My Story

Insane Greed

The Mike Lucas Affair

By James Donahue

Mike Lucas walked in my news bureau office in Sanilac County one day, plopped down in the chair in front of my desk, introduced himself, and said he needed help. He explained that he was employed by the Community Mental Health Service, had been involved in trying to organize a union among workers, and was now fighting to keep his job. He wanted me to write an expose and tell everybody what was going on.

Thus began one of the biggest and most sensational stories I was ever involved in during all of my years as a news reporter.

I asked Lucas a lot of questions, found him to be a highly intelligent and personable man who seemed to have a legitimate issue. The agency staff was involved in a serious fight to gain union representation. The workers were battling a board of directors and agency officials that were using what appeared to be unfair labor practices to stop them.

 I launched an investigation that included attending meetings of the Mental Health Board. Up until then I had not been interested in attending this or most of the other boards and committees that controlled the purse strings and operations of the various branches of county government. I had never expected to find news there, except perhaps boring stuff like annual spending reports and department reports of the number of clients served. But I was surprised at what I found going on at those Mental Health Board meetings.

There was a verbal battle of words occurring as workers stood up to supervisors and both sides pleaded their complaints before the board members, comprised of relatively prominent members of the community. It was not long before I was cranking out some sensational news stories good enough to make the front pages of our paper.

Extremely odd things seemed to be happening in that department. A supervisor of a branch office in nearby Marlette was fired after workers found him sitting naked in his office. A department case worker in the Marlette office was fired after it was discovered he was pilfering money directly from clients for his services. Yet another department head resigned after neighbors complained that he was displaying himself in the buff in front of his picture windows in the evenings. The department head, who had been on the job only a few weeks, unexpectedly resigned without giving a reason.

The board meetings got so wild, with so much shouting going on, that armed county deputies began attending to keep order. Even the county prosecutor appeared at one meeting with a handgun strapped to his hip.

The next director hired by the board was a man that professed to be a licensed psychologist with years of experience directing a similar facility in Kentucky. It was not long after this director arrived that Mike Lucas was fired for allegedly fondling a retarded female client in a work program that Lucas supervised. Lucas cried foul, saying the incident never happened, and that he was set up for the firing because he was working to establish an election for union representation.

Shortly after that, another union organizer, Fred Haley, who was also involved in the work program with Lucas, was fired for insubordination. It seems that he took a newly purchased bus on a rural route to pick up handicapped clients instead of an old bus with bald tires. Haley said the old bus was in such poor condition he was afraid to drive it when the new bus was parked and ready to use. He claimed the firing also was a setup because Haley was involved with Lucas in union activities.

The stories eventually got so sensational is is difficult to believe such things really happened. I am not sure about the sequence of the events, but I will try to put them in order as best as I can remember them.

Among the major events: A staff workers made an accusation during a board meeting that the director lied about his credentials and was not a licensed psychologist at all. The charge was that he was hired as a hit man to fire Lucas and Haley and to break the union. I attempted to get the director to answer the allegation but he refused to comment.

It was such a serious allegation that my editor sent me to Kentucky where I spent an interesting week following the man’s tracks across that state and even farther south into Alabama. I discovered that he had held a position at a mental health clinic in Elizabethtown, but apparently he was not working as a clinic psychologist. He had received a degree in education from a college in Alabama. His only apparent training in psychology was the basic psychology and education class required for public school teachers. By the time I returned to Sandusky with this information and was prepared to write my expose, the director resigned and left town.

During all of this Mike Lucas and I developed a closer relationship that I probably should have had with someone as deeply involved in daily news events as he was. But this was not a large city and everyone had a tendency to know just about everybody anyway. I found Mike to be one of the more interesting characters I had encountered in years. Also, he spent a lot of time in my office, or chatting with me during my usual morning coffee breaks in the Harvest Haus Restaurant, right across the street. Since he was fired, Mike had a lot of time on his hands.

He was not wasting that time, however. Mike took his case before the Michigan Labor Relations Board. A hearing was held in the Sanilac County courthouse. The board ruled that Lucas had been illegally fired because of protected union activities. He was ordered reinstated to his old job with full back pay.

Mike was present at the next regular meeting of the Mental Health Board, as was most of the county’s Mental Health staff. It was such a packed meeting it had to be moved into the Circuit Court. Also present at that meeting was a newly appointed board member, an outspoken and flamboyant lawyer I shall just refer to as Bill. It was a tense meeting, with board members expressing a great deal of indignation over the commission decision. Lawyer Bill advised the board to defy the commission and fight the case “all the way to the Supreme Court” if it came to that. The board accepted Bill's "legal" advice and voted to defy the labor board’s decision and deny Lucas his old job. Lucas announced that he was given no choice and that he was going to have to sue the county for damages. He said he was not only denied his job with the Mental Health Department, he complained that the former director had been blackballing him every time he attempted to find employment elsewhere.

