HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. (WXYZ) - Arthur Blackwell II is facing four felony charges for taking city funds. Action News Investigator Heather Catallo has uncovered new information about his controversial position.
He hasn’t been convicted and he is still waiting for his day in court. But should Highland Park’s former Emergency Financial Manager continue to oversee the Police and Fire Commission for the very city he’s accused of stealing from?
Last October, Art Blackwell II had to face a judge inside the Highland Park Municipal Building that’s named after his father.
The Wayne County Prosecutor charged Blackwell with four felonies, for allegedly misusing his position and paying himself $264,000 from city funds.
Action News first exposed this lawsuit that claims the Emergency Financial Manager was double dipping – taking large paychecks from both Highland Park and the State of Michigan
“He was paid by the state as well as by the city for the same services for the same period of time,” said longtime Highland Park resident Robert Davis last April.
Soon after our story aired, the State fired Blackwell.
Now facing years behind bars if he’s convicted of stealing money from the city… questions are being raised about why Blackwell is still the Chair of Highland Park’s Police and Fire Commission.
The Commission is mainly an advisory board that offers citizens as well as police officers and firefighters a venue to express complaints or concerns about either department. But even an advisory Chairman who’s charged with a crime doesn’t sit well with some residents.
“Someone had to have some reason to just charge you with something, or else they wouldn’t have done it. So until you’re proven innocent, you need to step down,” says Highland Park resident Carolyn Wray.
“I think he should step down,” says Jean Burton, who works in Highland Park.
Action News Investigator Heather Catallo asked Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp, “Is it appropriate for someone who’s been charged with 4 felonies to be the Chair of your Police and Fire Commission?”
“You are innocent until proven guilty. ‘Charged with’ – to me, those are just words, ‘charged with,’” said Yopp.
Yopp says after the criminal charges were announced, Blackwell offered to step down – but Yopp says he and the other commissioners wanted him to stay because of Blackwell’s past experience as a member of Detroit’s Board of Police Commissioners.
“They all respect his knowledge and respect him for what he’s doing,” said Yopp. He added, “Mr. Blackwell doesn’t have any oversight per se over the police department.”
“Don’t you want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety when it comes to the police and fire departments,” asked Catallo.
“Of course, of course. And by Blackwell being present, I don’t see that appearance that you’re talking about. Blackwell doesn’t handle any money, he doesn’t order the police to go out and arrest this guy. He doesn’t have that kind of blanket power,” said Yopp.
Wayne State Law Professor Peter Henning says some might question Blackwell’s ability to judge how a police department operates if he’s under suspicion himself.
“It’s not only an issue of perception, but what’s best for the city. Do you want to draw attention to the police commission and any questions that might be raised as to how the commission’s being operated,” said Henning.
Art Blackwell cancelled our on-camera interview – but he did agree to speak on the phone.
“I just have to let the people of Highland Park know I’m not going to abandon them because I’ve been charged with something that according to the constitution I’m innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Blackwell.
Blackwell also said if he’s asked, he’d step down from the un-paid position.
“I don’t believe it’s inappropriate to be on an advisory commission that the board members and the mayor asked me to stay on. If they don’t want me on, I’m prepared to leave tomorrow,” said Blackwell.
Some Highland Park residents say that’s not necessary.
“My opinion is he didn’t do that they say he did,” said Lucille Kerr.
Heather Catallo also spoke with Mr. Blackwell’s attorney. Ben Gonek says – Blackwell paid back some of the money he’s accused of taking, and Gonek contends the state of Michigan actually owes Blackwell some money.
Gonek is trying to get the embezzlement case thrown out of court – there will be a hearing on that in September.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says that while Blackwell does have the presumption of innocence, “it is amazing” to her that he is still on this Commission at this time.
Blackwell is serving a 3 year term, which expires in November of 2011.
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