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Court’s Gag Order in Michigan Jail Corruption Case Reversed

In March 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court concluded that a gag order entered in criminal proceedings against Wayne County officials charged with corruption in a jail building project must be reviewed.

Following an audit into the jail project that cost Wayne County taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, an auditor found evidence of corruption. Then-Auditor General Willie Mayo, upon forwarding his findings to prosecutor Kym Worthy, was informed that disclosure of his findings to anyone, including the county commissioners who ordered the audit, could result in obstruction of justice charges.

Once charges of willful neglect of duty and misconduct in office were filed against Carla Sledge, the county’s Chief Financial Officer, and Steven M. Collins, a top county attorney, Wayne County District Judge Vonda Evans issued a gag order. That September 30, 2014 order barred “all potential trial participants” from speaking publicly about the case.

The Detroit Free Press challenged the order. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied the newspaper’s appeal, saying the gag order was not an “impermissible prior restraint” and “placed no direct restraint of any kind on the Free Press.”

While the appellate court found the phrase “all potential trial participants” conceivably implicated First Amendment rights, it said the Free Press had failed to identify any willing person who wanted to speak out but was restrained by the gag order.

The Michigan Supreme Court denied review but vacated the Court of Appeals’ decision and ordered it to reconsider the newspaper’s appeal. See: People v. Sledge, 497 Mich. 979, 865 N.W.2d 9 (Mich. 2015).

The Free Press was “heartened by that ruling,” said the paper’s then-editor and publisher, Paul Anger.

Following the remand order the Court of Appeals completely reversed course, holding on October 1, 2015 that the gag order “constituted an unconstitutional prior restraint on the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press under the First Amendment.” Further, the Court found the Free Press had standing to challenge the gag order, which “fail[ed] to meet the strict scrutiny standard to overcome the heavy presumption of unconstitutionality attached to all prior restraints.” See: People v. Sledge, 2015 Mich. App. LEXIS 1831 (Mich. Ct. App. 2015).

In addition to Sledge and Collins, misdemeanor charges were filed against Anthony Parlovecchio, a consultant for the jail construction project who was accused of misleading county officials about cost overruns. The cost of the project, initially estimated at $300 million, ballooned to $391 million before the project was halted in June 2013. Taxpayers remained on the hook for about $14 million per year for the two years that construction was placed on hold.

The charges against Collins were dismissed in September 2015 and those against Parlovecchio were dropped the following month, as neither was a “public official” as required by the charging statute. The felony charges against Sledge remain pending.

In December 2015, the Wayne County Commission voted to proceed with the jail project, using the same main contractors – Ghafari Associates and AECOM Services – though with a redesigned facility that will cost up to $175 million. That cost is in addition to the estimated $150 million the county has already spent to build a new jail.

“I feel like I have a gun to my head and I have to decide whether to get shot by a .45 or a .357,” said Commissioner Ray Basham, frustrated with having to use the same companies to proceed with the controversial and expensive project.

Also in December 2015, the draft audit of the jail building project was finally unsealed. In addition to finding that county officials knew the project would run over-budget by millions of dollars, the audit found the county was not supervising the contractors; that county officials did not heed other contractors who questioned whether it was possible to build the jail within the allotted budget; and that the project included $29 million in no-bid contracts to AECOM and Parlovecchio Building – the latter run by Anthony Parlovecchio, a former county employee.

Sources: Detroit Free Press,,,,

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Related legal cases

People v. Sledge

People v. Sledge