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Much of a tiny police department's more than $1.3 million in military surplus is missing

Tracy Samilton

Thetford Township is a sleepy-looking community of about 7,000 people, retirees and farmers, mostly.  

It was voted third safest in Michigan in a recent survey by the Michigan Township Association. 

Even so, it has its own police department, made up of one part-time officer, one full-time officer, and one police chief.

But township trustee Stan Piechnik thinks the chief has spent more time acquiring military surplus than protecting the community.

Here's some of the surplus - where's the rest?

Piechnik takes me behind the tiny police department building, where someone has propped up a handwritten sign reading, "Our Cops Are Awesome."

Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Thetford Township Police Department

There, we see a big pile of generators, a Humvee, a large trailer, tractors, a pickup truck, and a seven-ton fork truck, among other items.  

"This is only a minor amount considering how much he received," Piechnik says.

A lot of vehicles, weapons, and machines coming in, with no accountability

The federal military surplus program, known as LESO, allows local law enforcement to acquire, for the cost of transportation only, materials that are no longer needed by arms of the military.  

In 2012 alone, Thetford Township's police department acquired $1.3 million worth of military surplus - not, for the most part, things like the armored vehicles that came under scrutiny after riots in Ferguson, Missouri.

Instead, much of the larger equipment acquired was construction and agricultural in nature - forklifts, backhoes, tractors.

Piechnik began asking questions after some of it was mistakenly delivered to the township instead of the 

"What this has done is made a police department that has low ethical and moral standards, criminals." Thetford Township trustee Stan Piechnik

police department. Why would a tiny police department need so much stuff? Why was most of it equipment useful to a farming community? Why was some of it being stored at nearby farms? 

Piechnik contacted LESO, the FBI, the Michigan State Police. He couldn't convince anyone to look into what was going on. He began sending Freedom of Information Act requests, starting with the federal military surplus program, and ending with FOIAs to the township clerk and the police chief.   

Turns out, the police chief was not keeping records related to the surplus. On the face of it, that's a valid excuse for denying a FOIA. "You can't produce something you don't have," Piechnik notes wryly.

One person is a crank; two people are a force to be reckoned with

Piechnik says there's a "good ol' boy" mentality in Thetford Township, and his fellow trustees were part of that mentality. They didn't share his concerns about what the police chief was doing with military surplus.

But in 2016, Piechnik got an ally, when Gary Stevens was elected Township Supervisor. Stevens says in the early days of his new job, he noticed several large boat motors in the township's administration building. Then, one day, they were gone. The police chief wouldn't tell him what happened to them.  

While the tanned Piechnik looks every bit the farmer he is, Stevens has the perpetually harassed look of a bureacrat who rarely sees the sun. Together, the two men began trying to figure out what was going on here. 

Well, that's one way to let your township supervisor know you're pissed off

One day, Piechnik and Stevens drove to a farm where they'd noticed what appeared to be a military trailer.  They asked the live-in girlfriend of the farmer if they could take a look.  "Sure," she said. 

The trailer still had the original military identification on it.

Stevens says the next thing he knows, Police Chief Kenny is handing him a citation for trespassing. 

"All three, the police chief, the property owner, and his girlfriend, lied about what happened there to get us served a citation," he says indignantly.

The local prosecutor later agreed to dismiss the citation.

By now, Piechnik has finally succeeded in getting an outside agency to start investigating.  People with military equipment on their farms are being asked uncomfortable questions by investigators from the Genessee County Sheriff's department.

Supporters of the police chief - people who are benefiting from the LESO largesse, Piechnik figures - are showing up to township meetings, yelling. The police chief, Robert Kenny, has stopped coming to the meetings. Military surplus is showing up in the township parking lot. 

One night, Stevens hears some rumbling on the road in front of his house, around midnight. He doesn't think much of it until he looks out the window in the morning.

"It's a seven-ton Terex fork truck," says Stevens. "They parked it right in the middle of my driveway [and removed the batteries] so I couldn't get out."  

It took seven hours for a Flint towing company to get the beast out of the driveway, at a cost of $1,200 to the township.

A raid, a lot of sudden family emergencies, and a "mountain out of a molehill"

In late April of this year, Genesee County sheriffs raided the police department, hauling out box after box of materials, including 16 rifles - which Stevens says seems like a lot for a police department that is open  about three days a week.

In July, Stevens and Piechnik called a special meeting to fire Kenny. An angry crowd of about 30 of the chief's supporters shows up. But the other four trustees are no shows. With no quorum, the meeting is cancelled.  

Chief Kenny declined to talk about the situation with Michigan Radio, citing the open sheriff's investigation.

But Kenny did tell NBC affiliate WEYI that Piechnik and Stevens are making a "mountain out of a molehill," and that they have a "hidden agenda." He also blamed the township for not increasing his budget so he can hire a clerk to help him keep track of all the military surplus he has received.

Kenny also says until the township adopts a written policy explicitly requiring him to keep documents and maintain an inventory, his hands are tied. 

"It's their job to enact policy, it's my job to follow it," Kenny told WEYI, "and until they have a policy it's the blind leading the blind."

A black eye for a good program, says state LESO coordinator

Larry Goerge is the state coordinator for the military surplus program (LESO) in Michigan.

He says LESO does, in fact, require participating law enforcement to keep tabs on what they get, sell, or trade.  The surplus can be used only by the agency; sales of surplus must go into the law enforcement agency's budget.  It can't be used for the personal benefit of a police chief, for example, or his friends.

Goerge says used properly, military surplus helps local law enforcement be properly outfitted, and it saves money for taxpayers.

"If they are local [law enforcement] they may have to call in the county or state police to handle a situation," says Goerge. "And when time is of the essence, it's better that the local department is able to handle some things."

While Goerge does audits of participating agencies every year, including site visits, "I'm a one-person department covering the entire state. 327 agencies."

Goerge says none of the items requested by the Thetford Township Police Department raised any red flags over the years. But he has now received a complaint about the department's involvement in the LESO program. He's waiting to see what the Genessee County Sheriff's investigation finds, before he takes any action.

After six years of digging for answers, Trustee Stan Piechnik hopes the investigation sheds some light on what's going on.  He isn't buying his police chief's protestations of innocence.
"What this has done is made a police department that has low ethical and moral standards, criminals," he says.
Piechnik says Thetford Township's police department has been active in the military surplus program for ten years, he says, and in that ten years, the department has officially sold only three pieces of military surplus, worth $4,900.
He wants to know - where's the rest of it?
If you're curious about what your own local police department has acquired through LESO, Kaye LaFond has this mini-tutorial.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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