LeDuff: Investigators Keep Unearthing Dirt in Detroit Demolition Program

February 24, 2021, 10:23 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

A Detroit demolition

As much as Mayor Mike Duggan wants you to believe there is nothing to see in his disastrous demolition program, there is plenty of stuff to see, and even the visually impaired can see things aren't looking so good.

The latest: The owner of the largest asbestos abatement company working in the city's federally funded demo program was charged in state court on Thursday on six corruption counts involving bribery, money laundering and false pretenses. Those charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Kevin Woods, the owner of BBEK Environmental, pleaded not guilty in 37th District Court in Warren to four counts of false pretenses over $100,000, one count of money laundering and one count of bribery. He was released on a $50,000 personal bond.

“Mr. Woods is innocent of all charges,” said his lawyer, Becky Camargo. “We look forward to aggressively defending him in these cases. He will be exonerated on all criminal activity alleged by the state of Michigan.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel

The charges, brought by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, stem from a long-running and ongoing criminal investigation by the Department of Justice into the use of U.S. Treasury Department dollars, earmarked for demolition by the Detroit Land Bank. 

Deadline Detroit first alerted the federal authorities in 2018 about irregularities surrounding the handling of asbestos and the origins of  fill dirt used in Detroit. This led to findings by authorities that asbestos was illegally handled, contaminated dirt was used to fill holes, and a general lack of oversight on the city's part.

While the current charges against Woods do not implicate the city of Detroit, they do involve city-owned properties. By far the largest asbestos contractor in the program, BBEK abated at least 12,000 abandoned houses, or 80 percent of the city's total, under the quarter-billion-dollar program, according to government estimates.  

“Mr. Woods has fully cooperated with the federal authorities in their investigation of the city,” said Carmago.

As to for the state charges, Woods is accused of “inappropriately” paying to obtain removal work from a general contractor in the program. Woods is also accused by the attorney general of slipping around environmental standards and regulations, by setting up air-monitoring companies that were directly connected to him, thus calling into question the real exposure to citizens.

“Our laws on the checks and balances in asbestos removal provide safeguards for the public’s health and anyone who violates those regulations puts our residents in harm’s way," said Nessel in a statement about the BBEK case.

Findings by the city's own health department in 2017 showed that the sloppy nature of the demolitions contributed to elevated levels lead in children. The city said then that it had stopped tearing down houses in neighborhoods with the highest measures. An analysis by the Free Press in October, however, showed the city never did stop.

It has been a rough month for the Duggan administration on the demolition front. First, the feds refused to allow the city to close out the Treasury-funded program, because a demolition firm had yet to replace fill dirt used in 16 different sites that was contaminated with mercury, lead and chromium. The dirt had been certified as safe by the city.

Brenda Jones (City Council photo)

On Wednesday, the Detroit City Council rejected half of the first batch Duggan's Proposal N demolition contracts – valued at approximately $15 million -- due to a lack of transparency by the mayor's office and qualifications of some of the companies.

“What I cannot support is these Detroit businesses being set up to fail because they lack the capacity and/or experience to do the work,” said City Council President Brenda Jones. “We need to empower these businesses, not set them up to fail.”    

In the meantime, sources tell Deadline Detroit, that the federal criminal and civil investigations into demolitions continue.

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