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A Tale of Corruption in Several Municipalities

It was crime on a grand scale. The punishment was equally so.

A federal criminal investigation can ensnare many different people. But just because an FBI agent wants to interview you doesn’t make you a criminal suspect. If you’re subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be indicted. Still, you’ll surely want to know where you stand, and it pays to simply ask.  

If you discover you are under investigation for criminal activity, the sensible approach is to engage a criminal defense lawyer and, on his or her advice, cooperate with the authorities. As for your status, let your attorney do the asking. The prosecutor’s response will typically fall into one of three categories: witness, subject or target.

To a federal agent or prosecutor, a “witness,” although not necessarily having seen or committed a crime, may have information that the government considers relevant in its investigation. A “subject” is a person whose behavior or activity is within the scope of a grand jury’s probe. The government considers the person’s behavior suspicious, and it may have a strong belief that the individual has engaged in illegal activity. When a prosecutor deems someone a “target,” it means the government believes it has substantial evidence of a crime and may soon be ready to formally bring charges. 

If you receive a letter from the Department of Justice identifying you as a target, it’s a sure bet you’ll be testifying before a federal grand jury regarding criminal activity the feds believe you’ve participated in. Incidentally, a surefire way to elevate your status from witness to subject or from subject to target is to destroy evidence or lie to the feds. Doing so amounts to obstruction of justice and will only multiply your woes.  

One often hears the term “person of interest,” which has no legal meaning. It could describe someone who has not been arrested or formally accused of a crime but has merely aroused curiosity or speculation during an investigation perhaps because of his or her quirks, habits or activities. Its use often carelessly and unfairly casts suspicion on the blameless.

Most of the time cooperation with prosecutors pays off with a lighter sentence. It’s a calculated risk. What’s even riskier is going to trial – a true roll of the dice. If you lose, the price you pay will invariably be more jail time. That’s how the system works.  

Dean Reynolds was elected as a trustee in Clinton Township, Mich., in 2004 and was re-elected in 2008 and 2012. Township trustees operate much like a city council. Clinton Township has four trustees, who together with the township supervisor, treasurer and clerk, constitute the seven-member Clinton Township Board of Trustees (board), which passes legislation and approves contracts.                                                                    

In 2015, the FBI launched an investigation into systemic corruption in several municipalities in southeastern Michigan, mostly in Macomb County where Clinton Township is located. The probe involved telephone wiretaps, audio and video recordings by “cooperative individuals,” undercover operations, and subpoenas of financial records and other documents. The investigation ultimately led to a federal grand jury indictment of 22 contractors and elected officials, including Reynolds, for receiving and soliciting bribes. 

Reynolds, for his part, was charged with 14 counts of bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery relating to programs receiving federal funds. According to prosecutors and contemporary media accounts, he pocketed more than $150,000 in bribes and favors for running four separate schemes in connection with trash collection, engineering services and towing contracts totaling $16 million. Besides selling his own votes, he allegedly provided information on how other trustees voted.        

One of the local contractors was Rizzo Environmental Services (RES), a company that won a waste contract with Clinton Township in 2010. During the previous five years, Waste Management (WM) had been the service provider. Bill Sowerby, who at the time was the township treasurer, told investigators that as the WM contract term wound down, Reynolds supported simply extending it and sidestepping the competitive bid process. Reynolds was initially dismissive of RES, expressing concerns that the company did not treat its employees well. However, after RES eventually submitted the low bid on the 2010 contract, Reynolds joined the other board members in awarding the contract to the company.

The 2010 contract was set to expire in 2014. In the summer of 2013, the board’s Refuse Committee, consistent with its customary practice, unanimously recommended that the township seek bids from other waste contractors for a subsequent garbage contract. However, when the recommendation came to the board for a vote, Reynolds made a motion to award a two-year extension to RES, which was approved by a 4-3 margin. 

The FBI obtained a wiretap on Reynolds’ phone in July 2015, and later on the phone of RES’s top executive, Chuck Rizzo. Through those wiretaps, the FBI learned that Reynolds was receiving bribes from Rizzo in the form of cash payments and payments made to Reynolds’ divorce lawyers. Reynolds also accepted $17,000 from an undercover FBI agent, which was recorded on video.  

Additionally, Rizzo agreed to pay for Reynolds’ psychiatric examination for his divorce proceeding. To disguise the payment, Reynolds asked a friend to sign a fake promissory note that Reynolds’ best friend, Angelo Selva, had prepared. 

In exchange for these payments, Reynolds agreed to secure another contract extension for RES. The extension – for a 10-year term – was unanimously approved in February 2016, but had an opt-out clause that the township could exercise after December 31, 2018.  

Reynolds was arrested in October 2016. According to Selva, shortly after Reynolds was released on bail, he asked Selva to destroy the fake promissory note and other incriminating evidence. They discussed the pending charges, and Reynolds insisted that he was innocent. He claimed that all of the funds he received from Rizzo were legitimate loans. 

Selva was stunned by Reynolds's denial because both of them knew full well the true nature of the payments. Selva might then have bitterly regretted his role in creating the fake note to hide one of the bribes. Reynolds’ attorney apparently got word of what his client had asked Selva to do. He called Selva and told him not to destroy evidence. Selva had not yet done so, and he wisely heeded the attorney’s request.

Selva, a former lawyer, pleaded guilty in 2017 to misprision of a felony – that is, knowing a crime had been committed and not reporting it to authorities in a timely fashion. He also agreed to testify against Reynolds. Selva was later sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Reynolds rejected an agreement with prosecutors that called for him to plead guilty to two counts of bribery conspiracy, cooperate with the government and serve a 10-year prison term. Instead, he took a chance on going to trial. An ill-fated decision. After deliberating for about an hour, a jury found him guilty on all counts. U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland sentenced him to 17 years in prison. “One of the longest corruption sentences in Metro Detroit history,” said The Detroit News.

A federal appeals court rejected Reynolds' challenge to his sentence and affirmed the district court’s judgment. He had argued that the district court misapplied the federal sentencing guidelines, sentenced him disproportionately compared to other similarly situated defendants and imposed a higher sentence as punishment for his electing to go to trial. 

The appellate panel noted that several other co-defendants agreed to plead guilty to certain charges in the scandal. "In addition, several of Reynolds' co-defendants cooperated with the FBI investigation and had other mitigating circumstances that affected their sentencing," the panel wrote in its 21-page ruling. "As a result of this and other factors, each of Reynolds' co-defendants guidelines ranges were much lower than Reynolds' advisory range."

Reynolds is serving his time at a low-security federal correctional institution in Milan, Mich., according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website. As for Rizzo, he pleaded guilty, cooperated with investigators, and is now serving a 66-month prison term.

United States v. Reynolds, No. 19-1146, 6th Circ., May 7, 2020.

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