Detroit City Council at-large member Janeé Ayers was the top vote getter in a crowded council primary earlier this month. Fellow City Council member Scott Benson, who represents the northeast side, had a guaranteed path to another four years because no one is running against him.
But early on Wednesday morning, their homes and offices were raided by FBI agents, upending their sure-fire paths to victories in the Nov. 2 election. The home of Benson’s chief of staff, Carol Banks, was also searched Wednesday. The Detroit News is also reporting the home of Ayers’s chief of staff, Ricardo Silva, was searched.
“The citizens of Detroit have a right to a city government that’s free of corruption,” FBI Detroit Special Agent Timothy Waters said Wednesday afternoon while standing in front of city hall. The search warrants were conducted as part of an ongoing public corruption investigation, Waters said.
It’s unknown if Ayers and Benson may be charged. But some critics have already used the raids as political fodder.
By noon, federal agents were hauling boxes out of the council members’ homes and the Coleman A. Young Municipal center downtown. All of City Hall was closed to the public, its entrances guarded by law enforcement officers.
The FBI hasn’t released any information on the investigation. The search warrants remained sealed in court. No charges have been filed by the U.S. District Attorney. Neither Ayers or Benson have publicly commented.
Corruption probes have now reached four of nine Detroit council members, one of whom resigned in May.
On July 28, council member Andre Spivey was charged with conspiracy to commit bribery.
According to the criminal filing, Spivey and another person identified as “Public Official A, “corruptly accepted over $35,000 in bribe payments in connection with Spivey’s position” as a council member.
Spivey remains in office but he is not running for re-election.
In May, council member Gabe Leland resigned and was sentenced to 2 ½ years of probation for misconduct in office. Leland was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a payoff while at a strip club. Prosecutors said the council member from District 7 accepted $7,500 in cash during his 2017 re-election campaign and free car repairs in exchange for his vote on a land deal. During the plea hearing, Leland said he accepted the campaign contribution and knew it was illegal to do so.
Too soon to tell the impact of the raids
The simultaneous raids carried out Wednesday are a sign the local federal authorities are giving this investigation a major priority, said Abed Hammoud, a former federal and Wayne county prosecutor.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean Ayers and Benson are suspects.
“Typically, it’s a target’s home or office, but you could also have a search warrant on a witness who may have key records,” Hammoud said. “It’s too soon to know until more information is released.”
It may be too soon to tell what impact the raids may have on Ayers’ and Benson’s re-election chances, said Detroit political consultant Karen Dumas.
“It’s yet to be seen what the outcomes are going to be. I don’t want to assume that anyone is guilty,” Dumas said. She pointed out that Spivey hasn’t been found guilty of anything in the current corruption probe.
“People in this city have gone through enough in terms of elected officials being investigated. In some cases they were found guilty and some cases they were not,” said Dumas. Gabe Leland “sat in his office for a year” while under federal investigation.
“I’d like to think the same consideration will be extended to these two,” she said.
Others though, such as Detroit mayoral candidate Anthony Adams and council-at-large candidate Nicole Small, said Wednesday that the raids are the latest sign that change is needed at City Hall.
“Keep pushing. It doesn’t stop here,” Adams posted on Twitter regarding the investigation. Small was among those who contended the raids may suggest council is too swayed by business and monied interests seeking to influence legislation.
The group Detroit Will Breathe, which helped organize last year’s marches protesting police violence, also connected the raids with the council members’ voting records.
“Before getting raided by the feds, Benson and Ayers consistently voted against the interests of working class Black and Brown Detroiters,” reads a tweet by the group.
Ayers, 39, is a former mortgage banker at Quicken Loans (now called Rocket Mortgage). As an employee at MGM Grand Casino, she became the youngest member of the UNITEHERE! Local 24 contract bargaining team. She’s also a former teacher.
Benson, 51, is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and former small business manager for Midtown Detroit Inc.
A call for reform
City Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López was “simply horrified and heartbroken” about the day’s events, she said in a written statement.
She will seek annual, mandatory training for council members on the City’s ethics ordinance. “Shockingly there is currently no section that speaks to training of any sort,” she wrote.
“Detroiters deserve elected officials who lead with their values: integrity, access, and equity. So to my fellow Detroiters, do not lose hope. This November, we have the opportunity to elect new voices that can restore the public’s trust and integrity to city hall.”