DETROIT (WXYZ) - A project manager for Wayne County has been moonlighting for other struggling governments while collecting $158,000 in county salary and, recently, went into business with a county vendor.
Tony Saunders, 31, announced in April that he would be leaving his position as the county’s chief financial officer to launch a turnaround firm. But 7 Action News has learned that Saunders actually launched the firm back in November 2015 and has been working with clients from as far away as Tennessee.
“It’s obviously good for him,” said Wayne County Commissioner Ray Basham (D-Taylor). “But the question is, is it good for Wayne County?”
As far back as November 2015, records show Saunders was pitching his own turnaround company, Dent Advisors, to struggling local governments throughout the country. Only months earlier, Wayne County had declared a financial emergency.
In an eight-page letter obtained by 7 Action News, Dent laid out a detailed plan to help tackle the financial struggles for Shelby County Schools in Tennessee. The district ultimately hired Saunders’ company and, not long after, so did Prince George’s County Council in Maryland.
For Saunders’ time, he charged up to $350 an hour. In total, Dent billed Shelby County Schools $95,000 and Prince George’s County Council almost $35,000
A spokesman for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans says Saunders’ moonlighting was approved in February 2016.
Questions about double-dipping
“How can he do a full day’s work for Wayne County and a full day’s work for other places at the same time?” asked Basham, who expressed concern that Saunders may have been paid by Wayne County while he was doing work for other governments.
Invoices submitted by Saunders make it difficult to tell, as they only list the number of hours Saunders worked but not what days or even the times that he clocked in. In a statement, Saunders insisted all non-Wayne County work was performed on his own time.
The invoices also only represent two of Saunders’ clients. He declined to say how many others he had while he was Wayne County's full-time CFO. A spokesman for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said the county never inquired.
“I would definitely like to know,” said Wayne County Commissioner Diane Webb (D-Livonia). “Frankly I think the answer should be zero. I think that’s a full-time post.”
Webb and her colleagues didn’t know Saunders was moonlighting for other governments until told by 7 Action News. Webb says Evans office should have at least alerted commissioners..
Evans’ office said they gave Saunders permission to seek outside employment in writing , but lost the original document. A spokesman said they recreated the form recently and supplied it to 7 Action News.
“I find it disturbing that he’s getting paid $160,000 a year to be our Chief Financial Officer and isn’t giving taxpayers his undivided attention,” Webb said.
In April, the county announced Saunders was giving up his full-time county job to launch his own turnaround company. They neglected to mention that it was already in operation, started a year and a half earlier.
Saunders continued earning his full-time salary until June. It wasn’t until a week after 7 Action News started asking questions about his outside compensation that the county made Saunders an hourly employee earning $133 an hour. He’s still working at the county today and has yet another new job.
Too cozy with contractor?
Saunders is now in business with county contractor Christos Moisides, an executive for a local real-estate company that owns and manages county properties like the Guardian Building and Sheriff’s Headquarters. Just recently, Moisdes was involved in the purchase of a county building on Temple Street in Detroit.
Brendan Dunleavy, a former auditor general for Wayne County, called Saunders’ latest business venture a clear conflict.
“You could almost say different dog, same fleas,” Dunleavy said. “It’s the same type of business where county employees start chumming up or going into business with county vendors. And it’s never turned out well.”
Saunders refused an on-camera interview, but said he would answer questions over e-mail. We sent him a list of nine; he answered none. Saunders did issue a statement:
"I'm extremely proud of the work we did at Wayne County in resolving one of the country's greatest municipal finance challenges. When I joined the County, we were facing nearly $2 billion in unfunded liabilities, an $82.8 million accumulated deficit, and collapsing credit ratings. In less than two years, we eliminated $1 billion in unfunded liabilities, balanced the books, and returned to an investment grade credit rating. And instead of the emergency management and bankruptcy that many were predicting, we achieved an $88 million accumulated surplus by the end of the second year. The outside work that I did while at the County, which took place on my own time and was approved by County officials, did not present any conflicts of interest and did not interfere with my ability to deliver results for the people of Wayne County. And it’s results, not talk, that the people deserve."
Saunders new business, Invictus Equity Group, appears to have caught his boss CEO Warren Evans by surprise. He too declined to appear on camera, but ahis spokesman told 7 Action News that his office wasn’t aware of Saunders’ latest venture until we inquired about it.
Messages left for Christos Moisides were not returned.