Detroit taxpayers bilked out of $500,000+ for severances to silence a scandal

A working streetlight illuminates an abandoned house.
A working streetlight illuminates an abandoned house.

By Steve Neavling
Motor City Muckraker

The public agency responsible for installing new lights in Detroit doled out more than $500,000 in severances to five employees following allegations that the CEO was engaged in “illegal, fraudulent activities,” according to records obtained by Motor City Muckraker.

PLA CEO Odis Jones
PLA CEO Odis Jones

Two former Detroit Public Lighting Authority (PLA) employees claimed in a drafted lawsuit that they were fired last year in retaliation for alerting city officials to serious concerns about CEO Odis Jones. They claimed Jones, who has since resigned and received a lucrative $230,000 severance, was trying to profit from public funds by steering city work to one of his two real-estate companies, MVP Partnership LLC.

In exchange for not suing or discussing the allegations, Sandra Hughes O’Brien, who was the general counsel, received a $123,000 severance, and Dana Harvey, former senior vice president for government and community affairs, got $77,000.

PLA Board members, who are appointed by the mayor and city council, declined to say why they signed off on a $230,000 severance for a CEO accused of committing crimes. Jones’ employment contract only requires a severance if he is terminated, city records show.

The PLA used money for much-needed streetlights to pay for the severances.

On Feb. 3, Jones resigned, and PLA Board Chairwoman Lorna Thomas wrote in a press release, “We regret Odis’ decision because in his tenure as CEO, Odis has brought order out of chaos with the city’s street lights and has created an effective solution to an issue that has plagued the city for decades.”

Among the allegations are that Jones tried to shift public resources to his “off-the-book” business ventures and gave his friend, Adam Troy, a job as COO of the PLA so he could pay off a $70,000 debt to Jones. Troy was awarded a $58,333 severance agreement that “does not appear to be written by an attorney,” according to internal records.

It’s unclear why Troy even received a severance since he voluntarily resigned in August 2015 and worked for the PLA less than a year.

Now Jones and Troy are co-managing partners of the real-estate company, MVP Capital Ventures.

“MVP Capital Ventures, LLC is a multi-dimensional development company primary focused on real estate related opportunities and public private partnerships,” according to the company’s website.

Investigative reporter Ronnie Dahl first broke the story about the severances for WXYZ on April 28.  We received additional records that shed light on the allegations leveled against Jones.

Just before Jones resigned, he and Mayor Mike Duggan had a loud argument. When Duggan’s office was sent a copy of the allegations against Jones, they were immediately sent to the city’s Office of Inspector General.

“We have an open and ongoing investigation that we hope to be complete by the end of the month,” Inspector General James H. Heath told Motor City Muckraker.

The PLA launched an internal investigation that found no wrongdoing, but the head of the probe, Tifani Sadek, replaced the whistleblower and previously worked for Jones’ company.

PLA board members have declined to discuss the severances, saying they’re not the public’s business because the issue involved personnel, even though tax dollars were used.

The PLA also dished out $32,500 to Katrina Crawley, who was ex-vice president of construction and engineering, for reasons that remain unclear.

Jones didn’t return calls for comment, but he denied any wrongdoing in a statement issued by his communications team, the Allen Lewis Agency.

“Allegations reported by WYYZ Channel 7, as well as those raised in early Fall 2015 by two former employees whose employment had been expired, are defamatory and false,” according to a written statement to Motor City Muckraker. “They were investigated by PLA General Counsel and two external law firms of the PLA, and the investigations found no wrong doing by Mr. Jones or Adam Troy in November 2015.”

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.