The scandal that has clouded Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration for the past six months has never been about whether taxpayer resources should be directed to efforts to lower the city’s infant mortality rate.
It’s always been about whether Duggan was motivated to steer $358,000 in health care grants to a Wayne State University program that helps expectant mothers get prenatal care because of an undefined relationship with the program’s founder, Sonia Hassan, M.D., a nationally recognized leader in preterm birth research.
Duggan was unapologetic Tuesday, if not defiant, that his motivation — and by extension the motivation of his staff — was always about saving the lives of Detroit babies.
“I don’t know what other possible motive you think there could be,” Duggan told reporters during a Tuesday press conference at Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.
And that’s the story he’s sticking with after the Office of Inspector General labeled Duggan’s actions as granting “preferential treatment” for Hassan’s initiative following a six-month probe that has rubbed off some the Democratic mayor’s political invincibility.
The mayor, who faces a decision next year about whether to seek a third four-year term in 2021, suggested Tuesday that he’ll take his chances with the voting public.
“I supported this program for one reason, and that was for babies to be born healthy,” Duggan said. ” “… The public will make its own judgment, you guys will make your own judgment, and I’ll live with that judgment.”
Duggan continues to refuse to explain whether his personal life was mixed in with his decision to direct taxpayer resources and the time of several mayoral aides to help raise money for the charitable cause.
“I’m never going to discuss my personal life, you guys know that,” Duggan responded. “And the OIG concluded it wasn’t relevant.”
Inspector General Ellen Ha said Duggan’s relationship with Hassan wasn’t relevant to her inquiry because a city ordinance requires a public official to disclose a personal relationship with someone getting public funds only if they are the official’s spouse, domestic partner, dependent or someone they live with.
In other words, if you’re having an affair with someone doing business with the city, there’s no abuse of power in the eyes of the city’s ethics ordinance.
This is a curious omission in the code for a city like Detroit that saw Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned from office 11 years ago in September for lying under oath to a jury about an extramarital affair he had with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, and their use of taxpayer-provided bodyguards to cover up their relationship.
Duggan’s relationship with Hassan — whatever it may be — is only relevant in that unanswered questions still linger about whether that relationship may have motivated his staff to carry out the orders of a boss known for expecting results.
As the Office of Inspector General’s report demonstrated, Duggan did expect results for the Make Your Date program.
Like any other initiative, Duggan wanted data on the city health department’s number of referrals to the Make Your Date program in the “weekly mayor status updates” he receives for any number of city issues, according to the OIG report.
Duggan’s demand for data and progress reports mirrors how treated he’s treated progress in fixing streetlights, lowering response times for police, firefighters and ambulances and tracking progress in demolishing blighted homes.
The mayor was largely dismissive of the Office of Inspector General’s report, which found health department employees felt pressured to recruit pregnant women to participate in the Make Your Date program.
But then the mayor shifted into expressing remorse that he had fostered an “environment” that motivated his Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley to send down orders to Chief Development Officer Ryan Friedrichs and his deputy, Sirene Abou-Chakra, to have two of their junior employees delete emails related to the city’s involvement in the Make Your Date program.
Duggan said he “started off unhappy” with Wiley when he learned that subordinates were ordered to delete emails.
“Why would we come off as covering something up when there’s nothing here to cover up?” Duggan said he asked Wiley.
Duggan blamed the rash decision-making on the “enormous stress” and “threat” his aides felt from local businessman Bob Carmack, who had been waging a full-throated campaign against the mayor over a property dispute with the city.
The mayor rationalized the email purge as “appropriate” to shield the two junior staffers from Carmack’s potential wrath.
“They didn’t delete any of their own emails,” Duggan said of the trio. “They weren’t trying to protect themselves.”
Carmack came at Duggan with a vengeance in ways no political opponent ever has.
The owner of the now-shuttered Carmack’s Collision shop on Michigan Avenue hired a private investigator who tracked Duggan after hours arriving at Hassan’s condo in Novi — and then broadcast the grainy surveillance footage on a mobile video board outside of City Hall.
Carmack also has taken his shock-and-awe campaign against Duggan to the air, paying for airplane banners flown over Comerica Park on the Tigers’ Opening Day in April that said “Been forced to pay a bribe to Duggan? Call 1-800-CARMACK” and “Dr. Hussan (sic) marry me? Love Mayor Duggan Oh I forgot I’m married.”
In an interview Tuesday, Carmack said the mayor is using him as a scapegoat.
“Alexis Wiley doesn’t make moves without the mayor’s consent,” said Carmack, who has moved his business out of Detroit as a result of a property dispute with the Duggan administration. “City government and how it’s run and how they take orders and how they have bosses has nothing to do with me. I don’t tell city workers what to do.”
After he got publicly humiliated, Duggan said Carmack created fear among his employees “that they could be followed, taped.”
“You forget what it was like,” Duggan told reporters. “The fact that I could have been followed night after night for months, and been oblivious,, I think was pretty frightening.”
Duggan stopped just short of acknowledging that whatever went on with Hassan, it set off a chain reaction within his administration that even his chief of staff of five years felt like they needed to cover their tracks.
“… As I listened to what they were going through emotionally and personally and the desire to protect these female staffers, I just felt awful that I had placed them in that situation, feeling that they had to do it,” Duggan said. “And I felt like I was responsible for creating the environment, so I put most of the blame on me.”
Duggan lamented the fact that, as mayor of Michigan’s largest city, he’s always going to be under the public microscope just one month after he and his wife of more than three decades divorced.
“We live in an era of politics of personal destruction like we haven’t seen,” Duggan said. “I should have known that. And I feel bad that staff went through what they had to go through.”