An ethics violation complaint filed against Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree has been dismissed after months of review into his family’s purchases at the tax foreclosure auction.
The 5-1 decision follows a complaint made in February by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, in which he urged board members to look into real estate transactions following a Detroit News investigation that he said was “extremely troubling."
The News report, which prompted FBI officials to investigate, revealed that Sabree’s family members not only took part in the county tax foreclosure auctions, which county rules banned at the time, but that taxes on some of those properties had been left unpaid.
On Wednesday, the majority of the board moved to dismiss the complaint, after agreeing that the 2012 ethics ordinance didn't apply to the properties purchased by Sabree’s wife, because they were purchased in 2011; and that his son's bidding in the 2017 tax foreclosure auction didn't violate the ordinance, because Eric Sabree didn't know about his son's involvement.
Evans questioned the board’s decision.
“This matter raised significant concerns leaving many Wayne County residents to question the integrity of the auction process,” Evans told Metro Times in a statement. “Despite multiple lengthy hearings and review of substantive evidence, I’m not sure that the Board’s action today did much to address those concerns, but I accept its decision.”
Ethics board chairman Carron Pinkins, who was the only member who voted in opposition, said the board didn’t get all of the documentation they requested about foreclosure notices sent to Sabree's wife's properties.
In 2011, a Sabree-formed company, U.S. Development Services, bought three Harper Woods homes in the tax foreclosure auction while Sabree was in charge of the sale. In 2017, his son was listed as a successful bidder on a Detroit home.
"Nothing on this record shows that Mr. Sabree in any way showed preferential treatment to his wife, his son, or his son's client,” board member Ed Thomas said during the meeting.
The newspaper’s investigation also revealed that as many as 10 properties owned by Sabree, his wife, or U.S. Development Services had nearly $29,000 in unpaid property taxes, which they didn’t pay until 10 days after the News inquired about them. Under the law, one of those properties should have been foreclosed and resold at the auction because it was tax delinquent for more than three years.
Sabree maintained that he committed no ethical violations. He said that the company he formed in 2002 is now run by his wife, and that he did not think those purchases would be a problem because the auction was run by a third-party company that year. He also said that he was unaware his son registered as a bidder in 2017.
Board member Freman Hendrix sided with Sabree and said work by a public servant shouldn't "preclude my family from making a living." He called the issue a "media-generated" and "politically motivated" complaint.
Not everyone agreed.
“It’s a bit disappointing that the Ethics Board could go through all of this and not even come up with a basic recommendation to assure that, moving forward, family members and staff don’t participate in the tax auction and don’t receive special treatment,” Jerry Paffendorf, CEO of Loveland Technology, a company that tracks foreclosures in Detroit, tells Metro Times.
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