Unbeknown to the board, Mike had been a former shop teacher in the Detroit School System before moving to Sanilac County. He attended college with Joe Fabrazio, by then a prominent lawyer working in the Detroit area. Mike contacted Fabrazio, told him his problem, and Joe agreed to take his case on consignment. A few weeks later a lawsuit was filed in Federal District Court at Port Huron seeking something like three million dollars in damages.

(As the wheels of litigation slowly ground, with lawyers taking depositions and filing motions against motions, Mike discovered that the State of Michigan was offering free examinations for certified automobile mechanics. He bought some books, and began offering free auto repairs on his friend’s cars. He fixed a few problems I was having on the vehicles I was driving at the time. He took examinations and acquired state licenses as a general mechanic, a transmission mechanic, an air conditioning repair specialist and just about every other specialized service one can perform on an automobile. He then set up a shop in a garage at his home north of Sandusky near Argyle.)

I suppose I should not have been surprised when the Mental Health Board voted at its next meeting to hire Lawyer Bill to represent the county in the Lucas case. Since Lawyer Bill was sitting as a member of the board, I saw this as a conflict of interest. I wrote a story that raised this question and it forced the Sanilac County prosecutor to seek an opinion from the Michigan Attorney General’s office. The ruling allegedly came back stating that Drillock would not be in conflict.

(Some years later I had occasion to have a friendly chat with a member of the Attorney General’s legal staff and asked him about this issue. He said it was his opinion that Lawyer Bill was, indeed, in conflict. He could not understand how the office would have returned such an opinion. I later received a letter from this man. He said he looked into that opinion and found that it was a response to the clever way that the county prosecutor had phrased the question. Had I been legally allowed to contact the Attorney General’s office I might have stopped that trickery in its tracks and saved the county a lot of trouble and money.)

One night I received a mystery telephone call. A woman’s voice on the other end warned me that “they” were out to get me. She said I was going to be forced to stop reporting about Sanilac County Mental Health issues. I found that hard to believe since I was employed by a large multi-state newspaper chain. I didn’t think anyone in Sanilac County had that kind of influence and power.

Strangely enough, it was only a few days later that I was informed by my editor that the word from above was that I was getting too involved with Mental Health issues, and that the decision was made. I was forbidden to ever attend or cover any more mental health meetings or write stories about the agency. There was no other reason given for the decision, and I never found out how high up in the chain of power this order originated. The newspaper chain I worked for was headquartered in New York.

Because I was so close to the Lucas case, and because Lucas and I had become friends during the months that this issue simmered, my publisher was obviously concerned that I would be subpoenaed to testify during the trial, which was set to be held in the Port Huron federal building. Consequently I was forbidden to come anywhere near Port Huron during the trial. I did have promises from Fabrazio that I would not be called as a witness.

When the trial began, another reporter was assigned to cover it. From what I was told, Lawyer Bill made a poor showing against the likes of professionals like Fabrizio and the staff  he brought to court with him. After a week or two of trial, one of the jurors reported to the judge that she witnessed Lawyer Bill coaching a witness. The Judge stopped the trial, questioned the witness, and then declared a mistrial. He ordered Lawyer Bill off the case.

A second trial date was set. This time the Sanilac gang hired a professional legal team from Detroit that specialized in labor cases. They were going to cost the county a bundle but the Mental Health Board by now was in such a frenzy that the members were willing to use all of the county’s resources if necessary to defeat Lucas. From where I was sitting, the show was getting funnier by the day. Lucas was keeping me informed of events as they occurred.

The second trial was a long-fought battle. In the end, however, Lucas won his case. The jury awarded him something over a million dollars, half of which went to Fabrazio. It was enough for Lucas and his family to pack up and move to California where they have been living ever since.

The case left Sanilac County financially strapped for years. There were extensive lay-offs of workers. One year the entire road patrol for the Sheriff’s Department was laid off. But then the courts reported a big loss in revenue because nobody was writing traffic tickets or paying fines on arrest warrants. The county had to reinstate the deputies and cut corners somewhere else. There were some lean years in the county, all because the Mental Health Board botched its effort to break an employee union and Mike Lucas called them on it.

Even though I remained on the bureau long enough to see various editors and publishers come and go, the order that forbid me to ever cover another Mental Health Board meeting remained in effect. Whatever was going on in that agency remained a secret from that day on. I heard from a high-up source in Lansing that the corruption within Michigan Mental Health was big, and went all the way to the Capital, which explained a lot. Whatever was going on in Sanilac County had roots that ran deep, and my stories offended someone in very high places.