The city of Detroit canceled $1 million in contracts awarded to a firm owned by Bobby Ferguson’s daughter, amid concern that Ferguson, one of the principal figures in former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s sprawling criminal scandal, was connected to the company and profiting from the work.
The cancellation came to light after BridgeDetroit began asking questions about the connection between Ferguson and his daughter’s company, which shares a business address with Ferguson’s company, on Wyoming Street in Detroit.
In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has accused Ferguson of shielding income and assets as a means of dodging the $2.4 million he owes the city in restitution for his crimes.
Ferguson left federal prison in 2021 and returned to Detroit, eight years into a 21-year sentence for his role in the criminal enterprise Kilpatrick ran out of City Hall.
Ferguson was a contractor who shook down other contractors and was convicted of bribery and extortion in 2013. His supervised release required that he get a job, report his income, and make payments on his restitution.
But details uncovered by BridgeDetroit in an examination of city demolition contracts prompted an investigation by the city’s Office of Inspector General into whether Ferguson had a stake in contracts awarded to his daughter’s business – a detail the city’s corporation counsel says was never disclosed, and would not be allowed.
This month, before the inspector general’s office even completed its review, the city’s top attorney canceled the contracts with Ferguson’s daughter, Bianca Bush, after concluding that his outstanding restitution disqualifies any business in which he has a stake from holding city contracts.
This decision came as a shock to Bush, who said she hadn’t been informed of the law department’s decision until BridgeDetroit reached out to her Thursday. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the city’s procurement office notified Bush via DocuSign’s e-signature platform and an email address associated with her business, but did not confirm that she acknowledged receiving it or that she signed anything.
After speaking with the city Thursday about the termination of her contracts, Bush told BridgeDetroit she felt the termination was for “pure convenience.” She did not confirm whether she was in receipt of the city’s emails. However, she confirmed there was never a hearing to provide her with an opportunity to defend the contracts that the city vetted her company for and subsequently awarded.
“It can’t be fair, or just, that my siblings or I can’t work in the city of Detroit because of who our father is,” Bush told BridgeDetroit. Bush would not say whether her father has a stake in, or draws any profit from, her business but defended her right to have a normal parent-child relationship, regardless of conviction history, including the ability to seek their advice.
Ferguson is also the target of doubts by the U.S. attorney’s office, which has accused him of shielding his work and income from officials who are overseeing his restitution payments.
Ferguson and his attorney could not be reached for comment prior to this article being published.
The questions about Ferguson expose fine lines in an ongoing debate in Detroit about the limitations of rehabilitation and second chances, particularly among Black men. Ferguson, in his return to Detroit, is expected to rebuild his life in a way that would allow him to meet his obligations to find steady income and repay the city for his crimes. But Ferguson’s conviction for public corruption, and his actions since then, raise questions about how and whether he and his children should be able to make a living from the city he ripped off.
City officials determined that Ferguson’s mere affiliation with his daughter’s company was sufficient reason to cancel her contracts. The restitution he owes disqualifies him – per the city charter – from involvement with any company that does business with the city.
This isn’t the first time the prospect of second chances has been raised in the context of Kilpatrick’s scandal. After Kilpatrick’s sentence was commuted in 2020, Mayor Mike Duggan said “I will do everything I can to help give him a fresh start.”
Duggan did not expand his comments at the time to address whether he would welcome Kilpatrick back into city government or his pursuit of government contracts. However, the mayor “fully supports” the decision to cancel contracts the city awarded to Ferguson’s daughter over a restitution tab that Ferguson shares with Kilpatrick, according to the mayor’s spokesperson John Roach.
Asked about Duggan’s past comments in support of a second chance for Kilpatrick compared with the Law Department’s decision to cancel contracts with a company that Ferguson has an interest in, Roach added: “Mr. Ferguson’s treatment is being handled pursuant to the Charter. He is not legally eligible for city contracts.”
Relationship ‘not disclosed’
Ferguson was released from prison in 2021 by U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds, who presided over his 2013 trial and sentenced him. It was a compassionate release, granted during the height of the COVID-19 epidemic and four months after former President Donald Trump commuted Kilpatrick’s 28-year sentence.
The federal government said Ferguson used the mayor’s office to illegally steer bids to his construction and demolition company, Ferguson Enterprises, and bullied other contractors into using his firm as a subcontractor on city-funded projects. As a result, Ferguson’s company received $73 million through ill-gotten means. Ferguson was found guilty of nine of the 11 charges and sentenced to 21 years in federal prison. Kilpatrick was found guilty on 24 felony counts.
