Mich. town’s feud over mil­i­tary gear gets ugly

Of­fi­cials rip record-keep­ing, say equip­ment given to res­i­dents

The Detroit News - - Front Page - BY FRAN­CIS X. DON­NELLY The Detroit News

Thet­ford Town­ship — The two-man po­lice depart­ment in this ru­ral com­mu­nity out­side Flint has amassed a mas­sive amount of sur­plus mil­i­tary equip­ment over the last decade.

The free ma­te­rial, re­ceived through a fed­eral pro­gram, in­cludes mine de­tec­tors and Humvees, trac­tors and back­hoes, hy­droseed­ers and fork­lifts, mo­tor­ized carts and a rid­ing lawn­mower. The land­locked town­ship also has got­ten boat mo­tors and dive boots.

While much of the gear worth $1 mil­lion has never been used by the town­ship, some has been given to res­i­dents, town­ship of­fi­cials said.

The town­ship su­per­vi­sor and a trustee said the po­lice have stymied their at­tempts to find out what equip­ment they have, where it’s lo­cated and why some of it has been given away. The po­lice didn’t keep track of what they had or what they had given away, ac­cord­ing to a town­ship

au­dit last year.

In re­sponse to the au­dit, Po­lice Chief Bob Kenny com­piled an in­ven­tory that showed the po­lice had 950 pieces of equip­ment, which were lo­cated at six pub­lic and pri­vate prop­er­ties in and out­side the town­ship.

But nearly a third of the items, 314, were listed as “off-site,” with­out giv­ing a spe­cific lo­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to the in­ven­tory.

“I don’t know where off-site is,” Su­per­vi­sor Gary Stevens said.

The Ge­ne­see County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, which was con­tacted by the town­ship, has be­gun an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the han­dling of the equip­ment. It de­clined to dis­cuss the probe.

Kenny, af­ter a brief con­ver­sa­tion with The Detroit News, didn’t re­turn emails or phone calls to dis­cuss the is­sue.

Mean­while, po­lice sup­port­ers have launched a re­call cam­paign against Stevens and Trustee Stan Piech­nik. One of the or­ga­niz­ers is farmer Eu­gene Lehr, who has 21 pieces of equip­ment on his prop­erty, in­clud­ing a mo­tor­ized cart, trac­tor, fork­lift, two trail­ers and three all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles, ac­cord­ing to the in­ven­tory.

Lehr de­clined to dis­cuss the goods. “They gotta go,” he said about Stevens and Piech­nik. “They’re noth­ing but trou­ble­mak­ers. We’ve been rail­roaded so far.”

In May, Stevens and Piech­nik drove onto Lehr’s farm to see what was be­ing kept there. Lehr filed a com­plaint with Kenny, who charged the two town­ship of­fi­cials with tres­pass­ing. The town­ship pros­e­cu­tor dropped the charge.

Lit­tle-used equip­ment

This type of bare-knuckle fight­ing is noth­ing new in Thet­ford Town­ship, a farm­ing com­mu­nity of 6,800 peo­ple lo­cated 15 miles north of Flint.

It be­gan re­ceiv­ing mil­i­tary equip­ment in 2006 but the amount dra­mat­i­cally rose af­ter Kenny be­came chief in 2008, ac­cord­ing to Pen­tagon sta­tis­tics. The ma­te­rial comes from a Depart­ment of De­fense pro­gram that dis­trib­utes ex­cess goods to law en­force­ment agen­cies through­out the U.S.

Among the items listed in the town­ship in­ven­tory are two earth movers, six trac­tors, seven trucks and nine trail­ers.

Crit­ics say there’s no need for such things in a tiny po­lice depart­ment in a lightly pop­u­lated town­ship that has lit­tle crime.

Thet­ford Town­ship is the fourth safest mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Michi­gan, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est sur­vey by SafeWise, a home se­cu­rity firm. The town­ship had 1.3 vi­o­lent crimes and 1.5 prop­erty crimes per 1,000 res­i­dents in 2015, ac­cord­ing to FBI crime sta­tis­tics.

“What’s hap­pen­ing here?” asked res­i­dent Theo Gan­tos. “Are they get­ting ready for ter­ror­ist ac­tion? Is there armed in­sur­rec­tion? This is not some­thing we re­ally want in our po­lice depart­ment.”

Po­lice sup­port­ers said some of the equip­ment has been use­ful. The two Humvees were used in two res­cue op­er­a­tions, stor­age bins hold old town­ship records, and cots and blan­kets were used when town­ship hall was used as a shel­ter dur­ing a Christ­mas ice storm sev­eral years ago, sup­port­ers say.

For­mer su­per­vi­sor Eileen Kerr, who sup­ports Kenny, con­ceded the equip­ment is used spar­ingly but quoted the chief as of­ten say­ing it was bet­ter to have the gear and not need it, than the other way around.

She said the equip­ment orig­i­nally had been stored on town­ship prop­erty but she asked the chief to move it be­cause the lot be­gan to look like a junk­yard. That’s how it ended up on sev­eral pri­vate prop­er­ties, she said

“I said this is some­thing that looks like ‘San­ford and Son,’” she said about the 1970s sit­com. “We had all this crap all over the place.”

‘It was never listed’

Fed­eral guide­lines al­low law en­force­ment agen­cies to dis­pose of the equip­ment af­ter one year.

Kenny has said he gave some of the ma­te­rial to busi­nesses to com­pen­sate them for trans­port­ing it from mil­i­tary sites to the town­ship.

