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Questions of corruption at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority

Nov 1, 2017

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette hasn’t hesitated to launch investigations into a number of agencies whose behavior he’s found questionable.

So he might want to seriously consider looking at potential corruption at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, where there are indications some board members may be putting their own private interests ahead of the needs of those they are supposed to help.

Four years ago, the authority, known as DWMHA for short, hired Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent of schools, as its new CEO. Watkins set about transforming what had been a typical Wayne County agency, rife with cronyism, into a modern authority centered on the needs of its patients. This was something of a crusade for Watkins, who lost two brothers to mental illness. But in the end, the crony culture proved too pervasive.

One of the authority’s contractors, Integrated Care Alliance, was acquired by a huge for-profit company, Molina Health Systems. ICA then began tacking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in unauthorized administrative fees, and violated its contract with Wayne in other ways.

Two years ago, Watkins terminated the contract with ICA. It seemed clear he had the authority to do that; he had done so with other providers that had fallen down on the job.

But this time the board interfered, and led by its chair, Dr. Herbert Smitherman, and Bernard Parker, a controversial former Wayne County Commissioner, voted to restore the contract with the dubious provider, despite questions about some board members ties to ICA.

The board also moved to take away Watkins’ ability to terminate contracts.

Tom Watkins finished his term, but when offered another contract earlier this year, declined to stay. He told me he didn’t want to work for people who put their own interests ahead of those who they serve.

Several other top administrators left as well. The DWMHA board then had to find someone else to run the agency. Last month, they offered the job to Willie Brooks, who is the CEO of the equivalent mental health authority in Oakland County.

Brooks accepted -- but he told Crain’s Detroit Business that once he had, the board went back on verbal promises Smitherman had made to him about termination pay if he were to be fired, and suddenly wanted him to sign a non-compete clause.

Brooks then decided that he wasn’t dealing with honorable people, and announced he would stay in Oakland County. Brooks then sent an email to someone familiar with the situation describing the board as “a group of the most dishonest individuals I’ve ever seen,” and adding that the people of Wayne deserved better.

Smitherman hasn’t responded to a request from me for comment. A number of other people who work for or are connected with the agency have confirmed all this, but indicated they didn’t want to speak on the record because they feared retaliation of some kind.

Watkins, who is now working on increasing Michigan’s economic and cultural ties with China, said he was trying to be philosophical.

“One door closes, another door opens,” he said.

He hopes that eventually the board would care more about “the people we serve,” and be driven less by self-serving people.

You’d like to think that when it comes to mental health, that would be a given.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.