Detroit schools seek to force board member to talk

AP News
Posted: Nov 19, 2009 5:43 PM

The Detroit Public Schools will seek a court order forcing a school board member to testify about his role in a $1.5 billion construction bond issue, the district's emergency financial manager said Thursday.

Robert Bobb said the district will ask a judge on Monday to require Anthony Adams and three others to testify in an internal probe over the misuse of funds. Adams is a former deputy Detroit mayor and served as a top lawyer for the school district during the time of the questioned transactions.

Bobb said since Gov. Jennifer Granholm put him in charge of the district in March in the face of a $300 million deficit, he's had to field question after question about the use of a $1.5 billion bond issue that voters approved in 1994.

"These matters involve a huge investment of public funds," he said. "The public has a right to know how these funds were spent, particularly in light of allegations of questionable transactions."

An investigation by the district's inspector general released in September found that the district overspent millions of dollars in taxpayer money because it botched real estate deals that involved too many agents and inflated property values. The deals occurred during a state takeover of the district and were made possible with funds from the $1.5 billion bond issue.

Adams refused to testify at an investigative hearing over several business dealings including the district's $24.1 million purchase of office space in the Fisher Building in 2002. The seller had bought the whole 30-story building a year earlier for $21.7 million.

Adams and his lawyer, William Mitchell, did not immediately return phone or e-mail messages seeking comment Thursday.

Bobb said he will also ask a Wayne County judge to compel the testimony of real estate developers Andrew and David Farbman of the Southfield-based Farbman Group and former Detroit schools real estate appraiser Sharon Harbin.

Farbman Group lawyer Michael Jacobson said in a statement his clients have "never refused to cooperate with Mr. Bobb's process."

"We requested numerous meetings with Mr. Bobb and his staff and they have not accepted our invitations," Jacobson said in a statement.

Harbin's lawyer Andrew Finn declined to comment.

The internal probe is looking at whether the misuse of funds was due to incompetence or criminal acts. If it finds suspected crimes, the district will refer the matter to state or federal prosecutors.

Detroit remains Michigan's largest school district, but enrollment has plunged from more than 100,000 as recently as 2008 to about 84,000 this school year. The district has been hurt by Detroit's population loss from a peak of 1.8 million in 1950 to about 800,000 now and from city parents putting their children in charter schools and neighboring districts that accept transfers.

During Bobb's tenure, the district's deficit has fallen to about $219 million.