,000, and Jenkins Construction, which gave $4,000

In addition to payments to Banks, Save Detroit Jobs paid other members of Benson’s staff to distribute literature during the campaign.

Benson's name does not appear on registration paperwork for Save Detroit Jobs. But Banks is listed as a point of contact in the paperwork filed with Wayne County's campaign finance office. The nonprofit's address was a suite in a community center on Detroit's east side that also houses one of Benson's council offices.

Save Detroit Jobs also issued a news release quoting Benson, the Free Press reported.

The probe comes as both Benson and Ayers seek re-election.

Ayers, who finished first in the August primary, is now polling third. She needs to come in first or second to win another term. Benson is facing two write-in challengers in District 3.

From Mackinac, Mayor Mike Duggan, spoke on the probe that continues cast a shadow over the council that has already seen two members charged with felonies. City Councilman Gabe Leland stepped down earlier this year after pleading guilty to a felony, and Councilman Andre Spivey is scheduled to admit guilt next week in federal court and stepdown. Ayers and Benson have not been charged in the probe. 

“It does bother me. And I've talked to the U.S. Attorney's Office. I would like to see them place as much emphasis on prosecuting the people who are trying to influence elected officials, and not just the elected officials," Duggan told The News.

"But no, it's not a good look for the city.”

Read more:  Detroit News

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