Scoop: Feds investigate link between fires and Mayor Duggan’s demolition program

Photo by Steve Neavling

Motor City Muckraker is an ad-free, independent watchdog that relies on donations. All contributions go directly to building a larger, more tenacious watchdog team to dig into important issues and spotlight abuses of power.

Federal authorities are investigating whether an outbreak of suspicious fires in Detroit was connected to Mayor Duggan’s demolition program.

Motor City Muckraker first revealed in 2016 that a disproportionate number of suspicious fires in vacant houses were destroying homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank, which has overseen the demolition of more than 11,000 abandoned structures since Duggan took office in 2014.

It’s unclear whether the probe is part of the ongoing grand jury investigation into allegations of a bid-rigging scheme to steer tens of millions of dollars to select companies.

Fires devour neighborhoods in Detroit. Photo by Steve Neavling.

The newest federal probe is two-pronged: Agents are investigating whether private contractors were behind an outbreak of arsons in 2014 and 2015 to reduce the price of demolitions and eliminate the need for asbestos remediation, which can add several thousand dollars to the final costs.

Federal authorities also are investigating allegations that the city’s Building Authority has pressured the fire marshal’s office to authorize emergency demolitions of houses that sustained only minimal impact. A former employee of the Detroit Fire Department has begun cooperating with federal agents, the official told Motor City Muckraker on Friday.

When a house is deemed “dangerous,” the Building Authority can forgo the bidding process and hire any company it wants to demolish the house without removing asbestos, a deadly, cancer-causing toxin that rains down on neighborhoods during demolitions.

“They wanted to save money, even if it endangered the citizens,” the former employee told Motor City Muckraker.

Between 2014 and 2016, the city issued contracts for more than 500 emergency demolitions at a total cost of $8.9 million, according to records obtained by Motor City Muckraker through the Freedom of Information Act. Even though most emergency demos did not require costly asbestos remediation, the average cost was $17,710 – several thousands dollars more than non-emergency demos that went through the bidding process.

Motor City Muckraker is an independent watchdog without advertisements. Your donations help us continue providing vigorous, nonpartisan investigations.

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.