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Troy City Council re-examines probe on ethics

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published September 18, 2019

 File photo

File photo


TROY — It remains unclear what the next step will be after the Troy City Council took no action to retain an attorney to investigate whether any members of the council played a role in creating a “culture of complicity,” as referenced in a recent forensic audit, that enabled former City Manager Brian Kischnick’s wrongdoing and crimes.

After sometimes heated discussion, the city attorney’s suggested resolution to waive the competitive bid process and hire attorney Nancy Vayda Dembinski to conduct a City Council investigation, at an hourly rate of $200, did not come to a vote at the Sept. 9 meeting.

The Troy City Council unanimously authorized the city to move forward on an informal request for services that Mayor Pro Tem Ethan Baker brought forward at the Aug. 19 meeting.

The issue arises from a special meeting July 17, when Plante Moran’s Michele McHale and Eric Conforti presented the findings of a forensic audit that the City Council had requested in December 2018 for a charge of $68,000 in a 6-0 vote. Mayor Dane Slater was absent.

As part of the forensic audit, Plante Moran staff interviewed 16 city employees, mostly department  heads. They looked into petty cash transactions, disbursements and credit cards Kischnick used.

The forensic audit revealed a management culture, or “tone at the top,” that fostered a sense of entitlement and discouraged city employees from reporting potential violations.

Kischnick was sentenced to serve 30 months in prison and two years of probation after he pleaded guilty to bribery in August 2018.

A Jan. 18 sentencing memorandum by Assistant U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison states that Kischnick used his city office to solicit bribes and other things of value. This included demanding bribes from DiLisio Contracting. Kischnick was ordered to pay $4,500 in restitution.

The Troy City Council terminated Kischnick’s employment on March 11, 2018, following a March 9 domestic assault charge in Clawson, to which he pleaded no contest.

City Attorney Lori Grigg Bluhm told the council Sept. 9 that the cost of a council investigation could exceed $30,000.

When Councilwoman Ellen Hodorek asked Grigg Bluhm if they could send the request out to bid, Grigg Bluhm replied that the process would take a couple of months and that the $200-per-hour rate would be difficult to beat for competent work.

In a memo to the council, Grigg Bluhm states: “Dembinski has recently completed an independent investigation on behalf of the city, and she is well-respected and effective. She previously investigated whether or not Kischnick retaliated against employees who were protected whistleblowers. This investigation was not concluded, however, since Kischnick was terminated before the witness interviews were complete.”


Council weighs in
“This is not the way you do things, through witch hunts,” said Slater from the council table Sept. 9. “It is an obvious political game.”

Baker and Councilman Dave Henderson are running for mayor in November. Councilwoman Edna Abrahim is running to retain her seat on the council.

Henderson said he refused to do an interview with an investigator unless it was on camera because he didn’t want his responses to only be available in a written report. Grigg Bluhm said videotaping would inhibit those interviewed from being candid.

“This is being used as a political tool,” Henderson said. “I’m not in favor of spending $30,000 on an opinion piece to tell us what a bad guy Brian Kischnick is. He’s in prison.”

Baker said he agreed that the interviews should be videotaped, and he asked that city staff ask Plante Moran for more on the information they had gleaned to compile their report. “There are questions that need to be answered,” Baker said, adding that the proposed $200-per-hour rate to go forward with an investigation is “probably a very competitive rate.”

“The tone at the top includes us. We’re at the top,” said Abrahim, noting that she was not accusing “anyone at this table” of a crime. “We can’t fix what we don’t understand. We have the power to make this a teachable moment. It’s not about an election. It’s about understanding what the problem is.”

Resident Steve Tegge asked the council to put the brakes on a taxpayer-funded investigation and to use the “prescription from the audit to work together to fix it,” implement “concrete policy adjustments and produce a report to taxpayers highlighting steps in the audit.”

Resident Toby Gosselin said that she does not look at the investigation request as a political ploy. “The truth will come out. The FBI is still investigating. It’s about transparency, ethics and good government. Documented facts from Plante Moran are a good start.”

She added that she would like to know more details on how they arrived at their findings, and she fears lawsuits against the city from those employees who “have been harmed.”

In her memo to the council, Grigg Bluhm identified the following as areas to follow up on in an investigation.

Did council members have knowledge of, were they witnesses to or were they beneficiaries of:

• Kischnick’s acceptance of bribery money.

• Kischnick’s acceptance of a free driveway.

• Kischnick’s acceptance of free housing at Somerset Park Apartments from June 2016 to October 2018.

• Any free or discounted services or goods from a contractor doing business with the city.

• Free food or beverages provided to Kischnick that was paid for by city contractors.

• Kischnick’s intimidation of others to comply with illegal demands.

• Any other wrongdoing or relationship with city employees or former city employees.

• Any employee complaints of Kischnick’s wrongdoing and a failure to disclose or take further action.

The council did not vote on the resolution to retain Vayda Dembinski, but by consensus directed Grigg Bluhm to reach out to Plante Moran to clarify what was meant by a “culture of complicity” and the “tone at the top.”