Busting a whistleblower

Earlier this year, Hamtramck police officer Dennis Whittie became convinced that the city's director of the Department of Public Works was using city staff to renovate a rental home he owned. Then, during his off-hours, he investigated further, and found the same department head had recently been found guilty of committing felony fraud.

Whittie then exposed the wrongdoing. But instead of being hailed for taking the initiative, he now faces a disciplinary action that could cost him his job.

It started with garbage. For three weeks in May police officers in Hamtramck attempted to get the city's Department of Public Works to clean up a pile of trash that included broken glass and nail-riddled wood. And for three weeks, DPW superintendent Steve Shaya ignored police requests to remove the pile before some kid got hurt playing around it.

Finally, on May 20, Whittie, who has been a Hamtramck cop for two years, decided to press the issue. He went to a house on Evaline Street, a place where he'd frequently seen Shaya's vehicle parked. There, according to a report he filed with the City Council and the city’s top manager, Whittie saw Shaya and other DPW employees working on the house.

According to Whittie, he asked one of the employees what was going on and was told, "We’re fixin’ up Steve's house." Whittie reported that the employee told him that Shaya had recently purchased the house and that DPW employees were being used to renovate it for use as a rental property.

"I commented that it’s ironic that Steve Shaya does not have the time to clean up hazardous materials on our residential streets, but has plenty of time to fix up his house, with DPW employees," wrote Whittie in his report.

Before going to council and Louis Schimmel, the city’s emergency financial manager, with his report, Whittie did more digging. On his own time he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city and confirmed that Shaya owned the house. He also found out that, despite the extensive renovation, no construction or building permits had been applied for.

And that's when Whittie's troubles began. According to his report: "On the date I filed my original FOIA request, June 13, 2003, Mr. Shaya came into the police station and had a conference with Director of Public Safety and Police Commissioner Melvin Turner. After the meeting I was ordered to cease using the Police Department address on my FOIA requests. The next day, though, Mr. Shaya came into the station on the day shift and requested to see a picture of me and was in a hostile state, according to the desk officer. Some of the remarks that Mr. Shaya stated and were reported to me were ‘he thinks he's bad with a badge and gun, I got guns too’ … and ‘he doesn’t know who he’s messing with.’"

Shaya did not return calls seeking comment.

The effect of Shaya's visit was to make Whittie curious: "I began to question why Mr. Shaya was so agitated if indeed everything he was doing was legal, ethical and proper." He also took Shaya’s remarks as a threat, and began doing some research to find out whom he was dealing with.

What he discovered was that in June 2002 Steve Shaya was convicted of felony fraud. Whittie reported that, while doing demolition work in the City of Detroit, Shaya had falsified a city document showing the work had been done properly. Shaya was found guilty, placed on five years’ probation, ordered to spend his vacation time in jail, and ordered to pay $80,500 in restitution.

Whittie obtained Shaya’s application for the Hamtramck job, and found that when he signed his employment contract in August 2001, charges were already pending against him. According to Whittie, Shaya never disclosed that fact.

"I presume that he did not tell you because of my belief that you would not knowingly hire a potential felon to head one of your departments," wrote Whittie. "And I most certainly believe that you would not keep a felon convicted of fraud running a department with just under a one-half million-dollar budget if you knew of the conviction."

That quote comes from a letter Whittie wrote to the City Council and Schimmel, who was appointed by the state to manage Hamtramck because of its dire economic situation. Whittie says it was his lieutenant who recommended that the report be submitted to Schimmel.

In July, Shaya was suspended without pay while he is appealing his fraud conviction to the Michigan Supreme Court. Although Turner says the Police Department could find no evidence that the city employees were on-duty while renovating their boss’s house, Shaya is not likely to make a comeback. Schimmel says Shaya was "permanently terminated" when his position was eliminated as a cost-saving measure.

Three days after Shaya’s suspension, Whittie received a written reprimand. Although he says two different investigations conducted by sergeants revealed no wrongdoing, Whittie was nonetheless reprimanded for "conduct unbecoming an officer." He was said to have breached the chain of command for directing the Shaya information to Schimmel instead of William Barnett, the city controller and deputy financial manager. Whittie was also chastised for sending the information to Schimmel's home, unduly subjecting his family to an unwarranted "intrusion." Whittie doesn't see how a letter addressed to Schimmel could be considered an intrusion on his family, and adds that he sent the information to Schimmel’s home as a courtesy because, says Whittie, Schimmel is often not at his office in City Hall.

Whittie’s response was to post the reprimand on a Web site he created, www.insidehamtramck.com. Doing so resulted in another reprimand for improperly disseminating information that should have stayed within the department.

"Why should they be afraid of their own words?" asked Whittie.

On July 31, Whittie received notice that he faced a disciplinary hearing for a variety of alleged infractions including "insubordination" and "unbecoming conduct."

Turner, who serves as both Hamtramck’s police commissioner and director of public safety, says Whittie faces disciplinary action because he improperly disclosed information about an investigation.

"He wanted to do things his way instead of ours," says Turner.

It's not like Whittie has exactly endeared himself to Hamtramck’s top cop. Whittie claims that Turner’s occupation of both the commissioner and public safety posts is a violation of the city charter and Michigan's Incompatible Public Offices Act. He wrote letters of complaint to the attorney general's office, which recommended that the matter be handled by the Wayne County prosecutor's office, and to the prosecutor's office, which directed him back to the attorney general.

A former police cadet for five years, Whittie says he's wanted to be a cop since he was a kid. Facing the prospect that his disciplinary hearing could end with his firing, Whittie remains comfortable with his actions. The way he sees it, he took information obtained while off-duty and made it public. Then he took reprimands directed at him and put them on the Web as well.

Since being ordered to do so by the department, he has removed those reprimands from his Web site. But he has no qualms about airing Hamtramck’s dirty laundry in public.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a First Amendment issue," he says, adding that he intends to fight for his job, and his right to criticize the officials running Hamtramck.

"As much as being a police officer means to me, my self-respect means a lot more. I was raised to do what I thought was right, and that's what I’m doing."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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