By ZEINAB NAJM
and SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
TAYLOR — The federal bribery and wire fraud lawsuit against Mayor Rick Sollars proceeded in court Jan. 7 with an extension of dates granted, as agreed on by both sides during a status conference.
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan is hearing the case, which has had delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specific details for the upcoming court dates were not immediately available.
On Dec. 19, 2019, a 33-count indictment charged Sollars, businessman Shady Awad and Taylor Community Development Manager Jeffrey Baum for conspiracy to commit bribery in a scheme spanning from 2015 to 2019, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider announced. Sollars pleaded not guilty.
The indictment also charged Sollars and Awad with seven counts of bribery each, and charged Sollars and Baum with 18 counts of wire fraud. Each count is punishable of up to 20 years in prison and fines up to $250,000. Sollars also was accused of stealing more than $200,000 from his own campaign fund.
According to the indictment, Sollars helped Awad’s real estate development company Realty Transition LLC obtain scores of tax-foreclosed properties owned by the City of Taylor. In return, Awad lavished Sollars with thousands of dollars in cash and over $30,000 in renovations to Sollars’ home, over $11,000 in renovations to Sollars’ lake house in Cement City, and over $12,000 in new household appliances.
The indictment also alleges that Jeffrey Baum received bribes from Awad and another developer, in exchange for Baum’s help in obtaining tax-foreclosed properties from the city.
Text messages between Sollars, Awad, and Baum cited throughout the indictment document the bribe scheme, according to a Dec. 19, 2019, press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Eastern District of Micigan. In one text, Awad wrote, “My relationship with Rick is worth $1 million so whatever it takes I’ll pay for it” in telling a contractor to do free work on Sollars’ lake house.
In another text, Awad told Sollars that Sollars was Awad’s “silent partner” in Awad’s real estate development business, according the indictment.
The indictment also charges Sollars and Baum with 18 counts of Wire Fraud, the release said, alleging that Sollars and Baum defrauded donors to Sollars’s campaign fund in three ways. First, Sollars would take checks from his campaign account and write them payable to a particular market, purporting to pay for catering for one of Sollars’ events. Instead, the market owner would cash the campaign checks and give the cash back to Sollars, with no catering provided.
Second, Sollars and Baum would direct Sollars’ supporters to write checks directly to the market for events that never occurred, the release said. Sollars would get cash and scratch-off lottery tickets from the market owner.
Third, Sollars and Baum would solicit and accept thousands of dollars in cash contributions to Sollars’ campaign. Instead of depositing the funds into his campaign account, Sollars would keep the cash and use it for personal expenses, the release said.
The indictment also seeks forfeiture of $205,993 in cash seized from Sollars’ home during a raid on Feb. 10, 2019.
In addition to the home, FBI agents and other unnamed government agencies raided the Sollars’ city hall office and the lake house. The FBI also raided the Awad’s home and office in Allen Park.
Sollars, who has been photographed with Awad, said after the raid that he has a “professional, working relationship” with Awad.
Details of the FBI search warrant, released April 28, 2019, showed the wide scope of the FBI’s search, which included documents related to Awad; business dealings tied to Fiore Enterprises and Fiore LLC, which were part of the business empire run by now convicted and imprisoned Gasper Fiore; and documents related to Great Lakes Contracting Solutions and HP Snap Investments.
The search warrant also sought all paper and electronic records of Sollars’ election campaigns; physical work performed at his home and vacation property; and Sollars’ records related to his casino activity, including betting slips and ledgers detailing wins and losses.
The search warrant also extended to Sollars’ locked containers and safes in his office, home and vacation property, as well as any other safe deposit boxes and storage boxes in his name.
In addition to boxes of paper records, agents were granted permission to remove electronic devices, including computers, phones, storage devices and hard drives.
An indictment is only a charging document and is not evidence of guilt, Schneider said. A defendant is entitled to a fair trial in which it will be the government’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected])