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Wednesday, February 27,2013

Computergate

Internal memo from city attorney finds no criminal wrongdoing, basis for removal or ethics violation related to Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar

by Andy Balaskovitz
A draft internal memo from the Lansing City Attorney’s Office to City Council members last month clears At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar of any wrongdoing related to a city-issued laptop computer.

The Jan. 14 memo does not name her specifically, but over the past month the Council has debated — both internally and publicly — an incident related to Dunbar’s city-issued laptop. It appears to revolve around whether Dunbar asked a City Council employee to help her cover up damage to the laptop.

Dunbar has said it was damaged during an argument with her former husband. The memo says that while he was Council president, At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries told the City Attorney’s Office about a Council member — presumably Dunbar — speaking with a Council staffer about her damaged computer.

Though the Council employee is not named in the memo, it appears it was Council office manager Diana Bitely who was approached by Dunbar. The Council has just two employees, Bitely and administrative secretary Lindsay Green. Green said she was not involved in the incident, adding that it was Bitely.

Bitely declined comment and referred a reporter to an attorney, Mary Chartier, who was not available for comment. Bitely did not explain why she has retained an attorney.

Bitely worked for Jeffries’ law firm for less than a year, Jeffries said. She has worked for City Council for at least six years, he said.

The City Attorney’s Office found that there was no crime committed and that there was no basis to remove Dunbar from office, based on its investigation. Another prosecutor confirmed the decision, the memo says.

The City Attorney’s Office also found there was no violation of the city’s ethics ordinance because Dunbar did not personally benefit financially from the incident.

The City Attorney’s Office began to investigate after it learned there was concern over Dunbar’s and Bitely’s interaction.

Bitely and Dunbar were interviewed separately by the City Attorney’s Office and gave differing accounts of what happened. The memo does not say how the two accounts differed.

In a Feb. 5 public statement, Dunbar said she did not immediately report the damaged computer “because I was ashamed to admit, and didn’t want to relive, how bad things had gotten at the end of our marriage.” Months later, she said, when asked to bring in the computer for software updates, “I confided to a staff person that the computer was damaged. In a lapse of judgment and misplaced trust, I shared details of the incident that resulted in the computer being damaged, and since I thought it was damaged beyond repair, we discussed options for replacing it. My only interest was to keep the details of the incident private and protect my family. Despite assurances that my personal family matters would remain confidential, that conversation has become the basis for a politically motivated witch hunt, led by Brian Jeffries.”

Information Technology Director Eric Tumbarella, when contacted by the City Attorney’s Office, said the computer had been turned in for repair, which resulted in a relatively routine fix, the memo says. No department or employee was ever charged money for repairing the computer, the memo adds.

Two of Dunbar’s interns were also interviewed about the interaction between Dunbar and Bitely because they saw it happen. One could not recall details of the conversation, while the other supported Dunbar’s recollection, the memo says.

Make it public

Yet it’s still unclear whether this computer saga is over, despite the city attorney’s  finding no wrongdoing on the part of Dunbar. At Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the Council attempted to go into closed session to discuss “attorney-client privileged written communications.”

The Council didn’t have the necessary six votes to do so, however. Dunbar and Councilwoman Tina Houghton voted against the motion, which was made by Councilwoman A’Lynne Boles-Robinson, while Jeffries, Wood, Derrick Quinney, Jody Washington and Boles-Robinson voted for it. Jessica Yorko was absent. Washington, Boles-Robinson and Yorko said they did not know the specific topic of the closed session. Wood and Jeffries declined to comment.

About a half-hour later, during the Council’s regular meeting, Dunbar announced from the dais: “I’ve heard that I am the topic of that closed session again. I would invite anyone who would like to discuss my computer to not do it behind closed doors. If you have an issue, bring it out here. … I say no closed session, let’s do it on the floor.”

Dunbar said Tuesday she will continue to vote against going into closed session “to discuss anything related to this witch hunt.”

Even Jeffries appears to want any information related to the incident made public: “I’m figuring out how we can break the silence.” He declined to comment further.

It’s possible some Council members still want to pursue action against Dunbar, as evidenced by their desire to go into closed session. Yorko said she left previous closed sessions feeling that Dunbar had “not committed a crime or an ethics violation, but I felt like some members of Council, despite me feeling comfortable of those facts, just want to spend more time on the issue.”

Moreover, Yorko said, Council members are typically aware of why they are going into closed session, whether it’s for “pending litigation” or to discuss labor contracts. 

“I still don’t know why that topic was brought up in closed session,” she said of Dunbar’s laptop. 

When asked if she thought Monday’s attempt at a closed session was to pursue more action against her, Dunbar declined to comment.

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