The head of Detroit’s independent oversight office has filed a complaint with the state against Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia over alleged conflicts of interest, claiming the city’s lead attorney is in “serious violation” of his duties by intervening with her office’s probe of high-level public officials and employees.
Inspector General Ellen Ha’s allegations center on the role Garcia plays in city government. Ha says there is a conflict of interest when city attorneys offer legal aid to employees and public officials while her office is investigating them.
“This is not about Ellen Ha versus Lawrence Garcia. This is something far more important. This is the fundamental principle of what an Office of Inspector General can and cannot do.” –Ellen Ha, City of Detroit Office of Inspector General
“This is not about Ellen Ha versus Lawrence Garcia,” Ha stated before Detroit City Council on Wednesday. “This is something far more important. This is the fundamental principle of what an Office of Inspector General can and cannot do.”
Ha, who previously served in Detroit’s law department, says she filed a complaint with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, which investigates and prosecutes allegations of attorney misconduct for the Michigan Supreme Court.
“The filing with request to investigate before the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission is only the first action that we have taken, the first formal action. It does not preclude the fact that we can also go to the court,” Ha says.
The Office of Inspector General, which “investigates waste, abuse, fraud, and corruption in City government,” published reports on various government affairs. Under Ha’s leadership, the OIG found the Detroit Land Bank Authority wasted city resources as part of the city’s demolition program, and that a former chief of staff for Mayor Mike Duggan ordered the deletion of emails surrounding the Make Your Date prenatal care program.
Attorneys with the city’s law department dispute Ha’s claims. Garcia says he has a charter-mandated obligation to represent city employees on public matters.
“As Corporation Counsel, I have a responsibility to assist employees when they are engaged in legal matters arising out of their work for the city,” he says.
“I will stand firm on that policy to the bitter end.”
Both Ha and Garcia contend that a judge may need to decide the role and limitations of their positions. The functions of the Office of the Inspector General and Corporation Counsel are codified in Detroit’s 2012 city charter.
“I don’t think we’re likely to see a resolution of that question anywhere short of Circuit Court. I don’t think the Attorney Grievance Commission has jurisdiction over the question, but certainly the Council does not,” says Garcia.
The remarks come amid an ongoing federal public corruption probe. Two police officers were recently indicted as part of “Operation Northern Hook.” Former city councilmember Andre Spivey resigned in September after pleading guilty to bribery charges. Earlier this year Gabe Leland resigned after pleading guilty to state charges of misconduct in office. In August, the FBI raided the homes of Janeé Ayers and Scott Benson, both of whom were up for reelection on Tuesday. Ayers was ousted from her at-large seat while Benson was reelected.
“City Council has the power to hear and to make investigations into the affairs of the city and the conduct of any city agency,” says City Council President Brenda Jones, who is serving out her last term. “You all make me understand why I’m not running again.”
Between retirements and resignations, six of the nine-person City Council will be new faces when members take office in January.