It’s still not clear who paid for Ypsilanti city officials to travel to China at the end of last month.
At a special meeting last night, Ypsilanti council questioned Mayor Amanda Edmonds, Economic Development Director Beth Ernat, Mayor Pro Tem Nicole Brown, Police Chief Tony DeGiusti, whom all travelled to China; as well as City Manager Darwin McClary, who was involved in scheduling the trip.
The trip to China from Sep. 21 to Oct. 2 was a chance for city officials to meet with Chinese investors in a proposed $300 million housing and retail development dubbed International Village in Ypsilanti.
There are ethical concerns that the developer of International Village, Troy-based Amy Foster, may have used a Wayne State University Student group as a pass-through for money to pay for the Ypsilanti officials’ travel.
Edmonds and the other travelers to China answered questions about what they knew regarding the source of funding for the trip before it took place, and when they were alerted that the International Village Development team might have covered the cost – which city attorney John Barr has said would be a violation of Ypsilanti’s ethics ordinance.
“I think the biggest thing we have to understand is, where the money originated, and where the money ended up,” said Ypsilanti city council member Brian Robb. “I think that pretty much answers everything.”
But no one questioned could definitively answer that.
Ypsilanti officials were searching for a source of funding to pay for the trip after Barr alerted council and the officials in question that allowing Foster or her development companies to pay for the trip would be unethical.
In documents released by the city, a letter received on September 7th from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) at Wayne State University offered the city four scholarships to pay for the trip.
Edmonds said she attempted to determine the original source of the student group funding. Edmonds told council that on September 19th, developer Amy Foster told Edmonds the CSSA group 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.
In a September 12th LinkedIn message response to Edmonds, a CSSA representative said the funds for the scholarships, were “mainly funds from a company called Global Capital Group LLC, based out of Michigan.”
In email exchanges with Ypsilanti city officials, developer Amy Foster’s email signature lists Global Capital Group LLC as her business.
Edmonds said she did not see the LlinkedIn message from the CSSA representative until after returning from China on Oct. 3. She said she did not check LinkedIn from her phone, or receive an email notification about the message on September 12 or any time before or during the China trip.
Ernat told council at Tuesday’s special meeting that she did not inquire further into how CSSA was able to fund the trip, saying she didn’t typically investigate the source of grants or other funds.
Edmonds, Ernat and McClary stated it wasn’t until the officials were already in China when a September 27th Metro Times Detroit article raised questions about conflicting stories surrounding how the trip was funded. The Chinese Consulate in Chicago also denied any involvement in the funding of the China trip to the Metro Times on Oct. 5.
No one from the development was asked to attend Tuesday’s special meeting to be questioned by council.
Officially, there’s still no account of how the trip was paid for, despite a message from CSSA that Amy Foster’s company, Global Capital Group, LLC was a major source of the funds.
A cashier’s check for $16,800 was sent to the travel agency that booked the trip for the Ypsilanti officials.
Ypsilanti will hire an outside law firm to further investigate how the trip was funded.
“I’m concerned this could drag on and go into next year,” Robb said.
At Tuesday’s special city council meeting, members of council and members of the public who made comments to council said there should have been better communication and due diligence by officials who planned the China trip.
Amber Fellows is an Ypsilanti resident. She says the ethical questions and lack of information from the developer is a reason why the city should scrap the International Village proposed project.
She also said it’s possible she believes Edmonds, who said she did not read the LinkedIn message that seems to reveal Amy Foster as a source of the funding until October 3rd. She says a failure of due diligence could hurt the credibility of Edmonds and city council in the Ypsilanti community.
“You know it’s entirely possible I guess, in the world of possibility,” Fellows said. “But it seems pretty outrageous.”