Collins initiated investigation into neighborhoods departmentWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Toledo City Councilman D. Michael Collins asserted in November that council should investigate potential foul play within the neighborhoods department, he felt his appeal was dismissed as “political grandstanding.”
But Collins’ involvement in the investigation goes much deeper than that call for action.
In August, contractors approached Collins with stories of bid rigging and intimidation from the city department. He said he listened and started digging through public records. As word began to spread about his research, calls flooded in with more tips.
He and his legislative aide, Lisa Renee Ward (a former Toledo Free Press Web editor), compared bids and found that two separate proposals were nearly identical. He found that an accountant group working on a city deal had walked away from a community development corporation, citing the city was not cooperating with required records transfers. He conducted cross-examination interviews with contractors about bid rigging and found that all of the stories mirrored each other.
As a District 2 councilman with little experience with community development corporations, Collins said he relied on his 20-plus years of experience as a police investigator to muck through all of the numbers, interviews, receipts and contractor bids.
He didn’t ask for help. But around the same time, Councilman Adam Martinez — who chairs the neighborhood department committee — had heard rumors.
And Councilman Steve Steel told Toledo Free Press he had actually started working on some research of his own.
Martinez said the buzz he’d heard was just that: a rumor. When the poor economy is bearing down on contractors, they generally tend to get disgruntled if their bid isn’t chosen, he said. No contractor had approached him directly so he assumed that the contractors did not fully understand the bidding process.
“I had only heard rumors and hearsay and allegations but nothing concrete,” Martinez said. “Had I had any firsthand knowledge that was concrete and credible, I certainly would have turned it over to the administration for further review or the police if necessary.”
Sam Khalaf of Csk Construction said he approached Steel after a mysterious folder appeared in his mailbox detailing a bid that was chosen over his. The file had nearly identical line items.
Prior to this, Khalaf had lost three bids that he had submitted.
Steel said meeting the contractor prompted him to start researching. He also mentioned what he’d heard to Martinez. But Steel’s public records request took longer than he thought and the story broke by the time he started zeroing in on his findings.
Khalaf later contacted Collins. He said he was not the first contractor to report to councilmembers, but that he feels justice is being done.
“I appreciate what [Council] did,” he said. “Things got a little bit hard working the last year.”
By November, Collins was ready to release his story. He said if he had found anything that warranted a criminal investigation, he would have gone to the prosecutor. He gave his research to the media instead of Mayor Mike Bell’s administration because he didn’t think he would be taken seriously. Also, reviewing various documents had made him lose trust that the administration would investigate.
The two incidences that convinced Collins to bypass the Bell administration involved former Housing Manager Jody Prude and former rehab specialist Toni Thomas. Collins said a police officer told him that her supervisor directed her not to charge Prude with falsification after she wrecked her car, left the scene and reported it stolen. Collins notified a city official but nothing was done.
The other decision that bothered him related to Thomas. A community development corporation (CDC) reported that Thomas was being too overbearing and the administration dealt with the complaint by curtailing all of Thomas’ interactions with that CDC, instead of investigating how she handled others, Collins said.
“I firmly believe that had I not taken the steps I took, nothing would have ever been revealed to the extent that it is today,” Collins said.
“I find it both disappointing and disturbing that an elected official with knowledge of problems in any city department would choose to use that information for media grandstanding as opposed to reporting it through the appropriate channels to ensure the issues are addressed,” said Jen Sorgenfrei, the mayor’s spokesperson.
The administration has since launched an investigation, demoting Thomas and Prude. Department of Neighborhoods Director Kattie Bond and Housing Commissioner Mike Badik were fired.
Bond and Badik held those positions throughout former mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s administration. Collins said his research revealed that the most egregious neighborhoods department infractions have struck more recently, under Bell.
“I found nothing that could compare with what was going on under the Bell administration,” he said. “For [Prude and Thomas] to be still employed and for Michael Badik, who did nothing wrong, to be placed in the situation he’s in, in my opinion, is characteristic of creating a scapegoat,” Collins said.
Sorgenfrei asserted that the administration has not found any concrete examples of bid rigging or criminal activity.
Collins said this ordeal hasn’t made him any more popular on the 21st floor of One Government Center, where Council offices are located.
“My public statements can be conveniently described as an attempt to build a political staircase in seeking the office of the mayor of the City of Toledo and I frankly find that reprehensible because my work as a police officer was never designed to create the opportunity to become chief,” Collins said. “One would ask, are you planning on a campaign against Mike Bell and is this the kickoff? The answer is no. I was elected in November of 2011 as the Council member representing District 2 in Toledo and that is a position that I fully anticipate completing.”