By J. PATRICK PEPPER
HEIGHTS — Former Community and Economic Development Director Hassane Jamal has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city and Mayor Daniel Paletko, alleging that he was fired from his job for refusing to acquiesce in a series of acts that violated city, state and federal regulations.
Jamal is seeking damages in excess of $75,000 and is represented by attorney Michael Stefani, the Royal Oak lawyer who rose to national prominence in 2007, when he won a $6.5 million settlement for three former Detroit police officers in their whistleblower suit against disgraced ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
According to the complaint, the whole controversy started over a $9,000 boiler repair at the Berwyn Senior Center. In October 2008 former city Building & Maintenance Manager Bill Zimmer approached Jamal and informed him the boiler was inoperable and needed repair.
As the CED Director, Jamal’s responsibilities included administering and coordinating funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the primary funding source for the Berwyn Center. But when Zimmer told Jamal he already had selected a contractor and would need the funds immediately, Jamal told him it couldn’t be done, because it would violate regulations that require all HUD-funded projects be advertised so that minority contractors would have an opportunity to submit bids.
Jamal also told Zimmer that whoever did the work would have to comply with the federal Davis-Bacon Act, which holds that any contractor selected for a federally funded, public project must compensate workers at no less than the prevailing local wage.
Zimmer allegedly told Jamal the problem was an emergency, and that with cold weather looming the city didn’t have the time to meet all the HUD requirements. He added that the Davis-Bacon provision probably would cause the contractor to rescind its bid, the complaint says.
The following day, Jamal was summoned to Paletko’s office, where the mayor made clear that HUD funds were to be used on the project. Paletko told Jamal to see if there were any ways that the city could be granted an emergency exemption from the HUD requirements.
Jamal alleges that Paletko said “he didn’t care how” the funds were acquired so long as they were, although Paletko’s attorneys deny he said that.
After his conversation with Paletko, Jamal reviewed the city’s inspection records for the Berwyn Center and discovered the boiler had been inoperable for several months prior to Zimmer’s request, according to the complaint. But Livonia-based attorneys Ron and James Acho, who are representing the city and the mayor, argue that Zimmer couldn’t have known about the boiler problem.
“Because the boiler was not used during the summer months, there is no way possible Bill Zimmer could have known this information,” the pair wrote in a response to Jamal’s complaint.
Jamal was unconvinced. At another meeting with Paletko the same week, Jamal said the inspection records seemed to indicate the problem was not an emergency, but rather an oversight by Zimmer. Paletko allegedly responded by saying that his “friend,” Zimmer, had advised him Jamal “was not part of the team.”
Paletko also allegedly told Jamal he should be “willing to look the other way,” and that if HUD found out about any impropriety related to the boiler repair, the city would “deal with it” at that time, although, through his attorneys, Paletko denies these allegations.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Paletko advised Jamal to inquire with HUD about receiving exemptions on the advertising and Davis-Bacon requirements, because of the “emergency” nature of the problem.
In late October 2008, Jamal says he contacted a director with the regional HUD office to see if the exemptions were possible. The director, Jeanette Harris, responded that even though it appeared Zimmer had previous knowledge of the boiler problem, it still could qualify as an emergency, which would exempt the project from the minority-bid requirement. The Davis-Bacon provision, however, would still have to be adhered to, Harris said.
Following his conversation with Harris, Jamal told Paletko he would be unwilling to process the payment. According to the complaint, “the mayor appeared to become angry and told Jamal in a hostile tone, “You could still just look the other way,’” although Paletko refutes he said that.
Eventually the boiler repair was paid for out of the city’s general fund. But Jamal said that after he refused to process the payment, Paletko’s demeanor toward him changed, going from “congenial” to “distant and hostile.”
Hire puts mayor, director further at odds, councilwoman gets involved
In early February, City Council approved the posting of two positions for the city’s newly created Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The NSP is a federal program designed to lessen the effects of home foreclosures. City, state and federal policy all require that any new jobs be posted to the general public, at least in part, so that minority candidates have an opportunity to apply.
According to Jamal, in about the third week of February, Paletko came to his office with a young white woman named Rachel Thomas. Paletko reportedly told Jamal that Thomas had been hired to fill one of the two NSP positions, even though the jobs had not yet been posted or advertised in public.
Jamal responded by telling Paletko that Thomas’s hiring was in violation of multiple regulations, and that circumventing the advertising requirements would preclude minority candidates — in particular Zaneib Hussein, a part-time program assistant with CED since 2007 who had expressed interest in the job.
Paletko allegedly told Jamal that hiring Thomas was “very important” to him, because he was doing a favor for a former district court judge, though Paletko has denied he said this. Although the suit does not name the judge, several people with knowledge of the case believe it is former 24th District Judge Anthony Guerriero. A telephone message left at Guerriero’s office Wednesday was not returned as of press time.
City attorneys deny that Thomas’s hiring prevented Hussein or any other minority candidate from obtaining a position because Thomas took only one of two positions. However, the attorneys’ response to Jamal’s complaint does not make clear whether Thomas was hired before or after the position had been posted.
After Thomas’s hiring was formalized in late February, Jamal was summoned to Paletko’s office once again and Paletko called to the office of Human Resources Director Elizabeth Sobota-Perry, who Jamal had complained to about Thomas’ hiring.
Paletko ordered Sobota-Perry to play a recording of Councilwoman Marge Horvath for Jamal in which Horvath said she had been told Paletko was pressuring Sobota-Perry to inappropriately hire Thomas, and that she was going to pass the information along to local media outlets.
Paletko allegedly told Jamal he “had better fix this mess.”
About two weeks after that meeting, mayoral assistant Krystina Kramarz told Jamal that Paletko had relieved him of his duties administering the NSP and shifted the responsibilities to her, according to the suit. Jamal said he was given no reason for his removal.
Then in early June, Jamal said, he was told by Paletko and Sobota-Perry he was being placed “on notice” for several job performance issues, though Jamal claims he was shocked because he had never received any nonsatisfactory reviews in the past.
Later in June or early July, City Attorney Gary Miotke called Jamal and told him not to report for work, Shortly thereafter, Jamal was fired.
Attorneys for the city have said Jamal’s termination was the result of several “no-call, no-shows” in which Jamal simply didn’t come to work.
In a press release on the case, “insubordination, inability to use good judgment, inability to follow policy, disrespect towards elected and appointed officials and threats to city workers,” were cited as reasons for Jamal’s dismissal.
Paletko referred questions for this story to his attorneys. Jamal could not be reached for comment.