Vonda Evans is the Wayne County judge known to speak her mind in the courtroom while dressing down criminals. But for ten days starting late last year, she was suspected of being one.
“It was probably one of the worst times of my life,” Evans recalls. “My daughter called me. She said, ‘Mom, it’s breaking news. They say you’re involved in public corruption.’ “
The four-term Wayne County judge was among a slew of public officials whose names were included in a leaked FBI document seeking to continue wiretaps as part of a wide-reaching public corruption investigation.
Evans and 17 others were identified as “target subject” of the feds probe into towing contracts. They said she was caught on a wiretap and that there was reason to believe she had or would commit a crime.
“I was a circuit court judge,” Evans said. “I don’t approve contracts, there was nothing for me to do as far as assisting in any form of public corruption.”
She didn’t approve contracts, but Evans was close friends with the man at the center of the probe. Until his guilty plea, Gasper Fiore was one of the region’s biggest vehicle towers. And he got that way, according to the feds, by paying off public officials.
“I met him a long time ago when my girlfriend Monica Conyers was running for city council,” Evans said of Fiore.
“Did you consider him a friend?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.
“Absolutely,” Evans said.
Their friendship dates back more than 10 years, so when the judge’s daughter had her car towed while out of state in 2016, Evans called her friend Gasper for help.
“I contacted him and I explained the situation, that her car had been in impound. And that I wanted to pay the fees, I just didn’t have the title,” she said. “His response to me was, ‘I don’t know anyone in that state.’ ”
Evans says that three-minute recorded phone call was the only reason her name ended up in the federal probe.
10 days after her name was leaked, the feds confirmed that Evans was not a target of the probe and she hasn’t been accused of any criminal wrongdoing.
“The U.S. Attorney says that your conduct with Gasper Fiore was legal. Was it always ethical?” asked Jones.
“Absolutely,” Evans said.
“Did he ever give you any money?” Jones asked.
“Well first of all, as I’ve indicated previous. We were friends…I don’t, I can’t even think of anything that he would have--oh, maybe for a campaign. Probably something during that time,” Evans said.
“He never gave you any gifts?” asked Jones.
“How would you define, a gift? No,” she said.
“Never asked you for a favor?” Jones asked.
“Never,” Evans responded. “Not in those--not a political favor, never.”
Gasper Fiore faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“People make mistakes every day. Some are more serious than others,” Evans said.
“But bribing a public official isn’t a mistake,” Jones responded. “It’s a pretty deliberate decision that someone makes”
“Well first of all, I don’t know the facts,” Evans said. “I don’t know the circumstances.”
But Fiore isn’t Evans’ only friend tied-in with criminal activity. Her girlfriend, ex-city councilwoman Monica Conyers, spent three years in prison for accepting bribes. Another close friend, ex-state rep. Brian Banks, has 8 felonies in his past and pled guilty last year to falsifying financial records.
The judicial code of conduct doesn’t expressly prohibit judges from being friends with felons, but it does caution them to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety.”
“Should a judge have friends like these?” Jones asked.
“That make mistakes?” Evans responded. “That have done things they regret? That probably is all of us.”
Evans said that while she has friends that are felons, she has more that are not.
“I believe that I should be judged by the job that I do within my courtroom, and nothing else,” Evans said. “And that’s how I feel.”
Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org