Detroit’s deputy elections director “abused his authority” and violated the City Charter this spring when he solicited volunteers to gather petition signatures for the congressional campaign of City Clerk Janice Winfrey during election training sessions on city property, a watchdog agency has found. 

Detroit’s Office of Inspector General detailed findings from its investigation in a June 24 report tied to the campaign activities that occurred during two election training sessions in March at the Department of Elections offices.

The investigation by the office of Detroit Inspector General Ellen Ha concluded that Rueben Washington, deputy director of the city’s elections department, abused his authority, violated City Charter and the city’s ethics ordinance when he engaged in campaign-related activities on city property during work hours. 

The investigation was initiated this spring after a Department of Elections employee filed an anonymous complaint, alleging Washington distributed nominating petitions for Detroit’s City Clerk, who is running for office in the newly drawn 12th Congressional District. Washington was also accused of requesting assistance from attendees in obtaining signatures. Winfrey is challenging the U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, in the Aug. 2 primary. 

The inspector general report noted Winfrey did not abuse her authority or violate Detroit’s charter, but cautioned her to ensure all staff she appoints is aware of prohibited campaign activities. 

Winfrey, according to interviews included with the report, denied having any knowledge that Washington had distributed nominating petitions for her campaign during the training sessions. 

Winfrey added that she had advised her staff, who also volunteered for her campaign, to return any signed petitions to Washington at his home. Winfrey, according to the OIG investigation, said that she is “very careful about mixing her work as City Clerk with her campaign.”

In a June 23 letter, Washington acknowledged that he’d read and reviewed the OIG report concerning the petitions circulated on March 1 and March 14.

“I accept full responsibility of the findings documented in your report and assure you that this type of activity will not occur again in the future,” he wrote. 

In a statement emailed to BridgeDetroit, the Office of Inspector General noted both Winfrey and Washington denied that Winfrey instructed him to circulate the petitions.

“However, both Clerk Winfrey and the DOE Director agreed Mr. Washington should not have engaged in such conduct,” the statement reads. 

The OIG interviewed several employees of the Department of Elections and confirmed that no one was paid to assist Washington in collecting signatures, the report notes. The OIG is an independent agency created under the 2012 charter to ensure honesty and integrity in city government. It works to investigate allegations of waste, fraud, abuse and corruption. 

Detroit’s City Charter prohibits city employees from using city resources to engage in campaign activities. Likewise, the mayor as well as elected and appointed officials are prohibited from soliciting employees to work on political campaigns during work hours. 

Possibility of city-wide ordinance as a result of the investigation

The OIG investigation also found that Detroit’s Department of Elections does not have a policy in place to train or inform staff about campaign activities that are prohibited. All city employees are required to attend ethics training under the charter, which is administered by the Board of Ethics. 

According to the report, the Board of Ethics informed the OIG of a training module that addresses prohibited campaign activity. The module includes an example of a supervisor distributing campaign flyers during work hours. Washington, the OIG investigation notes, had completed ethics training prior to the incidents that spurred the OIG review, but he could not recall a module that addresses prohibited campaign activities. 

“As evident by the findings made by the OIG in this instance, the OIG recommended that the Law Department and the Board of Ethics consider creating a city-wide policy to clarify the meaning of prohibited political activities during work hours and/or in public buildings,” the OIG statement reads. 

Deputy Inspector General Kamau Marable said the inspector general is looking into the possibility of drafting a city-wide ordinance that clearly defines prohibited campaign activities. 

The OIG emphasized the importance of ensuring such a policy is adequately distributed so all city employees are aware of the prohibition. City-wide ordinances are drafted by the Law Department. Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. confirmed the Law Department has received the OIG’s report and they are taking the recommendations under advisement. 

The OIG recommended that Winfrey take appropriate disciplinary action against Washington for abusing his authority, in part, to set a standard of accountability across all city departments.  

“City resources are to be used for the benefit of the public, in public interest,” the report reads. 

Washington in his June 23 letter did not state whether he planned to remain in his position with the Department of Elections. 

The inspector general’s office couldn’t immediately confirm whether Washington was still employed in the same capacity with the Department of Elections. Marable told Bridge Detroit that OIG requested information from the Clerk’s Office about the disciplinary action taken against Washington and has not yet received a response. 

Winfrey in a text message to BridgeDetroit late Thursday said she has reviewed the report and that she and the Department of Elections will be adhering to the OIG’s recommendations.

“Not only has disciplinary action been taken but we are also working on establishing procedures that will include a training component for all department employees to ensure that incidents of this nature will not occur in the future,” she wrote.

John Roach, a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, said in an email that Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett had just received the OIG report and “will take its recommendations under advisement.”

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