ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Administrator Bill Wolf, speaking as a private citizen, called on the Board of Commissioners Thursday to ask the Michigan attorney general to look into “alleged serial corruption among elected officials” over allegations against Commissioner Teri Freehling.
After the meeting, board Chairman Mac Elliott, responding to Wolf’s call for an attorney general investigation, said “not on my watch.”
Elliott said he was deferring to the county prosecutor’s decision, issued the day before, not to press charges against Freehling for allegedly not revealing a conflict of interest over money that went from the drain office to her husband.
He said he felt that Wolf’s statement showed a lack of respect for the prosecutor’s office, following what he characterized as “a thorough investigation.” He said he would not second-guess the prosecutor’s decision by asking the attorney general to look at the case.
During the public comment portion of the board meeting, Wolf, identifying himself as a Stevensville resident, spoke from the podium and asked “that this board direct the chair to send a letter to the governor asking her to have the State Attorney General review the criminal aspects of this case of alleged serial corruption among elected officials. Our citizens’ trust in the integrity of the leadership of Berrien County must be restored.”
Freehling, who represents District 8, wasn’t at the meeting and has been largely absent since May. Her husband, Patrick, died in an accident at their Baroda Township farm May 2.
The board voted to appoint retired judge John Dewane as a special counsel to look into whether there were any violations of bylaws concerning disclosure of a conflict of interest.
In his comments, Wolf praised that decision.
“I believe that will do a lot to insure that the future actions of the Board of Commissioners regarding this issue are appropriate,” Wolf said.
Following the meeting, back to wearing his administrator hat, Wolf declined to offer any further comment.
The issue centers around contracts from the county drain commissioner awarded to Doug Hartzler of Bridgman, who was paid around $400,000 over two years. Heavy equipment owned by Freehling’s husband, Patrick, was rented to Hartzler, and “a significant amount” of the money paid to Hartzler eventually made its way to Freehling, according to the prosecutor’s office.
The prosecutor’s office determined that Teri Freehling did not have knowledge of all of her husband’s business dealings and therefore was not guilty of failing to disclose a conflict of interest.
Sepic, reached at his office about Wolf’s comments, said any citizen can ask the attorney general to investigate a complaint and there is no need to go through the governor’s office.
Shortly after the prosecutor’s announcement, the Board of Commissioners issued a statement saying that they would appoint a special counsel “to review the facts of this conflict of interest issue and to advise the board concerning its appropriate course of action.”
Elliott, along with Commissioners Bill Chickering, Jim Curran and Bob Harrison, will be meeting with Dewane to determine the scope of the review, and will keep other commissioners informed. A report is expected in three weeks.
“We want to get something accomplished as quickly and thoroughly as we can,” Elliott said.
Dewane, who retired from the bench in 2014 and went back into private practice, has assisted the Board of Commissioners on such issues as mandating financial audits for tax-supported senior centers, and the transition from a road commission to a road department.
The review will help the board in deciding whether they need to fortify any provisions in the bylaws concerning reporting potential conflicts of interest, Elliott said.
“We can make it a learning experience,” he said. “We want to avoid the appearance of impropriety, even if an impropriety doesn’t exist.”
The issue is the subject of a civil lawsuit filed in Berrien County by Hartzler against Teri Freehling, the estate of her late husband, and Drain Commissioner Christopher Quattrin, alleging fraud and failure of Freehling to recuse herself from votes on contracts he claims she knew would benefit her family. The plaintiff has requested a jury trial.
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