Some say it was Van Buren Township’s “Palace Politics” that led to the six-month water shut off for residents of the Lakeview Motel in 2013.
And, that shut off led to the recent $650,000 settlement by the township in a civil rights lawsuit in federal court.
Those splitting up the settlement were Paul Bevins, owner of Lakeview Motel; his ex-girlfriend Deborah Sutherland; and motel tenants Doreen Meyers Corp, Corey Budek, Kenneth James Pfeiffle, and Robert Bleeker.
Two of the tenants are using their money to go back to school and one is using the funds for medical treatment.
Their attorneys were DiPietro & Day of Belleville, co-counsel Hugh M. Davis and Cynthia Heenan, and Sutherland’s attorney Robert S. Mullen.
Defendants, besides the Charter Township of Van Buren, were Director of Planning and Economic Development Arthur Mullen; Building, Plumbing and Electrical Inspector for the township Judy Fields; Director of Public Works James Taylor, who is responsible for oversight and operation of the township water system; and Lt. John Doe, a sworn VBT police officer, whose exact identity is unknown.
The plaintiffs were seeking damages for a violation of their civil rights, deprivation of property, and wrongful eviction.
VBT police evicted those who lived at the motel and the township shut off the water to the motel for six months without any previous notice, hearing, or court order of any kind.
Among the many sworn depositions taken for this case were more than a dozen by township employees who explained what happened from their points of view.
Looking back, people place most of the blame on Arthur Mullen, the former director of planning and economic development, who directed police to evict the residents, which occurred around 7 p.m. on May 24, 2013, the Friday before Memorial Day.
Mullen had been hired in February 2013 to fill in for previous director Terry Carroll who had been fired after the new supervisor took over. Supervisor Linda Combs put out a call to the Michigan Association of Planners for someone to fill in on the job and a former township employee at MAP suggested Mullen. Mullen was also known by VBT DDA Director Susan Ireland because they were both on the MAP Board. Mullen had no experience in the position, but the board, by a unanimous vote, gave him the job permanently in early May. A few weeks later he ordered the water shutoff and eviction of people from the motel.
He admittedly was the “new kid on the block” and he said he was reacting to a single phoned-in complaint from a woman about a party with a lighted sign at the motel. [He did not give the woman’s name in his deposition.] Police checked it out and there were no parking or other violations. Mullen testified in his deposition that it was the only citizen complaint about the property he ever heard of.
Water Department Clerk Karen Smith produced 2008 and 2009 letters from Wayne County concerning the property’s septic tank that needed to be replaced. Somehow, one old letter was stamped “Received May 23, 2013.”
A meeting between Mullen, Building Official Judy Fields and the new DPW Director James Taylor was held the afternoon before or the morning of the day they shut down the motel. The two directors decided to move forward and immediately acted.
Mullen stated a dispatcher found Bevins’ website telling about his S&M Rebel’s Realm group and soon police officers, the building department, and others were looking at it and discussing it as a running joke around township hall. This kind of communication is referred to by some as the Palace Rumor Mill.
During that time, he said Treasurer Sharry Budd may have voiced concern about the motel, as well. Mullen said Sgt. Bart DeVos talked to him about the motel several times and Lt. Charles Bazzy asked about it.
Although there were four locations in the township pointed out in 2012 as having failing septic systems, the motel was the only one singled out for immediate water shut down and eviction in 2013. It was targeted because they had had since 2008 to fix the septic system and hadn’t, Mullen testified. He could not explain the rush to suddenly shut off the water in May 2013 without any notice.
Mullen was fired about May 2014 during an executive session of the township board that he chose not to attend. The vote in the closed-door session to fire him was 5-2, with Supervisor Linda Combs and Clerk Leon Wright voting against the firing.
The termination was not announced to the public and he just was gone.
Mullen testified that he believed it was Trustee Jeff Jahr who got him fired after taking offense at something he said at an ad hoc lake ordinance committee meeting. Mullen said he publicly apologized [in the May 6, 2014 township board meeting] “for unintendingly impugning the character” of Trustee Jahr and Jahr accepted the apology. Mullen didn’t expect the firing.
“Because of what I heard in the community, there’s a huge amount of Palace Politics in Van Buren Township,” Mullen testified. He said he heard Trustee Jahr “was on the warpath to get me canned.”
