Friday, January 21, 2022

Taylor Mayor’s aide pleads guilty to pocketing bribes

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An aide and campaign treasurer for indicted Taylor Mayor Rick Sollars on Tuesday admitted to pocketing bribes with the Downriver politician and faces up to five years in federal prison.

Taylor community development manager Jeffrey Baum, 46, is the third person to strike a plea deal with federal prosecutors, moves that leave Sollars scheduled to stand trial alone on corruption charges in January.

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Baum was indicted in December 2019 on bribery conspiracy (a five-year felony) and 18 counts of wire fraud, each carrying a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Court filings describe a conspiracy in which Sollars and Baum allegedly helped developers obtain properties from June 2017 until February 2019 while the mayor received more than $80,000 in cash payments and Baum got $4,000.

During the plea hearing in front of U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith, Baum admitted conspiring with Sollars and two others: real estate developer Shady Awad and Hadir Altoon, a developer who also owns Dominick’s Market.

Awad and Altoon also have pleaded guilty and are awaiting possible prison sentences.

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It was unclear whether Baum, Awad and Altoon have agreed to testify against Sollars. Baum’s lawyer Mike Rataj declined comment Tuesday.

Sollars’ political fortunes have disintegrated since the criminal case was filed. He had to mount a write-in campaign for reelection last spring after being tossed from the August ballot for failing to file campaign finance statements or pay fines. Sollars mounted an unsuccessful primary write-in campaign for a third term and another write-in attempt failed Nov. 2.

“Citizens in this district deserve public officials who conduct the public’s business with integrity and without improper influence,” Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Mohsin said in a statement. “We will root out and continue to hold accountable those public officials who betray the public’s trust for their own personal benefit or for the benefit of another.”

The criminal case comes amid a broader federal focus on public corruption in Metro Detroit. In the last dozen years, more than 110 labor leaders, politicians, police officers and bureaucrats have been charged with federal corruption-related crimes, according to a database built by The Detroit News.

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Sollars is accused of receiving bribes and cashing campaign checks at Altoon’s party store in exchange for cash and scratch-off lottery tickets while allegedly corrupting a city foreclosed property program.

Prosecutors had accused Baum of helping Sollars steal money from the mayor’s re-election campaign. Baum did this by giving the mayor blank campaign checks and helping prepare phony and inflated catering invoices for services that were never provided, prosecutors said.

Altoon cashed those checks at his market and gave the money to the mayor in cash or lottery tickets, prosecutors said.

“The citizens of Taylor deserve a government free of corruption,” Timothy Waters, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, said in a statement. “Today’s conviction should stand as a warning to any public official that the FBI will aggressively investigate anyone who uses their official position for personal gain.”

Baum, meanwhile, was placed on paid leave from his $71,000-a-year job on Oct. 6 after a subordinate filed a complaint alleging Baum was responsible for a hostile work environment, threatening behavior and sexual harassment.

Baum was reprimanded and later reinstated to the job.

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