City pays millions to private contractor with chronic problems, probes death threats

1515 Broadway
Photos by Steve Neavling

Six months after his wife gave birth to their second child, Jose Aguliar was repairing a water main break in Detroit when a sinkhole collapsed and killed him. A state investigation concluded that the company, Imperial Construction, “exposed his employees to trenching hazards which led to the death of one worker.”

Five years later, the Detroit-based company continues to be the city’s top contractor for water main repairs, despite receiving 18 violations since 2009 and “repeated, demonstrated indifference to several provisions of the trenching standard,” according to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

1515 BroadwayOn Friday, an Imperial Construction crew was drilling into a sidewalk in front of 1515 Broadway downtown to fix an earlier mistake when they struck a steam line, forcing the coffee shop to evacuate and cancel a play. Steam spewed out of the punctured line for hours, and the front window of the coffee shop was broken. Electricity was cut to several buildings and apartments, which remain on generators, and downtown security was forced to intervene when two crew members threatened to kill me for asking a single question about what had happened.

First employee to make a threat
First employee to make a threat

“Get away from me before I fucking kill you,” one of the workers yelled at me, prompting downtown security to intervene.

Another worker lunged at me three times, came within inches of hitting me with a backhoe and also threatened to kill me. His co-workers were forced to intercept each time.

“You people need to go back to the suburbs,” he told me. “Half of you are scared of Detroit and run to the suburbs before it gets dark.”

(I live in Detroit)

Second employee to make a threat
Second employee to make a threat

Records show that the company received more than $23 million in contracts from DWSD since 2008. In April, the DWSD Board approved a $4.3 million contract for Imperial to fix water mains for 540 days.

At least one company, Blaze Construction, complained about a lack of transparency in the bidding process.

I asked Deputy Director Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Darryl Latimer about the city’s affinity for Imperial. He said the company is consistently the lowest bidder – and sometimes the only bidder – and does good work.

“Imperial has done real good work for us,” Latimer said, calling the owner “a good, hardworking guy.” “This is tough work. It’s hard to make money doing it.”

Latimer said the company’s past violations were never considered a problem by the law department.

“Those are legal decisions that the law department would decide on,” Latimer insisted.

Latimer said the department is launching an investigation Monday into the threats over the weekend.

The problems with the water main are part of a series of embarrassing blunders that Mayor Mike Duggan has been trying to rectify. Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley was at the coffee shop Sunday talking to the owner about troubles that began with dangers from a nearby high-rise, the Wurlitzer.

Update 11:55 a.m.: The company declined interviews but released this comment:

“An unidentified reporter entered an active and taped off construction zone while Imperial Construction was making a repair at 1515 Broadway. He attempted to take close up photos of the scene and our employees, creating a safety hazard. He was asked to stop and to leave the site several times. He refused and continued to provoke our employees thereby endangering himself and our employees.”

My response: I never crossed the yellow tape. I am working to get surveillance video of the incident and any firsthand account from DTE crews and downtown security to show what really happened.

Here, a city worker pulls back one of the threatening employees. I’m clearly behind the yellow tape.

Disclosure: Motor City Muckraker Publisher Abby Shah is a part-time employee at the coffee shop. 

1515 Broadway

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • Stephen Paraski

    This is one of the worst contractors doing work for DWSD. In the 1990s the only work the department bid to them was hydrant replacement and even that work was shoddy. Over the years since, Imperial and every other contractor has gotten more work and took DWSD jobs away from Detroiters. Look at all these contractors and their campaign contributions. Why are the same contractors that paid bribes and kick backs still doing work for the City of Detroit and DWSD? Their safety record alone should bar them from any more work. Just more of the privatization of Public Works and Services. How can paying a private contractor to do work for a profit save public dollars?

  • Jackie

    This is just another example of mismanagement within the city of Detroit.

  • So much for the new and improved post-bankruptcy Detroit.

  • Visual Ronin

    Every employee of every company is an extension of that company’s PR department; whether they know it or not. Whether that employee is sitting behind a desk or sitting behind a back-hoe, he or she is there not only to accomplish a task but also to represent their company.

    All this guy needed to do was turn to Steve and say, “Hey man, we’re really busy here. I’d love to talk with you but maybe some other time. You can call the office if you have any questions.”

    It’s that simple. Not only would he have adequately represented his company but he would also adequately represented the city.

    Steve is doing his job just as much as this worker was doing his, I am fairly certain Steve was polite and inquisitive in his approach and therefore there is no reason why this interaction could not have gone so much better.

    Lastly, Steve, I am not telling you your job but as one media professional to another, sometimes the best way to get people to open up is to act stupid and get them to show off. People like when they are made to feel like they are superior or smarter than someone else.

  • Miles666

    Nice work Steve

  • bebow

    If you’d called the DPD about the threats, you would’ve been arrested like the woman featured on Fox 2, who has confessed squatters threatening her with a knife and her house with arson. Why do you suppose our criminals are so bold? Why does Latimer defer to the law department on issues related to his contractor’s numerous safety violations but dive right into an investigation of his contractor’s employees’ death threats, which is clearly the DPD’s territory?

    • The city just needs to make it rain pink slips from the top-down. Then rewrite their bidding processes.

      I have zero faith in the bureaucracy of Detroit. Time for some career changes.

      Although, I have to get credit to the cockroaches that made it through the audits. That’s pretty impressive.

      • antoine flemming

        Now we know why Detroit was chosen to represent Gotham in BvS…

  • Guest

    Bugging construction workers on the job. Yeah, I’d be pissed too. Ain’t nobody going into your house to heckle you while you’re typing.

    • Just_A_City_Boy

      Nope, just threatening him with bodily harm while he’s reporting…

    • green_velvet

      Nice analogy. I like the way you tie together a company’s horrendous safety record that has resulted in a death with investigative reporting. But seriously, did somebody help you turn your computer on to type that? I just can’t see somebody with your low level of comprehension skills being able to do that on your own.

    • Emily Lowrey

      The reporter’s life was threatened on the street while he too was at work. I think you’re confusing news organizations that only aggregate content from other media with MotorCityMuckraker. Those reporters would normally be working in a chair. An investigative reporter, though, typically leaves the office and goes out to talk to people about what’s happening. There aren’t enough of them in the country right now, so rather than wag your shame finger in a situation where it’s not warranted, perhaps you should get out your wallet and support them with a monthly donation.

      • Pamela Vida

        Well put!!!

    • stinger

      Im also confused about what results you expect pestering people while they work. Because I’m sure these guys doing the manual labor are the one in charge. These guys just want to try and get this job done and get home and I’m sure the work is tough and shitty. But I guess you got more yo add to your story by bugging these guys. Great reporting……

      • muckraker_steve

        If by “bugging” you mean mean asking a single question, I am guilty.

      • green_velvet

        You’re confused that an investigative reporter would ask the actual workers questions? The ones who were responsible for striking the stream line? Why would I not be surprised to find out that if these questions were asked to the company’s PR spokesman you would be equally confused as to why he wasn’t asking the workers on-site these questions. The only takeaway here is that you’re confused. Take a break from posting inane comments and look up what an investigative reporter does.