State attorneys probe allegations against councilwoman

Sunday Times Newspapers

TRENTON — The Michigan Attorney General’s Office is investigating whether a councilwoman disclosed privileged information about city negotiations earlier this fall during a conversation with a city employee union representative.

Mayor Gerald Brown is alleging that Councilwoman Timber Baun-Crooks leaked information from a closed council session to Dan Reno, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 292. Attorney General Mike Cox’s office is involved as the result of a letter sent by Brown Sept. 30 asking officials there to review the case.

Baun-Crooks denies leaking any pertinent information and said in published reports that she believes Brown’s letter is politically motivated, and that she ultimately will be vindicated.

The information deals with a decision the council made about a lawsuit filed by five AFSCME retirees over health care benefits after discussing the matter Sept. 8 in closed session.

The suit was filed on behalf of five retirees who were upset that their health and medical benefits were being reduced because of a clause in a 2005 contract agreement with city employees that stipulates that retiree benefits “mirror” those of existing employees. The city has contended that the mirroring language is applicable, but rulings so far have upheld the retirees’ position.

Brown believes Baun-Crooks disclosed details in her conversation with Reno that compromised officials’ strategy for dealing with the lawsuit, which now is being appealed by the city.

The mayor said ranking officials from AFSCME told city officials during Sept. 20 that they were given some information on the Sept. 8 session, but that he didn’t hear about it until a Sept. 28 grievance hearing on a different issue.

“It’s put us at a serious disadvantage,” Brown said, “In my opinion, now our case has been weakened.

“In the course of the last eight years (as mayor), at least a half dozen times I’ve warned the City Council not to discuss things like this outside the room. You can’t negotiate against yourself.”

Reno said Baun-Crooks had called somewhere between the time of the closed session and the grievance hearing to invite his employees to a fundraiser for her re-election campaign, as well as to ask why she hadn’t been invited to meet with employees like candidate Robert Baker.

Reno told her his employees didn’t know Baker well, and that the meeting was more of a get-acquainted session than anything else. Baun-Crooks asked for an endorsement, he said, but he added Thursday that Local 292 hasn’t endorsed any of the council candidates — and probably won’t.

Their conversation turned briefly to the city’s appeal in the retirees’ lawsuit, Reno said. He said they “didn’t see eye to eye on some matters,” and that he wondered why the council would vote to appeal the lawsuit.

Reno said Baun-Crooks told him she had voted not to appeal the suit, but that “she didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know.”

Reno said he had been present for much of the testimony throughout the four-year duration of the suit, and that he and union officials could tell what tack the city wanted to take.

“To me it was a nonissue,” he said of their conversation. “She’s not blowing any strategies. Everybody knew that this mayor and this administration were going to appeal.

“We counted on it.”

Baun-Crooks on Friday declined to comment for this story, but said in published reports that she only wanted to put the suit to rest and didn’t want the city to have to pay any more attorney fees.

Brown said if convicted, Baun-Crooks could face a 93-day high misdemeanor charge. He denies any political motivation for sending the letter, saying the situation “wasn’t even something we were seeking, it just came to our attention.”

An Attorney General’s Office spokesman confirmed that the letter and accompanying materials have been received and that an investigation is ongoing.