Gus Burns, MLive.com
DETROIT — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver asked employees to redirect charitable donors to a nonprofit fund she created shortly after taking office in 2015, an ex-city official testified during a federal whistleblower trial in Detroit on Wednesday, May 8.
Weaver, who took the stand briefly Wednesday and may testify further Thursday, said she created the fund at the recommendation of other mayors or advisers from across Michigan, including former Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero and Lansing Bishop David W. Maxwell, who assisted in the fund’s creation.
The mayor testified that Lansing-based Martin Waymire public relations firm recommended she devote a half-day per week to soliciting funds by phone from business leaders and charitable foundation directors. Because she was unable to devote the time, the firm helped draft a solicitation letter, but Weaver said she never mailed it.
Weaver testified the fund was “no secret,” intended to offset travel costs incurred while she spread the word across the state and nation about “what was going on with the city of Flint.”
“It couldn’t be secret if I was going to send out letters and make calls,” Weaver testified.
The mayor said she’d hoped to raise enough funds to compensate volunteers who assisted with the fund.
“At some point, I wanted to get Mr. Gilcreast paid,” Weavers said, referring to her close political adviser.
“They got slick,” said community activist and Weaver critic Arthur Woodson, who attended Wednesday’s hearing. “They were trying to steal the money.”
Amid the city’s water contamination crisis, Weaver issued an emergency declaration in December 2015, spurring an influx of donations. However, ex-Chief Financial Officer Jody Lundquist said the city wasn’t set up to receive tax-exempt donations.
This led City Council to pass an ordinance forming a nonprofit community foundation for the purpose of collecting donations to help Flint residents combat the water crisis.
By January 2016, Weaver, who was elected and took office the previous November, created her nonprofit, Caring for Flint, with the help of the Miller Canfield law firm, according to testimony and records entered into evidence Wednesday.
The nonprofit was created as a 527 organization, usually a form of campaign fund created for politicians. Under federal law, a 527 account isn’t required to register or report to the state, can accept direct corporate contributions and is only obliged to report donors and expenditures if contributions exceed $25,000 in a year.
Lundquist testified that she was approached in early February 2016 by Flint City Administrator Natasha Henderson, who told her that Weaver, through her assistant Maxine Murray, had asked her to direct any potential city donors to the mayor’s newly formed account.
Murray independently told the then-chief financial officer she “felt uncomfortable about the direction she received from the mayor,” Lundquist testified.
Lundquist also said she witnessed Henderson telling ex-Flint Attorney Anthony Chubb about the request.
Weaver fired Henderson days later.
The termination prompted Henderson, who claims she was fired for pointing out the questionable donation diversion, to file a federal Whistleblower Protection Act lawsuit in May 2016 against Flint and Weaver, who’s since been dismissed as a defendant in the case.
Weaver claims she fired Henderson for failing to not properly notify the mayor’s office about a legionella bacteria outbreak possibly connected to the water crisis and blamed for the deaths of at least a dozen Flint-area residents.
Henderson’s lawsuit was dismissed in a 2017 U.S. District Court ruling, but portions of the lawsuit related to the Whistleblower Protection Act were reinstated by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2018.
“Henderson has mustered sufficient circumstantial evidence of a retaliatory motive to prevent summary judgment,” Circuit Judge Jane B. Stranch wrote in the ruling of a three-judge panel.
The case is scheduled to enter its seventh day of trial before U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox on Thursday.
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