DETROIT (WXYZ) - A high-ranking Wayne County project consultant long involved in plans to construct a new jail also worked for Rock Ventures while both sides negotiated a $533 million deal.
The county insists the contractor, Tony Saunders, was removed from the jail team once he joined Rock Ventures in February, and a company spokesperson says Saunders played no role in their efforts to land the jail deal.
“When you’re in a position where you could possibly work both sides, that’s just an inconceivable conflict,” said Commissioner Glenn Anderson, who never knew Saunders had gone into business with Rock.
For years, Saunders was county’s chief financial officer and county executive Warren Evans’ right-hand man. Last year, he left his full-time job with the county to start his own company, Volte and Invictus Equity Group but stayed on part-time to continue working on major projects, including the county’s jail.
Saunders was part of the team negotiating with Rock Ventures, regularly meeting with CEO Evans and even updating commissioners at a July 2017 meeting about the jail bids.
But while negotiations were ongoing and Saunders was working for Wayne County, he started working for Rock Ventures, too. Since February, he’s been working for both the county and Rock while both sides tried to work out a deal.
“It’s just a tremendous appearance of impropriety,” said Brendan Dunleavy, a former auditor general at Wayne County. “You have invaluable knowledge of the county, and now you’re going to work for someone the county is entering into negotiation with.”
Dunleavy probed conflicts of interest during the administrations of CEOs Ed McNamara and Robert Ficano and called Saunders’ dual-roles a clear conflict of interest.
“He knows the county’s weak spots, he knows where they can apply pressure,” Dunleavy said. “Even if he didn’t do that, just the fact that he could have done that is a significant breach of ethics.”
In a statement, Wayne County spokesperson James Martinez said:
The County was fully aware that Mr. Saunders was about to start work with Rock Ventures after he told Deputy County Executive Richard Kaufman in February of 2018. After he informed Mr. Kaufman, the lead negotiator on the criminal justice center project for the County, he was immediately removed from that project. He continued to advise the County on other initiatives started under his leadership in the Recovery Plan, such as pension funding and sale of Downriver wastewater system.
A spokesperson for Rock Ventures said Saunders wasn’t hired to work on the jail project:
“Tony joined Rock Ventures four months ago. He works within the Rock Family of Companies on a variety of topics including vetting investment opportunities, process improvements, and business development.
Before accepting the position at Rock Ventures, Tony made Wayne County aware of his new opportunity, as a client of his consulting firm. At that time he removed himself from any further participation on the jail project.
Tony’s role at Rock Ventures does not include any engagement on the jail project.”
Saunders did not return calls or e-mails requesting comment.
County commissioners were never told Saunders was working for Rock. In fact, some said they were unaware he was still working for the county.
Perhaps that’s because his contract was never brought before the commission for approval. Saunders deal calls for $49,900 in compensation—the commission can only approve contracts valued at $50,000 or more.
“You shed light on something that I didn’t know about, that I feel like I probably should have known about,” said Wayne County Commissioner Ray Basham.
County employees and contracted employees are supposed to guard against even the appearance of a conflict of interest. They’re required to file forms every year disclosing any possible conflicts with county vendors, though Saunders didn’t file anything when he joined Rock back in February.
In fact, he didn’t file any disclosure until June 26—just days after 7 Action News started asking questions about Saunders’ job with Rock.
“He made the disclosure because he got caught,” said Dunleavy. “Until the county gets rid of these appearances of impropriety, nobody will trust county government.”