May 15, 2019

USA: Flint, Michigan Democrat Mayor Asked City Employees To Divert Water Crisis Donations To Her Personal Account. Flint Gave Contract To Firm With Allegedly No Pipe Replacement Experience.

Michigan Live (MLive)
written by Gus Burns
Wednesday May 8, 2019

DETROIT - Flint Mayor Karen Weaver asked employees to redirect charitable donors to a nonprofit fund she created shortly after taking office in 2015, an ex-city official testified during a federal whistleblower trial in Detroit on Wednesday, May 8.

Weaver, who took the stand briefly Wednesday and may testify further Thursday, said she created the fund at the recommendation of other mayors or advisers from across Michigan, including former Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero and Lansing Bishop David W. Maxwell, who assisted in the fund’s creation.

The mayor testified that Lansing-based Martin Waymire public relations firm recommended she devote a half-day per week to soliciting funds by phone from business leaders and charitable foundation directors. Because she was unable to devote the time, the firm helped draft a solicitation letter, but Weaver said she never mailed it.

Weaver testified the fund was “no secret,” intended to offset travel costs incurred while she spread the word across the state and nation about “what was going on with the city of Flint."

“It couldn’t be secret if I was going to send out letters and make calls,” Weaver testified.

The mayor said she’d hoped to raise enough funds to compensate volunteers who assisted with the fund.

“At some point, I wanted to get Mr. Gilcreast paid,” Weavers said, referring to her close political adviser.

“They got slick,” said community activist and Weaver critic Arthur Woodson, who attended Wednesday’s hearing. “They were trying to steal the money.”

Amid the city’s water contamination crisis, Weaver issued an emergency declaration in December 2015, spurring an influx of donations. However, ex-Chief Financial Officer Jody Lundquist said the city wasn’t set up to receive tax-exempt donations.

This led City Council to pass an ordinance forming a nonprofit community foundation for the purpose of collecting donations to help Flint residents combat the water crisis.

By January 2016, Weaver, who was elected and took office the previous November, created her nonprofit, Caring for Flint, with the help of the Miller Canfield law firm, according to testimony and records entered into evidence Wednesday.

The nonprofit was created as a 527 organization, usually a form of campaign fund created for politicians. Under federal law, a 527 account isn’t required to register or report to the state, can accept direct corporate contributions and is only obliged to report donors and expenditures if contributions exceed $25,000 in a year.

Lundquist testified that she was approached in early February 2016 by Flint City Administrator Natasha Henderson, who told her that Weaver, through her assistant Maxine Murray, had asked her to direct any potential city donors to the mayor’s newly formed account.

Murray independently told the then-chief financial officer she “felt uncomfortable about the direction she received from the mayor,” Lundquist testified.

Lundquist also said she witnessed Henderson telling ex-Flint Attorney Anthony Chubb about the request.

Weaver fired Henderson days later.

The termination prompted Henderson, who claims she was fired for pointing out the questionable donation diversion, to file a federal Whistleblower Protection Act lawsuit in May 2016 against Flint and Weaver, who’s since been dismissed as a defendant in the case.

Weaver claims she fired Henderson for failing to not properly notify the mayor’s office about a legionella bacteria outbreak possibly connected to the water crisis and blamed for the deaths of at least a dozen Flint-area residents.

Henderson’s lawsuit was dismissed in a 2017 U.S. District Court ruling, but portions of the lawsuit related to the Whistleblower Protection Act were reinstated by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2018.

“Henderson has mustered sufficient circumstantial evidence of a retaliatory motive to prevent summary judgment,” Circuit Judge Jane B. Stranch wrote in the ruling of a three-judge panel.

The case is scheduled to enter its seventh day of trial before U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox on Thursday.
The Daily Caller
written by Luke Rosiak, Investigative Reporter
Sunday May 5, 2019

Flint, Michigan, steered $22 million in water crisis aid to a firm with no experience that is using slow and expensive methods to dig holes in order to replace lead water pipes, a city council member alleged.

The city banned an effective method of digging holes, putting the company on an even playing field with other bidders, according to a political activist.

The mayor’s chief adviser demanded that the company be given more work, despite having a backlog.

The company Flint, Michigan, hired to replace lead water pipes had no experience with the work, according to a councilwoman and a contractor, despite that the city has received more than $600 million in state and federal aid for its water crisis.