The terms of his release required Ferguson to work 30 hours a week, report his income, and make note of any employment changes. While under the court’s supervision, he is not allowed to possess or own a firearm, leave the court’s jurisdiction without permission, or knowingly communicate with anyone engaged in criminal activity. Ferguson was not prohibited under a court order from contacting the city or resuming his career as a government contractor.
However, court records show Ferguson didn’t obtain employment or report any income to the court until July of this year, more than two years after his release. Ferguson reported to his probation officer that he was going to “the office” every day and mentoring other people in their businesses, but never reported that he was employed, according to court records.
That changed this summer when Ferguson began reporting $744 a month in income from Ferguson Group V LLC, a business he started soon after he left prison and on the same day his daughter created her business, Staffing Equipment Evolution (SEE).
Roach said Ferguson’s relationship with Bush’s company was not disclosed during procurement but that the city’s Law Department received “credible information that SEE was a company affiliated with Bobby Ferguson.”
BridgeDetroit’s investigation found that Ferguson and Bush each created a business on the same day, just weeks after Ferguson’s 2021 release. The businesses have reported operating at the same Wyoming street address in Detroit: the offices where Ferguson’s former demolition company, Ferguson Enterprises Inc., was located prior to his conviction in 2013.
Bush’s company was awarded two $100,000 contracts in the summer to remove debris and brush from 48 blighted homes under the city’s Proposal N bond program, which aims to rid the city of blighted homes and stabilize others. Overall, Bush’s company has been awarded more than $1 million in city contracts since June.
Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett reviewed information about Ferguson and Bush’s companies, and determined the contracts with SEE were a “potential violation” of the City Charter, Roach told BridgeDetroit. The charter prohibits Detroit from entering into contracts with businesses that owe the city money. The mayor’s office declined to comment further about the affiliation because the matter was under investigation with the inspector general’s office.
Detroit Deputy Inspector General Kamau Marable said whether Ferguson has an undisclosed or concealed interest in Bush’s business is part of the investigation, but added that “it’s not that cut and dry.” Marable confirmed that a formal investigation has been opened but did not elaborate on the details.
If the inspector general finds enough evidence to conclude that a contractor cannot be trusted to do business with the city, a debarment order can be issued and would prohibit the contractor from being awarded city contracts. Marable told BridgeDetroit that a decision to issue an order of debarment is never based on one fact, rather it’s the totality of circumstances that the city’s watchdog would need to consider before deciding whether someone is a responsible contractor.
The city’s office of the inspector general was created amid the public corruption scandal involving Ferguson and Kilpatrick and is often described as an effort to prevent further corruption. The office was established under the city charter in 2012 as an independent agency of city government and is tasked with investigating allegations of fraud, waste, abuse, and corruption involving public servants and contractors.
Under the city’s debarment ordinance, the inspector general has the authority to ban contractors when there’s evidence that indicates a contractor, its owners, or any person with a financial or beneficial interest in the company, engaged in a criminal offense that “evidences a lack of business integrity or business dishonesty” or any violation of the law relating to obtaining or performing services under a public contract.
According to the OIG’s list of debarred contractors, 14 people and 11 businesses are currently debarred from doing business with the city. However, Marable said neither Kilpatrick nor Ferguson were ever debarred by the inspector general’s office.
“He can be whispering in his daughter’s ear all day long, but that’s not something that would trigger a debarment,” Marable said. But if we find that he has an ownership interest in anybody doing business with the city, that would trigger it on our behalf.”
BridgeDetroit contacted all nine members of the Detroit City Council for comment on the contracts with Bush’s company. Council President Pro Tem James Tate and Council Members Mary Waters and Gabriela Santiago-Romero declined to comment. Other council members did not respond.
The city is not the only authority that’s interested in Ferguson’s finances.
As recently as January, court records show the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit has questioned whether Ferguson is hiding assets or income to avoid his restitution payments. Part of the sentence Edmunds handed down in 2013 included $6.2 million in restitution repayments to the city, which he and Kilpatrick were held “joint and severally liable” for.
Ferguson’s restitution obligation was knocked down to $2.3 million after a series of court-approved amendments, payments, and credit for assets seized by the federal government, and a stipulation of his prison release required that he make $100 monthly payments toward that amount. When Ferguson asked Edmunds to end his supervised release early, one of the reasons she refused was because court oversight would ensure he’s paying.
Federal prosecutors expressed doubts in January court filings that Ferguson had been truthful about how much he could pay.
“It is apparent that Ferguson is seeking to avoid his restitution obligation by concealing any income,” prosecutors said in a brief to Edmunds’ court. Prosecutors also said Ferguson had violated the terms of his release for almost two years by not reporting that he’d obtained employment.
