Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Agencies crank up corruption crack-down

By ERIC FREEDMAN

Capital News Service

LANSING – Two State Police lieutenants. The ex-president of a suburban Detroit city council. A longtime Department of Human Services employee. The former treasurer of a charter school in Highland Park.

In the past two months, all have been swept up by the new Public Integrity Unit in the Attorney General’s office.

In the State Police case, Lts. Luke Davis and Emmanuel Riopelle are accused of conspiring with a civilian from Deerfield to embezzle money and property seized from drug crime suspects in Monroe County.

In River Rouge, former city council President Anthony Laginess is charged with taking a $5,000 bribe to influence a city contract for prescription drugs.

In Lansing, suspended Department of Human Services facilities management director Brian Hengesbach was arraigned on racketeering and embezzlement charges for allegedly taking $4,750 worth of carpeting and folding chairs he ordered for the department.

And in Highland Park, the ex-treasurer of George Washington Carver Academy, Shantell Bell, faces an embezzlement charge for allegedly using $25,000 in charter school funds to buy a house. Charter schools are funded by the state.

The incoming attorney general, Bill Schuette, created the Public Integrity within his criminal division shortly after taking office.

“Corruption scandals have damaged the public’s trust in government and left Michigan with a national reputation as a place where businesses wonder who they have to pay off before creating a job,” he said at the time, adding that the unit is “turning up the heat on corruption in Michigan.”

Corruption cases against public officials and public employees in Michigan can be pursued by county prosecutors, the attorney general, the U.S. Justice Department – and sometimes a combination of agencies.

On the local level this month, the Mecosta County prosecutor filed embezzlement charges against the fired executive director of the Mecosta-Osceola Transit Authority. Karen Brewster is accused of taking more than $14,000 from the agency’s payroll account and credit card.

The Menominee County prosecutor handled last year’s embezzlement case against Harris Township Treasurer Margaret Jorasz. She got a six-month jail sentence after an investigation discovered her theft of more than $300,000 over seven years.

In the federal criminal justice system, former Ecorse Mayor Herbert Worthy received an 18-month sentence in January for taking more than $30,000 in bribes.

“We will do all we can to make sure that public officials who abuse their positions go to prison,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade of Detroit said after Worthy’s sentencing. Three other defendants were convicted in the case, including ex-Ecorse Controller Erwin Hollenquest.

In March, former Stevensville Village Manager Todd Gardner reported to federal prison

for a 4 1/3-year term for misappropriating more than $270,000 of public funds for personal use, including mortgage payments, vacations, groceries and purchase of an SUV. The U.S. Attorney in Grand Rapids, Donald Davis, called Gardner “a corrupt public official.”

And in December, the former police chief of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians received a one-year jail term and was ordered to pay $231,785 restitution for misusing federal grant funds awarded to his department. Frederick Paquin pled guilty to defrauding the federal government in a case brought by Davis’ office.

Prosecutors said Paquin also kept his daughter on the police department payroll for a year as a “ghost employee,” exercised “unchecked power within the tribe” and ran the department “as his own private fiefdom”

Sometimes it’s complicated to follow the prosecutorial trail, as the tangled saga of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick shows.

Kilpatrick was originally charged by the Wayne County prosecutor with perjury and other corruption-related charges. Then the state attorney general’s office charged him with assaulting police officers.

And now – while serving time in state prison and applying for parole– he’s awaiting trial on a federal indictment accusing him of fraud, extortion and bribery in connection with city contracts.

Sometimes responsibility for official misconduct cases gets shuffled to avoid possible conflicts of interest for local prosecutors.

That happened last year when the Cass County prosecutor handled the embezzlement case against St. Joseph County Registrar of Deeds Cynthia Jarrett. She pled guilty, resigned received a 10-day jail sentence and agreed to pay restitution.

Also last year, a special prosecutor rather than the Montmorency County prosecutor handled the embezzlement case against District Court Magistrate Kim Dobbyn. She received a nine-month sentence after being charged with stealing more than $150,000.

When Schuette announced his Public Integrity Unit, he said it would work closely with federal, state and local agencies and wouldn’t require additional financial resources or personnel.

“There will be no more Kwames,” he said of the former Detroit mayor.

(c) Capital News Service at Michigan State University School of Journalism.

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