The next director of planning and economic development Jack Knowles publicly pointed out Trustee Jahr’s treatment of him as the reason he was resigning a few months after being hired. Now, a new director, Ron Akers, is in place and he has a deputy director and both have experience for the positions.
Attorney Tom DiPietro, who conducted the depositions of township employees over a three-year period, told Mullen that part of his clients’ allegations in this law suit is that “you guys cooked up these building violations and forced these inspections in an effort to put my client out of business because of his parties. And, one of the reasons we made that allegation was because of the police involvement in this case which we felt was a building case.”
Mullen testified that no officials ever told him to turn the water back on until six months later in November when insurance attorney Ethan Vinson advised turning the water on.
On Nov. 25, 2013, Mullen sent an email to Director of Public Safety Greg Laurain: “I’ve received a complaint from a resident that they are planning to have another party this weekend, Saturday, Nov. 30th. This is the old Lakeview Motel, and it is the site of the S&M training classes and dungeon for hire. Would you please have the patrol guys drive by and see if there is anything that they believe to be worth investigating from a police perspective?”
Director Laurain replied the next morning with: “I will pass this on.”
A few hours later, Mullen responded, “Thanks. If they see anything of interest that may pique their legal interest, great, if not, we’ll get them later. Arthur.”
Supervisor Linda Combs
In her deposition, Supervisor Combs said she tried to intervene with Trustee Jahr not to push for Mullen’s firing, but Jahr said he couldn’t work with Mullen. A vote was taken during closed session to fire Mullen and the motion passed 5-2.
Combs said she found out about the water shut off and eviction when Mullen came into her office on the day it happened. She said she asked him if he was following procedure and he said he was, so she didn’t question it.
She said Mullen and Taylor mentioned Rebel’s Realm to her when they let her know about the water cut off.
She said she told her assistant Karin LaMothe to let Treasurer Sharry Budd know what was going on.
She said none of the board members ever complained about the motel to her.
DiPietro started to ask if she ever heard rumors and then, stated instead, “… of course, you’re probably the last one to hear scuttlebutt in the township, right?”
“Exactly,” she replied.
DiPietro went on, “Because half of it’s about you, right?”
Combs replied, “I’m sure.”
All those subpoenas for depositions were duces tecum, meaning they were commanded to bring with them all writings and all files that pertain in any way to any activity of any township agent or employee regarding 11605 Haggerty Road – under penalty of punishment.
Trustee Brenda McClanahan
VBT Trustee Brenda McClanahan was deposed on July 17, 2015 and didn’t follow the duces tecum demand, not doing a search of her computer as required for emails concerning this subject.
She told attorney DiPietro, who conducted the deposition, that she was a retired Detroit police officer and had done depositions “many times” and knew the “protocol.”
When she was specifically asked for an email important to the case, she replied, “You know what, I might have left it out there.”
“It’s a slippery darn piece of paper, I’ll tell you,” DiPietro commented and then went off the record to discuss it with the MMRMA attorney Nathan Vinson. The email was produced.
It was the May 2015 email chain between McClanahan and Karin LaMothe, executive assistant to Township Supervisor Linda Combs.
A message from LaMothe to McClanahan is dated Friday, May 24, 2013 at 1:40 p.m. and reads: “Paul Bevins, Jr., 11605 Haggerty Road. Illegal commercial operations was reason for shut down; water was a separate issue (with Wayne County septic).” It is signed Karin LaMothe. The reply to LaMothe from McClanahan is dated Monday, May 27, 2013 at 1:40 p.m. and says: “Hi Karin, Thank you!”
The water was shut off at 7 p.m. on Friday, May 24, of Memorial Day weekend, and this email was sent to McClanahan on the afternoon just before the shutoff.
DiPietro questioned what was the underlying discourse that took place that resulted in this email and McClanahan replied: “To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember because it’s been so long.”
When he asked if she searched her emails for any additional emails concerning contact with LaMothe or anyone else concerning 11605 Haggerty, McClanahan said no, despite the duces tecum on her subpoena.
McClanahan said she doesn’t remember why she asked LaMothe for information.
DiPietro said Supervisor Linda Combs had testified that she was aware of this water turn-off on May 24, 2013 and that she instructed LaMothe to inform Treasurer Budd of that information.
When McClanahan insisted she couldn’t remember why she asked for information on the subject, DiPietro asked if she made any effort at all to look for any information concerning this location for this deposition, and she responded, “No.”
