It was business as usual for the Berrien County Board of Commissioners Thursday. That is, until special counsel John Dewane arrived with a nine-page report of possible conflicts of interest involving Berrien County Commissioner Teri Freehling.
Previously, Freehling’s husband had received more than $400,000 from contracts from the drain commission for renting out equipment to an excavation company.
The problem is, Freehling voted on some of those contracts that would eventually end up putting that money in her husband’s pocket.
In September, following an investigation, the Berrien County Prosecutor’s Office declined to pursue misdemeanor criminal charges against Freehling for failing to disclose possible conflicts of interest.
However, after a report was released by the special counsel on Thursday, Berrien County Chariperson R. McKinley Elliott announced he would suspend Freehling for 60 days from the Personnel and Human Services Committee.
“A few things I have authority to do is the assignments to the standing committee. Commissioner Freehling is still assigned to PHS, but she will stand down from committee business for the next 60 days. She will not attend those meetings,” Elliott said.
According to the special counsel, the report does not cite Freehling for breaking any laws or any of the board bylaws. On the other hand, Elliott says even if Freehling didn’t know about her husband’s projects in contract with the drain commission, she should have been more careful.
“When in doubt, disclose it. You never get in trouble for that,” Elliott said.
Elliott released this final statement regarding the suspension of Berrien County Commissioner Teri Freehling:
STATEMENT OF BERRIEN COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS CHAIRPERSON
R. MCKINLEY ELLIOTT
DECEMBER 12, 2019
“On September 26, 2019, following an investigation by the Michigan State Police and a press release issued by the Berrien County Prosecuting Attorney Michael J. Sepic announcing his decision not to pursue criminal charges against Commissioner Freehling, the Berrien County Board of Commissioners appointed Attorney John E. Dewane as Special Counsel to the Board, to advise and assist the Board with questions concerning disclosure of conflicts of interest by Commissioner Teri Sue Freehling. The issues involved allegations that Commissioner Freehling’s husband, directly or indirectly, received several hundred thousand dollars in payments from Berrien County for drain maintenance and repair work for drainage districts authorized by the Berrien County Drain Commissioner.
Attorney Dewane reviewed the State Police Incident Report, obtained additional documents and interviewed Commissioner Freehling, Commissioner and former Chairperson Jon Hinkelman, County Administrator Bill Wolf, County Corporate Counsel James T. McGovern, County Drain Commissioner Christopher J. Quattrin and Douglas P. Hartzler, the organizer of Hartzler Excavating LLC, one of the contractors awarded work by the Drain Commissioner which in turn made payments to Commissioner Freehling’s husband. Attorney Dewane also spoke with Prosecuting Attorney Sepic and with Assistant Attorney General Michael G. Frezza, who heads the Public Integrity Unit, and who agreed with Prosecuting Attorney Sepic’s decision that it was not appropriate to charge Commissioner Freehling under the applicable statute. Attorney Assistant General Frezza also raised issues in addition to those cited by Prosecuting Attorney Sepic which may have impeded a prosecution of Commissioner Freehling including the focus under Michigan law on “contract” rather than “conflict” and on a husband and wife as legally distinct persons even when they file a joint tax return.
The investigation supported a conclusion that in several discussions and in an email on September 30, 2017, Attorney McGovern advised Commissioner Freehling that, while not required under Michigan law, disclosure and abstention from voting on payments to a contractor who was subcontracting with her husband was an option which would avoid even the appearance of impropriety and would shield her from any claim that she was violating her office. On October 10, 2019, Commissioner Freehling issued an Amendment to her conflict of interest disclosures in which she recognized that with exercise of due diligence she could have obtained information from which she could have concluded “that it would have been best to have simply abstained from all drain requisitions involving Hartzler and REV for transparency”.
Based on the investigation and on Commissioner Freehling’s lack of due diligence under the circumstances, the Board Chairperson has exercised his administrative discretion to suspend Commissioner Freehling for 60 days from today from participation in the business of the Personnel and Human Services Committee.
The Board Personnel and Human Services Committee is currently reviewing the Board Bylaws and will consider recommending an amendment to the Conflict of Interest section to encourage Commissioners to be more transparent than the legal minimum disclosure and abstention requirements under Michigan law to avoid even the appearance of impropriety."