And the city ignored a model showing where lead pipes are and paid to dig up every yard, the vast majority of which had copper pipes, according to meeting minutes.

The city also prohibited contractors from using an efficient method of digging holes known as hydrovac excavation, Flint Councilwoman Eva Worthing told The Daily Caller News Foundation. That leveled the playing field for a contractor, WT Stevens, with no experience or the appropriate equipment — and let it bill far more to taxpayers, she says. All of these factors, she adds, needlessly led to more waiting for anyone who actually has lead pipes.

Huge amounts of aid dollars — including $100 million from the Environmental Protection Agency — have flowed to the small city of 90,000 residents to address lead in its water supply, even though it doesn’t have a chief financial officer and, until recently, its finance chair was a gun felon.

The federal money “should be a good thing for the city,” Worthing told TheDCNF, “but given the mismanagement of the pipe replacement program, I am concerned that it’s not going to get used properly.”

The city “chose to dig up yards that they knew were copper, and they decided to hand dig instead of hydrovac,” Worthing told TheDCNF. “That was because WT Stevens didn’t have the ability, and you get more money [digging by hand]. It costs $250 [to hydrovac] versus thousands” to dig a large hole without the equipment.

No Experience

Mayor Karen Weaver and Councilman Eric Mays have frequently lauded WT Stevens as key to the lead-pipe replacement efforts. The contractor is a general construction company, and its rudimentary website shows a picture of a home being built.

The city’s request for bids required that companies have relevant experience that WT Stevens lacked, the owner of a competitor, Ellis Monk, told TheDCNF. WT Stevens won by saying Monk’s experienced company, Michigan Monk, would serve as a subcontractor.

Monk told TheDCNF that Mays helped establish that arrangement. Monk said he tried to train WT Stevens’ staff and supervise them, but the water line work went poorly since they had no experience.

“They’re drilling every which way, junk flying everywhere. They didn’t realize what they’re doing to the structure of the house,” he told TheDCNF, saying the unskilled work could damage houses’ foundations. WT Stevens “hired people [with] no experience, some of them seemed like they were fresh out of jail.”

WT Stevens, which has received $22 million in contracts from Flint since 2016, didn’t pay him as promised and eventually cut him out of the deal, Monk alleges. A lawyer for WT Stevens denied wrongdoing but declined to elaborate, citing an ongoing lawsuit.

Mays has boasted about the money the city awarded to WT Stevens.

On April 27, Mays said: “We’ve taken in over $647 million. This is where the money is at. We’ve received about $167 million for pipe replacement.” He added that he’s “proud” that Flint “broke records for giving black folks money” through contracts, naming WT Stevens. The company is owned by Rhonda Grayer, a black woman and wife of a former NBA player.

When asked if WT Stevens had specialization in water line work prior to the Flint contract, Grayer said to TheDCNF: “Are you asking the other contractors that? We’re one of five.”

Flint-based Goyette Mechanical, which does water main work throughout the state and has a division called “municipal utilities,” did a portion of the pipe replacement in Flint initially, but was passed over for the latest round of water contracts.

Goyette provided the lowest bid, but a city official said there was a problem with it and started the process over, according to The Flint Journal.

City council members were stunned by the unusual move. “I would like a written rationale … for this pipe rebid,” Councilwoman Kate Fields said at the time. “Unless I see something that’s really legitimate, my opinion is that this … has been corrupted once again,” she said, referring to the decision to throw out Goyette’s low bid and start over.

Goyette provided a price per linear foot of pipe as the city requested, a company official, Joe Parks, told TheDCNF, but also offered an alternative flat rate per house. The city said that offering that option made the bid improper — then took the idea and had all the other companies bid on flat rates, too.

Monk said, “They discontinued it because Goyette was the low bidder and he could have got all of it.”

Monk also bid to do the work as a primary contractor, but was not chosen.

Throwing out the map

The work consists of two parts: digging holes to find out whether a home has lead and replacing the pipes if so.

The first question is largely answered by a predictive model developed by the University of Michigan that identified locations with lead pipes with 94 percent accuracy. But the engineering firm hired by the city to oversee the water contractors, AECOM, didn’t use it, according to The Flint Journal.

