Problem Solvers: Uncovering Detroit City Council secrets

City council has been a problem for Detroit in the past, but this is supposed to be a new day, with a new and better council. 

So how does this council measure up? It's an important question, especially now that they have their power back.

Council will need to be at their best to help a troubled city put its bankruptcy behind it  but bad debts, foreclosures, drunken driving, drugs, and more are coloring the past of six of Detroit's nine city council members.

The first whiff of trouble came from City Council President Pro Tem George Clinton Cushingberry. After just one week on the job, he was in trouble with the law when he was pulled over and caught with an open bottle of booze and a couple joints.

He was given a ticket for a minor infraction and sent on his way and later paid a fine. 

That traffic stop was just the beginning: There were people who claimed they were cheated by him, foreclosed homes, and more and refuses to talk about any of it.

But Cushingberry is just one of the nine people responsible for helping get Detroit back on track, so ML Elrick decided to dig deeper into the backgrounds of the other council members. 

He was looking for clues that might help answer a critical question: If you can't manage your own business, how can you handle a billion dollar budget for a city emerging from bankruptcy? 

He searched for lawsuits, criminal histories, and bankruptcies. He scoured property records and found nothing on three council members: Council President Brenda Jones, Councilman James Tate, and Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez.

Then he started making phone calls.  Some council members agreed to meet, but others weren't as welcoming.  CLICK HERE to find out why two city of Detroit newspapers editor feel elected city officials need to be scrutinized. 

Councilman Scott Benson said he was too busy to return Elrick's calls. 

Here's Andre Spivey, who was eager to meet. A collection agency sued him in July for failing to pay Capital One more than $3,700. His explanation for defaulting on payments? He moved and it got lost in the mail.

"When we changed addresses, we didn't get all of our correspondence," Spivey said.

He settled the lawsuit but there's more to his address change than meets the eye. Spivey owed more than $127,000 on a house on Detroit's west side. A house that he abandoned two years ago for one on the east side that he bought with $35,000 in cash. 

"We paid as long as we could," Spivey explains. "We were like anyone else in the city of Detroit at that time. We fell victim to the housing market and loss of employment."

Spivey says he tried to work with the bank and even had two buyers for the house on Appoline, but the bank rejected both deals. He sees no problem with a councilman abandoning a house because his new house was vacant, too. However, it also happened to be in one of the city's new council districts. 

Was the relocation a political move? 

"Not at all, not at all. If you're inferring that I moved to run on the east side, that's preposterous," Spivey said.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield was also sued. She got hit with a lawsuit in 2011 for stiffing a political consultant. She says she's not sure what happened.

The councilwoman's father, Rev. Horace Sheffield, told Fox 2 he hired the consultant for his daughter's unsuccessful 2010 State House campaign, and he paid the debt in full.

But, like Cushingberry, she also had some legal problems. It was a Saturday night, November 2011. Here's the transcript from that night:
Sheffield told police she only had one glass of white wine. She was given a breath test and failed it and registered a blood alcohol level of .17, more than twice the legal limit.

When Fox 2 tracked her down, she said it was a mistake.

"I was 23 years old, it was a mistake that I made, I'm sure we've all made mistakes," Sheffield said. "It was a very trying time for me and I've moved forward."

Sheffield says she was dealing with a family illness at the time - and that wasn't the only thing on her mind, as she asked the officer if the arrest would "mess up her insurance."

She says that while that arrest was a mistake, it made her a better leader and helped shape her.

"It made me a better person. it helped build my character, who I am today," Sheffield said.

In 2000, Councilman Gabe Leland was a student at East Lansing High School. Someone had found a backpack in the parking lot and turned it in. But it was more than a simple case of lost and found. 

Leland got called down to the office to explain why there was marijuana in his backpack.

"Some kids get caught, and some don't," Leland explains. "There was an incident, possession issue that I dealt with. I went through a diversion program and haven't had any related issues since."

No other busts, except for a second one. He was charged with a felony for controlled substance, delivery and manufacture. They said he possessed with the intent to deliver controlled substances. 

During that second bust, the police report claims he was caught with scales and baggies. 

"Yeah, that's not true whatsoever," Leland said. "I'm not sure what report you're looking at. There's no way in hell I had six bags on me."

Fox 2 showed him the report (CLICK HERE to see them for yourself) and his attitude changed.

"Oh, that's me," Leland said. "I'm just telling you that this is an incident that happened 14 years ago."

Leland was charged with delivering marijuana and pleaded guilty to possession. His sentence was 24 days in the Ingham County Jail.

"I've learned from my mistakes, and I've moved on," Leland said. "I'm productive member of society. I'm a success story. And that's the real story here."

When asked why he didn't talk about the second bust, he was ready to move on: "We're done here," Leland said.

Leland may be done, but there's one council member left: Scott Benson.

Fox 2 caught up with him outside his house. But he sped away before he could answer questions there - on his bike. 

Benson couldn't drive because in June, he was charged with a DUI.

That's not all. Over the last 12 months, a collection agency garnished Benson's tax refund, twice. The councilman tried stiffing Sears out of nearly $4,000. And four years ago, he lost a building on Drexel to foreclosure. 

But it's a house he claims he didn't own. He says the property on Drexel was purchased by an LLC (Limited Liability Company) as an investment property, but the original Deed lists Scott R. Benson as the buyer.

It says so on the deed. The sheriff's deed backs that up as well, with Benson listed as the buyer. CLICK HERE to see the document.

Fox 2 caught Benson outside his house, riding his bike to work.  

Elrick said asked Benson to talk about his background - bad debts and about a house he lost to foreclosure.

"I've never lost a house to foreclosure," Benson said. "I've only owned one home.  I have a 10 a.m. meeting."

Elrick asked about the house on Drexel, but Benson pointed at the residence he was leaving and said, "ML, that's my home."

"Are you telling me you do not own the place on Drexel," Elrick said. "You never owned a home on Drexel? You never owned a property on Drexel?"

Benson said he couldn't stop to talk because he already had a 10 a.m. appointment, but invited Fox 2 to stop by the office.

ML Elrick and the Fox 2 cameras accepted that request and went to his office.

"You didn't make that appointment with me," Benson said. "It's 10 a.m. I already had a meeting. You did call me several times. But if you want a story, you're going to do your story. 

"But we do need assistance because we're meeting today to talk about hats, gloves, scarves, socks for Detroit school kids. We need $1,000. We need your help."

"Where are the details," Elrick said. "And, councilman, so you're saying you've never owned this place on Drexel?"

 "I never owned it," Benson said.

"It's not a home. it was an investment property through an LLC. so I did not," Benson said.

Elrick showed Benson his name was on the foreclosure.

"ML, you do stories like this," Benson said. "So if it's something you want to do to help the community, then do that. If you want to just embarrass a councilman, then you're going to have on your own time."

"You're embarrassed of your past," Elrick said.

"No," Benson said. "I'm not embarrassed of my past, but that's what your stories are - they're about embarrassing the council persons."

"It's about giving you a chance to give your say," Elrick said.

Up Next:


  • Popular

  • Recent

Stories you may be interested in - includes Advertiser Stories