A developer of a failed housing development proposal in Ypsilanti paid for four Ypsilanti city officials to travel to China last year.
Ypsilanti city attorney John Barr previously told city officials it would be illegal and a violation of the city’s ethics ordinance to accept payment for the trip from a developer.
Questions about who paid for the trip swirled after Ypsilanti city officials traveled to China from September 21 to October 2 last fall to meet with Chinese investors of the ill-fated housing and retail development in Ypsilanti and learn more about Chinese design and culture.
The city of Ypsilanti hired independent attorney Ed Plato to investigate the source of the trip’s funding after a Detroit Metro Times report last fall raised concerns that the developer, Troy-based Amy Foster, may have paid the cost of the city officials’ travel. The story raised questions about the source of the funding for the trip during the time when Mayor Amanda Edmonds, Former Ypsilanti Director of Economic Development Beth Ernat, Mayor Pro Tem Nicole Brown, Police Chief Tony DeGiusti were in China.
At the time of the trip, Edmonds and others believed a Wayne State student group provided “scholarships” to the city of Ypsilanti to pay for the trip to China. Yet, Plato’s investigation definitively showed Foster used the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at Wayne State University as a pass-through to funnel money and provide funding for the trip.
Edmonds previously said she attempted to determine student groups’ original source of funding. Edmonds said that on September 19th, 2017, Foster told Edmonds the CSSA at Wayne State University had received funding from the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, which Edmonds said she believed was a relatively normal source of funding for international student groups and didn’t question it further.
A summary of Plato’s investigation says that on September 8, 2017, $16,803 was withdrawn from the CSSA’s bank account to obtain a cashier’s check for $16,800 payable to Youngs Travel, the agency that arranged the trip for the Ypsilanti officials.
Yet, Plato’s report also says bank records obtained during the investigation show that also on September 8th there was a cash deposit of $16,800 made to the CSSA’s account that came “directly from International Village LLC,” a company owned by Foster:
“There can be little question that the funds for the cash deposited into the CSSA’s bank account on September 8, 2017, originated from Amy Foster and her International Village LLC.”
Plato’s summary also shows Ernat may have lied about what she knew about the source of the funding, and failed to ask obvious questions about where the money came from. Ernat also admitted to receiving a jade bracelet from Foster. Plato’s summary says emails and testimony obtained from Foster reveals she and Ernat met in February 2018 to discuss Plato’s investigation into the trip, according to Plato’s report.
Ernat’s contract with the city of Ypsilanti expired Monday and will not be renewed.
Edmonds said she sent a LinkedIn Message to a member of the CSSA group inquiring about the scholarship funding on September 10, 2017. As Plato’s summary shows, Edmonds received a response from a CSSA representative that should have alerted Edmonds that Foster was a source of the funding:
On September 12, 2017, Peifeng Li, replied to Edmonds’ LinkedIn message that the funding for the trip came from Global Capital Group, LLC. The mayor was aware of the connection between Foster and Global Capital Group well before this time. She testified she never saw Peifeng’s response before she left for China because she was out of town, “was not on email much that week”, and has five active email accounts.
Edmonds’ says she was not aware Li had responded until she returned from the China trip. Plato’s summary calls Edmond’s testimony during the investigation “questionable” because on September 13, 2017, Edmonds sent a response to Ypsilanti’s FOIA coordinator saying that Edmonds had not received a response from the CSSA even while Peifeng Li’s response sat in her LinkedIn inbox.
Edmonds said in an emailed statement that her attempt to contact a CSSA representative through LinkedIn was something she considered a “long shot.” She says when she responded to the FOIA request on Sept. 13, she only checked her email for “relevant documents” and forwarded them to the city’s FOIA coordinator.
“I don't regularly check LinkedIn, don't use it on my phone, and generally receive a prompt email that says if I have a message which is what alerts me to login to the website and see if there is a message waiting. I didn't see any email prompt, and I had simply forgotten about that attempt, particularly since I was out of town at a conference and focusing just on quick email triaging in the evenings to the several accounts I use on a daily basis,” Edmonds said in the statement.
“Of course, in retrospect, I wish I had remembered that that message was outstanding, and had logged back in to see that I did in fact receive a reply,” Edmonds’ statement continued to say. “My LinkedIn settings should have allowed the investigator to verify that the message was not read until after my return from China. And, as soon as I saw that message, I disclosed in public settings that it existed.”