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Detroit Wayne health CEO hid that new hire was son-in-law, intervened in his discipline

18-month nepotism scheme revealed by 7 Action News
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Posted at 9:46 AM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 19:38:09-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — The CEO of Michigan’s largest mental health system protected and later elevated his son-in-law within the organization after concealing that they were related for 18 months.

The scheme, revealed after questioning by 7 Action News, triggered the resignation of a health network attorney, revealed a litany of ethical and policy violations by both men and is expected to lead to discipline for the network’s CEO as soon as Wednesday.

Since 2018, Willie Brooks has served as CEO of the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, or DWIHN. In April 2019, his daughter married Sean Riopelle at a ceremony held at Brooks’ home.

Two months after the two were wed, Brooks told Riopelle about an opening in the health network’s legal department, according to an internal investigation prompted by 7 Action News’ questions.

Riopelle ultimately landed an interview that summer and, during his second interview, met with Brooks. Neither man let on that they were well acquainted.

According to an internal investigation, Riopelle “did not disclose his relationship with Mr. Brooks to anyone, and simply introduced himself to Mr. Brooks as a professional.”

Of the five candidates considered for the position, Riopelle scored the highest, according to spokeswoman Tiffany Devon, who added that Brooks was not part of the interview panel. He was hired the following month as legal counsel for the DWIHN and paid $103,199 a year.

His relationship with the CEO remained secret.

“It’s extremely serious,” said Brendan Dunleavy, a former auditor general for Wayne County who spent years digging into nepotism and corruption within county government. “It’s in violation of most of their ethics ordinances.”

Performance problems emerge

Within Riopelle’s first few months on the job, his supervisor—deputy general counsel Callana Ollie—documented numerous performance issues related to his work.

According to an internal DWIHN memo, the problems included “failure to meet deadlines, refusal to accept complex assignments and failure to complete work in an acceptable manner.”

Riopelle’s problems continued to escalate and by July of last year, he was called to a meeting with both his supervisor and the director of human resources. Potential remedies, according to Ollie, ranged from putting Riopelle on a performance improvement plan to termination.

But any talk of discipline was quickly scuttled, records show, when, to everyone's surprise, Brooks himself attended the meeting.

“(The) presence of Mr. Brooks diverted the discussion,” according to an internal memo written by compliance officer Bernard Hooper. “Ms. Ollie asserts that Mr. Brooks participation was an act of intimidation and that she did not understand the reason for Mr. Brooks’ interest in Mr. Riopelle’s employment matter.”

After Brooks’ intervention, Riopelle successfully avoided discipline. Staff said they could not recall Brooks being present for any other disciplinary matters, according to an internal memo.

Nepotism ‘scheme’

Even more puzzling, according to Hooper’s memo, was Brooks’ attempts to advance Riopelle’s career. He allegedly asked Ollie during a meeting whether she felt Riopelle was prepared to take her job should she advance to the position of general counsel.

Ollie insisted he was not performing well in his current position, Hooper wrote.

Still, when Ollie separated from the DWIHN in November, records show Brooks “elevated” his son-in-law to interim deputy general counsel anyway, though an official promotion was not processed through human resources. Riopelle now reported directly to his father-in-law.

In January, 7 Action News learned through sources that Riopelle and Brooks were related.

DWIHN spokeswoman Tiffany Devon confirmed their relationship and, one week later, Riopelle resigned.

Brooks has repeatedly declined requests for comment made via e-mail and to his cell phone.

“He failed to follow rules, he knew he failed to follow rules,” Dunleavy said of Brooks. “The son-in-law knew he failed to follow the rules.”

Brooks actions, “supports the conclusion that he (intentionally) withheld information regarding his scheme to engage in nepotism with his familiar relation Mr. Riopelle," according to an internal DWIHN investigation prompted by 7 Action News’ questions.

On Wednesday, during a full meeting of the DWIHN board, Brooks is expected to face discipline for violating rules governing ethics and conflicts of interest.

Mental health dollars stretched

The controversy comes during one of the most tumultuous years for mental providers on record.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for mental health services reached epic proportions beginning in 2020 and continuing today.

Brooks acknowledged the unprecedented demand in an interview with 7 Action News last summer.

“With COVID, it added tremendous trauma to everyone,” he said. “Domestic violence was up tremendously. Substance use is up tremendously.”

Demand for services soared while dollars were scarce. The health network had to burn through cash reserves, even temporarily furloughing 10% of its staff in May to make ends meet.

“Whoever’s in charge, they set the tone for the organization,” Dunleavy said. “And you’ve got a guy there who just set the tone for that organization. “

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.