She said, “There was no reason to. I have to go on what I remember at this point…”
McClanahan did not produce this email for the deposition. DiPietro said he asked for this email six months earlier and he finally got it through the IT Administrator at the township, Steve Rankin.
The email shows that officials knew of the evictions before the fact and that the evictions were for Bevins’ activities in his alternative lifestyle, not anything to do with a failing septic system.
Police Sgt. Bart DeVos
Police Sgt. Bart DeVos, who was the police night shift supervisor in 2013, testified in his deposition on April 25, 2014 that the water was first shut off to the motel on May 24, 2013, the date of the eviction, and that Officer Fred Sweet assisted VBT Building and Water Departments.
Someone turned the water back on so the water was shut off again and locked on June 4, 2013, with Sgt. Louis Keele standing by.
Sgt. DeVos said he pulled up all the information he could to find references to this incident he was being depositioned on. The records regarding every call to the address were produced.
He said at roll call on May 25, 2013 he read a letter from Director Mullen directing police to evict anyone on the motel property. When people were found on the property, Sgt. DeVos testified that he called Mullen at home to confirm the removal of the subjects from the property. And, Mullen confirmed they should be removed and police removed them.
Sgt. DeVos testified that he first was called to the address on May 11, 2013 following a complaint that a party was taking place. He checked it out and there were no parking violations and nothing else wrong.
That was the night Bevins rented his residence to a Wiccan group who put up a lighted sign for a “Passion Fest.”
The next time Sgt. DeVos came to the address was for the evictions. After that he said he was driving by and saw people there. He stopped and talked to Bevins because they were occupying the place. He said Bevins said if the people didn’t live there, they’d be homeless, so Sgt. DeVos told them to contact the building department and took no action.
He said a dispatcher found Bevins’ site for Rebel’s Realm on the internet and showed it to police officers.
Sgt. DeVos testified as far as he’s aware, based on his review of the records and his own personal experience that there has not been any illegal activity going on at that location during the 20 years of his employment as a VBT police officer.
LaMothe testified to working at Van Buren Township. She resigned from her job as Combs’ assistant and then went back to work and then resigned again. That was in the second half of 2014.
She and her family moved from VBT and have lived in Grosse Ile since April 2015. She now works at Northridge Church in Plymouth.
LaMothe ran unsuccessfully for Clerk Leon Wright’s job in the 2012 election. When Combs asked her to become the supervisor’s executive assistant she was hesitant because she thought Wright might oppose her. He didn’t, but she said Trustees Miller and McClanahan voted against her.
Combs promoted her to deputy supervisor in June 2013 and she was sworn in by 34th District Court Judge David Parrott. Then because of board pressure she was put back to being an executive assistant.
She recalls she was shocked, but did not resign at that point.
“I’ve been faulted by being too pollyannaish and I’m an idealist and it was a constant contention with the board and I just felt like I was always in the middle … and it would probably be better if I left,” LaMothe said. “I felt like I was caught in the cross-fire.”
She said she gave 30-days’ notice and then found out her husband had Lyme disease and he could no longer work and she needed to be the one working. So, she withdrew her resignation.
She said some board members – Trustees Phil Hart and Reggie Miller – and the supervisor said they were really glad she decided to stay.
She said board members continually said they were frustrated because of what they felt was a lack of communication from the supervisor.
LaMothe said her husband returned to work and appeared stable with his health so she resigned as of November, 2014.
“I just wanted to not be there anymore,” she testified. “I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed about it and God said that is was okay for me to go.”
DiPietro asked if Trustee Jahr was a problem for her and she said she didn’t recall.
“Him and Sharry were a problem for Arthur Mullen, weren’t they?” DiPietro asked and she replied that she didn’t know if Mullen would say that was the case.
“Well, he already did,” DiPietro said. “I’m asking you, if it was obvious that Palace Politics got him fired and that it was Jahr and Sharry that were behind it, yes or no?”
LaMothe said she didn’t know.
DiPietro said, “… that’s part of the cross-fire you were trying to get out from under, wasn’t it?”
“I wanted to work in a job where I had peace every day,” LaMothe said.
DiPietro noted that LaMothe didn’t want to be critical of township officials.
“I want to take the high road and I want to forgive and I want to forget and I want to work in a church where I have peace every day,” LaMothe concluded.
Some say it was Van Buren Township’s “Palace Politics” that led to the six-month water shut off for residents of the Lakeview Motel in 2013.