BridgeDetroit attempted to contact the federal prosecutor handling the case and was informed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office there was not an attorney assigned to the case at this time.
According to the justice department’s website, restitution orders are enforceable for 20 years and are treated as a lien against a defendant’s assets until the balance is paid in its entirety. Should Ferguson fail to make restitution payments while under court supervision, the court can revoke his supervised release.
Ferguson is still required to pay restitution even after his supervised release expires. Failure to do so could result in the federal government garnishing his wages, filing a lien against any property he owns, or seizing funds from his bank accounts.
According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Justice recorded over $110 billion in outstanding restitution at the end of fiscal year 2016. Most was deemed uncollectible for a variety of reasons, including an offender’s inability to pay. As a result, the DOJ only collected the full amount of restitution about five percent of the time.
‘The right for a second chance’
Restitution is only one facet of the criminal justice system, however, and returning citizens are required to do more than repay their victims in their pursuit of a second chance.
Advocacy organizations, religious leaders, and lawmakers have led a cross-country effort to enact meaningful criminal justice reform over the last decade, shifting national dialogue away from punishment by incarceration toward correction through rehabilitation.
That shift was codified when the First Step Act of 2018, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, was signed by former president Donald Trump in December of 2018.
The act aims to reduce the federal prison population and improve criminal justice outcomes through sentencing and corrections reforms. While success is determined on an individual basis, the ultimate goal is to ensure people who leave prison do so on terms that lead to a productive life, ensuring they don’t return through the infamous revolving door of the federal prison system.
In the eight years Ferguson spent in federal prison, he attended over 400 hours of development courses, taught courses, and mentored other prisoners. He also worked in general maintenance throughout his term of incarceration, eventually working his way up to “No. 1 Maintenance Orderly,” where he supervised 30 inmates in their respective job positions, according to court records.
White-collar prison consultant Justin Paperny told BridgeDetroit he doesn’t think restitution or criminal history should be a barrier to resuming a career in government contracting, as long as an individual demonstrates their commitment to leading a productive lifestyle.
“If people are on a path to demonstrating what they’ve learned and why they’ll never return and making their victims whole, they should absolutely be afforded all the rights of a normal citizen,” Paperny said.
Paperny pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail, wire, and securities fraud in 2007 and had his licenses to sell stock and real estate revoked. After spending 18 months in prison, Paperny is now an author and the founder of White Collar Advice, where he uses his talents and experience to help others navigate their federal prison sentences.
Paperny and his team are working to address the systemic barriers that prevent justice-involved individuals from living a productive, meaningful lifestyle. Part of this work is helping people who are incarcerated to prepare for the inevitabilities they’ll face, such as the need for a new career.
In the white-collar crime world, Paperny said, “if you were a doctor that’s been convicted, you’re not going to be a doctor anymore. If you’re a lawyer who’s been convicted, you’re not going to be a lawyer anymore. It requires embracing and learning at times, a whole new skill set.”
Even if sentenced to probation, Paperny said a criminal conviction can have life-long consequences.
“While we talk a lot about second chances in this country, there is certainly a second class – a felon class.” Housing, employment, and someone’s ability to vote and receive government assistance can all be hindered by a prior conviction, he said.
Paperny said he doesn’t believe restitution should be a barrier to government contracting, even if government contracts were the subject of someone’s conviction, as long as payments are being made as ordered by a judge.
Setting a requirement that restitution be paid in full prior to receiving contracts could preclude many people with hefty restitution tabs from employment. For people who owe tens of millions of dollars to multiple victims, it can take many years to pay back the full amount owed. Affording people opportunities to contract with the city even if they owe restitution, he said, is also in the best interest of the victim because they can continue to make payments if they’re working.
“Let’s not talk about giving second chances. Let’s reward those who have actually earned the right for a second chance.”
Second chances after a public corruption conviction can be a sensitive topic among members of any community, as evidenced by the mixed reactions following Kilpatrick’s commutation.
“We would ask people to hold them accountable but demand that they focus, first and foremost, on victims,” he said.
Earning that second chance, Paperny said, includes making restitution payments. “If someone’s making substantive efforts to pay their restitution and they’re living a law-abiding life and contributing and paying taxes and providing value, they should be able to work.”
When it comes to public corruption in the city of Detroit specifically, Paperny said: “I would tell Detroit, I would tell any city, people deserve second chances presuming they’ve demonstrated why they will never reoffend.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that contracts canceled for Bush’s company were not limited to demolition-related work under Proposal N.