But some res­i­dents are con­cerned he had too much dis­cre­tion in giv­ing away the gear. Un­til re­cently he wasn’t re­quired to doc­u­ment the trans­ac­tions or re­ceive the board’s ap­proval be­fore giv­ing items away, said crit­ics.

The in­ven­tory list doesn’t show which items were given to busi­nesses.

Dur­ing its au­dit, Plante Mo­ran said its par­tial sur­vey of the equip­ment dis­cov­ered one item miss­ing and three oth­ers given away. It didn’t iden­tify the items or to whom they were given.

“We don’t know what he’s got,” said res­i­dent Jon Er­ber. “It was never listed or turned in or doc­u­mented. I don’t know any busi­ness that op­er­ates like that.”

Dave Niec, who owns Great North­ern Trans­porta­tion, a Clio truck­ing firm, told Stevens and Piech­nik he re­ceived a fron­tend loader for ar­rang­ing the trans­porta­tion of equip­ment, said Piech­nik. Niec didn’t re­spond to emails or phone calls ask­ing for com­ment.

Mike Walther, who runs a Mon­trose tow­ing com­pany, has 18 items on his prop­erty, in­clud­ing a trac­tor, two trucks, two trail­ers and a rid­ing lawn­mower.

He told a lo­cal re­porter he oc­ca­sion­ally used some of the ma­te­rial for parts but that most of it was in poor con­di­tion. He said he is stor­ing the equip­ment for the po­lice, but it wasn’t clear whether he trans­ported it.

When called by The Detroit News, he hung up.

Down on the farm

Piech­nik, a long­time critic of the po­lice depart­ment, be­gan look­ing into the mil­i­tary equip­ment pro­gram af­ter be­com­ing a trustee in 2016.

He asked Plante Mo­ran to look into the pro­gram the fol­low­ing year. Af­ter do­ing so, the au­di­tor said the pieces of equip­ment were town­ship as­sets that should be in­ven­to­ried. It also rec­om­mended the board sign off on the giv­ing away of items.

The trustee board adopted the rec­om­men­da­tions in June. But Piech­nik was frus­trated with the in­ven­tory be­cause so many items were listed as off-site.

“This pro­gram is so loosey-goosey,” said Piech­nik. “There’s a chance for peo­ple to use in the wrong way. He’s (Kenny) do­ing it on the dark side — not open, not telling us, not giv­ing us names.”

The Depart­ment of De­fense said it sus­pended the town­ship’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the mil­i­tary equip­ment pro­gram pend­ing the sher­iff ’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Dur­ing Piech­nik’s at­tempts to learn what was hap­pen­ing with the equip­ment, he and Stevens drove onto Lehr’s farm in May af­ter learn­ing from the chief that some gear was stored there.

When driv­ing onto the prop­erty, they en­coun­tered Lehr’s girl­friend, Mag­gie Baker. They asked if they could look at the trailer and she said it was OK, Baker and the men told po­lice.

When ques­tioned by the po­lice chief, Stevens said that, af­ter re­con­sid­er­ing the mat­ter, he prob­a­bly shouldn’t have en­tered the prop­erty, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Kenny charged the two men with tres­pass­ing, but the charge was dis­missed in Oc­to­ber. Shortly af­ter the dis­missal, Stevens gave Kenny a writ­ten rep­ri­mand for fil­ing the crim­i­nal charge.

Stevens needs the board’s sup­port to fire Kenny, but four of the seven trustees con­tinue to sup­port the po­lice chief.

Feud in­ten­si­fies

The con­tro­versy has turned per­sonal. Dur­ing a trustee meet­ing in De­cem­ber, some­one uri­nated on Stevens’ car near the gas tank, said wit­nesses. No one was ar­rested in the in­ci­dent.

Then, Stevens used the town­ship snow­plow to clear the park­ing lots of town­ship hall and other build­ings af­ter a De­cem­ber snow­fall. When he stopped off at home for lunch, some­one snapped a photo of the ve­hi­cle in his drive­way and posted it on Face­book, ac­cus­ing him of us­ing the plow for per­sonal rea­sons.

Lehr and res­i­dent Gregg Bryan be­gan the drive to re­call Stevens and Piech­nik in De­cem­ber. They have un­til June to get enough sig­na­tures to put the is­sue on the bal­lot in Novem­ber.

A pam­phlet ad­dressed to Thet­ford Town­ship res­i­dents, which con­tained the phone num­bers of Lehr and Bryan, said the crit­i­cism of the po­lice’s use of mil­i­tary equip­ment was a dis­guised at­tempt to dis­band the depart­ment.

The leaflet re­ferred

Piech­nik as mis­cre­ants.

“THIS EVER WIDEN­ING REIGN OF TER­ROR, LIES AND ABUSE MUST COME TO AN END,” read the pam­phlet. “The sur­vival both as a com­mu­nity and a mu­nic­i­pal body is at stake.”

to

Stevens

and

Robin Buck­son The Detroit News

Gregg Bryan, left, and Eu­gene Lehr be­gan a re­call bid against Thet­ford su­per­vi­sor Gary Stevens and trustee Stan Piech­nik, who have looked into the equip­ment is­sues.

Robin Buck­son / The Detroit News

Gregg Bryan, above, and Eu­gene Lehr be­gan the Stevens and Piech­nik re­call bid in De­cem­ber. They have un­til June to get enough sig­na­tures to put the is­sue on the bal­lot.

Stan Piech­nik, a long­time critic of the po­lice depart­ment, be­gan look­ing into the mil­i­tary gear af­ter be­com­ing a trustee in 2016.

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