Meeting minutes show that AECOM oversaw the digging of nearly 12,000 sites, but only 1,738 actually had lead pipes — a hit rate of 15 percent, The Flint Journal reported. The city paid AECOM $6.1 million.

Mays told TheDCNF the justification for paying a company to dig up yards that almost certainly had no lead pipes was an abundance of caution.

“The mayor and I want to check every house, not just the ones you predict,” he said, adding it was inefficient to do a few houses here and a few houses there rather than knocking out whole blocks.

A Flint activist and onetime mayoral candidate, Arthur Woodson, told TheDCNF that made little sense because the predictive model generally shows lead pipes on the entire block or not.

“The predictive model was a 94 percent hit. If you want 100 percent, why not go into the areas where the majority of the pipes are, and then do the extras?” he said. “But don’t go into neighborhoods where there are none at all. And they gave WT Stevens the area where there was none.”

Woodson said in one neighborhood, WT Stevens “dug up 300 homes and only found six lead lines. The predictive model probably told them about those six.”

Meeting minutes include testimony charging the contractors were more concerned with making money than with helping residents and that a top adviser to Weaver tried to steer money to WT Stevens.

“Essentially, the contractors only want to focus on properties where they will make the most money and are most convenient for them to work,” AECOM official Darby Neidieg told city officials, according to an October 2018 meeting’s minutes.

The meeting minutes show that AECOM told city officials it had ordered WT Stevens to “prioritize outstanding lead service lines over exploratory excavations, and that they would not be issued any new addresses to conduct exploratory excavations until” they had removed lead lines and finished their existing explorations.

But the mayor’s chief adviser, Aonie Gilcreast, said “that AECOM should not wait until WT Stevens was finished with the replacements that they have been issued before giving them more addresses,” according to the minutes. “He stated that AECOM would have trouble out of him if they didn’t issue WT Stevens more addresses.”

Gilcreast is a longtime political operative in Flint who once forfeited $52,000 to the government after the FBI received a tip he was running an illegal gambling business and the police seized evidence of a numbers-running operation. He was never charged criminally.

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Candice Mushatt, declined to answer questions from TheDCNF about Flint’s handling of water contracts.

Then a voice sounding distinctly like Gilcreast, that had secretly been listening in on the call, began shouting and accusing this reporter of giving a “bogus name” — before giving a false name himself. He claimed his name was “Jesse Jesse” and said, “I don’t have a job title.”

TheDCNF provided an audio recording of the call to Woodson, who identified the voice, which had a distinctive stutter, as Gilcreast’s.

Minutes from a May 31, 2018, meeting show that Neidig said, “The issue is that there is more copper-to-copper than we originally thought there would be … which is bad for the [service line replacement] contractors but good for the residents of Flint.”

“Mr. Gilcreast stated that whatever money isn’t used would be returned to the state. He also stated that the first responsibility for the city of Flint is to get the job done, not to save the state money,” the minutes continue.

Inefficient Technology

Equipment called hydrovac quickly drills holes and sucks out dirt. Unlike WT Stevens, Goyette Mechanical, the plumbing specialist involved in addressing the lead pipes early on, used such machinery and, also unlike WT Stevens, finished on time, Woodson said.

Goyette was ready to fix more lead pipes and asked for 500 more addresses, while WT Stevens still had a backlog. Woodson told TheDCNF that was the impetus for Gilcreast ordering the engineer to assign more addresses to WT Stevens even though the company still hadn’t finished its existing work.

Then the city banned all contractors from using hydrovac technology, forcing all companies to use the same technology as the one with no relevant experience, Woodson said.

Parks, the Goyette official, said, “After the bids went out they said you can’t use hydrovac, but you had do to it for the same price. We lost a lot of money on that. It’s the right technology to use, and we were using it in combination with excavators. We did the earlier work that way without issue.”

Mays told TheDCNF he personally was not against hydrovac, but that the mayor’s justification was that the more targeted, 18-inch “exploratory” holes could show a section of copper pipe without revealing that it was just a short splice on an otherwise lead line.

Woodson says this logic falls apart considering the prohibition was not only on using the technology to do “exploratory” holes, but also from using it to dig out large holes around lead pipes in order to replace them.

“So it was never about safety, it was about them making it easy because WT Stevens couldn’t keep up and Goyette was the only company with a hydrovac, so they were able to move the earth quicker and gobble up all the addresses,” Woodson added.

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