Who watches the watchdogs? Candidates for Detroit ombudsman

Ombudsman is one of the best gigs in Detroit city government.
It pays $127,000 a year and comes with a 10-year contract  and city council is expected to make their choice tomorrow.

Detroit's ombudsman is supposed to be a watchdog for the people but after investigating the background of the ten finalists, M.L. Elrick discovered few of these watchdogs come with fleas.

A plain jane ad - so non-descript, it would be easy to miss - let readers of the Detroit Legal News and Michigan Chronicle know that the city was hiring for one of the best gigs in town. 

Affter 41 people applied, the Detroit City Council narrowed the list down to 10 people they figured would do the best job. And that list included a former politician caught up in one of the worst public corruption scandals in the city's history. More on that in a minute.

You may have heard the old saying: Who watches the watchdogs? Well, in this town, it's the Problem Solvers our team reviewed the finalists applications, combed public records, and asked some tough questions.

There were a few candidates who sailed through our background check:

David Craig is an educator who says he would make sure city officials know how residents feel. 

Francis Grunow is a consultant and urban planner who brings a history of interacting with residents and city officials to the job. 

Daryel Peake works in the U.S. attorney's office and brings a wealth of experience working with community groups.

Bruce Simpson Jr.,  an assistant ombudsman, says he would work with city officials to improve services.

Our investigation identified issues with a few of the other finalists, including a question about where one of them really lives.

The Wayne County Treasurer initiated forfeiture proceedings on Donyale Stephen-Atara's condo for 2013 taxes. Atara says she has worked out a payment plan if she gets the job, she says she'll be accessible to residents, business owners and visitors.

Beverly Kindle-Walker lost a home to foreclosure and went bankrupt. She says that if she gets the job she will emphasize using data to improve city services.

Michael Richard lost a home to foreclosure, was successfully sued by his credit union for nearly $13,000 and has a federal lien on his current home for unpaid income taxes. He blamed his financial problems on his divorce. He says he will make the ombudsman's office more efficient.
Tyrone Winfrey is already an ombudsman with the educational achievement authority. In 2009, the city sued Winfrey and his wife, City Clerk Janice Winfrey, for unpaid income taxes. The state also put a tax lien on their home six times over the past decade. 

Winfrey blamed a payroll deduction problem for the income tax situation and said he couldn't recall what caused the tax problems with the state. He says all his taxes are paid up. As ombudsman, he wants to build stronger relationships with community partners and raise the profile of the ombudsman's office.

Yolanda Watson doesn't have any financial problems. It's just hard to tell where she lives. In her application for the ombudsman's job, she listed a home where she lived with her ex-husband, former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee. 

But the Michigan secretary of state says she registered her car in Macomb County. She did not return calls seeking clarification but in her application, she emphasized her responsiveness to people's concerns.

All of those candidates' problems pale compared to Mary Waters. If that name sounds familiar, it should. In 2010 the former state lawmaker became a lawbreaker, pleading guilty to filing a fraudulent tax return.

Waters copped to failing to report a $6,000 ladies' Rolex for her role in a conspiracy to bribe a public official. That was the case in which political consultant Sam Riddle pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, extortion and file false tax returns. Since then, Waters has struggled to pay her bills. 

She has lost several lawsuits over thousands in unpaid bills and both her condo association and Uncle Sam are after her for unpaid fees and taxes. If she gets the ombudsman's gig, Waters says she's used to rolling her sleeves up and getting the job done.

Call it coincidence, but the two council members who support Waters' candidacy have had financial and legal troubles of their own. 

First, there's Scott Benson, whose financial missteps were overshadowed by his drunken driving. Then there's George Cushingberry. From his run-ins with the police, to bankruptcy, to bad debt, to losing his law license, you name it, Cushingberry has done it. 

Elrick tried asking the councilmen why they thought someone with so many problems would be able to help Detroiters with their problems. Benson did not respond. Cushingberry refused to speak with Elrick, but in a Facebook post downplayed Waters' role in the bribery scheme. 

He said she had a distinguished career and is very good with people, he said she deserves a second chance.

The ombudsman position is a powerful one within city hall. And by the time the ombudsman leaves office, he or she will have been paid more than $1 million. And their office will have spent more than $10 million. 

Hopefully, taxpayers will have something to show for all that dough. The council makes its pick Tuesday.

According to the city's website on detroitmi.gov the ombudsman's duties are:

Receives complaints against governmental agencies

Investigates the validity of complaints

Makes recommendations to remedy complaints

According to the United States Ombudsman Association, an Ombudsman should incorporate the following standards:

Independence: Function as an impartial and critical entity that reports findings and makes recommendations based solely on a review of facts and law, in the light of reason and fairness

Impartiality: Receive and review each complaint in an objective manner, free from bias, and treat all parties without favor and prejudice.

Confidentiality: Use discretion to keep confidential or release information related to a complaint or investigation- balance the need to protect sensitive information so that a complainant can come forward, with the need to disclose information as a part of an investigation or public report.

Credible Review Process: Perform responsibilities in a manner that engenders respect and confidence and be accessible to all potential complainants.