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Posted on Wed, Jul 28, 2010 : 8:21 p.m.

Washtenaw County Commissioner Ronnie Peterson and his cousin go on trial in tenant civil rights case

By Art Aisner

DETROIT - Washtenaw County Commissioner Ronnie Peterson and a man he relied on to manage several of his rental properties in Ypsilanti Township violated the civil rights of six female tenants through a blatant pattern of sexual harassment, government attorneys said today.

Though Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, never made sexual advances toward the women or offered discounted rent in return for sexual favors, he was aware Glenn Johnson did so on multiple occasions, argued Judy Levy, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division.

Peterson and his property management corporation, First Pitch LLC, are liable for both compensatory and punitive damages, Levy asserted as the civil trial for Peterson and Johnson got under way in Detroit federal court today.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Peterson and Johnson in January 2009.


Ronnie Peterson is shown at a Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting in this file photo.

Ryan J. Stanton |

But money - not civil rights - is what this case is all about, said Don Ferris, Peterson’s attorney.

Several of the women indicated during sworn depositions they hoped to get thousands of dollars from Peterson by coming forward, Ferris said. He said Peterson emphatically denies the charges and is willing to take a significant risk by not talking about settlements.

“We have made no settlement offer in this case because Ronnie Peterson didn’t do anything wrong,” Ferris said.

Peterson, whose district includes portions of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, faces fellow Democrat Mark Namatevs in the Aug. 3 primary. 

Ferris said Peterson would not comment about the case or the election, but indicated the long-time commissioner will testify, per a government subpoena. So will Johnson, who is Peterson’s cousin.

Levy told jurors the six women are all single moms who were having difficulty finding adequate housing for their families. 

They will share similar stories of how Johnson withheld tenants' keys and delayed routine maintenance at five of Peterson’s 11 rental properties until they accepted his sexual advances, Levy said. She said he also threatened them with eviction, steep rent hikes, police harassment and even violence if they rebuffed him.

Barbara Scott, a 40-year-old mother of eight, testified Johnson wouldn’t turn over the keys to her residence in the 600 block of Calder Street in 2006 until she had sex with him on the basement floor of a home where he worked as a health-care aide. 

Another woman is expected to testify that she had sex with Johnson, who also worked with Ypsilanti schools, in a windowless room at Ypsilanti High School during a meeting about rent payments, Levy said.

The women were desperate for better living conditions and were all drawn to Peterson’s properties because of his lax attitude on approving tenants, Levy argued. He rarely did credit checks and typically did not have lease agreements.

“It all sounded too good to be true, and it was,” Levy said. “No one should do what Ms. Scott did just to find a place to live."

Johnson’s attorney, Jay Courtright, denied the allegations. Both he and Ferris repeatedly mentioned the women never reported discriminatory treatment to authorities.

Ferris argued Peterson has had more than 100 tenants since 1974, and only these six have levied any formal complaints. Furthermore, four of the women fought eviction proceedings brought by Peterson because they failed to pay rent, and never once mentioned sexual harassment to judges or attorneys working on those cases, he said.

Levy said the women will testify they were intimidated by Johnson and feared he could harm them and their families. She also said an expert will testify that their instinct not to report the incidents to authorities is typical for victims of sexual harassment.

Attorneys agreed on a panel of five men and three women after about two hours of jury selection this morning. The trial before U.S. District Judge Julian Abele Cook is scheduled to last roughly a week.

Art Aisner is a freelance writer for Reach the news desk at or 734-623-2530.



Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 9:26 a.m.

Well, we'll wait and see what happens! GOP you sound silly educated, not-educated where is that coming from thought the issue was about the law suit and women being violated your steering this issue to race and education..steering get it!!

Inside MI GOP

Thu, Aug 5, 2010 : 9:55 p.m.

Flipping through the channels one evening I came across a county board meeting. What disturbed me was that Washtenaw County has a plethora of highly educated, articulate African Americans including, my dentist, Realtor and a number of my clients. But here, as the sole African American on the County Board and the Ann Arbor City Council, was someone who sounded completely uneducated and as if he did not understand what was going on. It was pitiful. Footnote: At the time I was not aware that Conan Smith was African American, so apologies to anyone that might be offended by my oversight but I could not even tell after meeting him personally.


Sun, Aug 1, 2010 : 4:32 p.m.

@amarie: I too am concerned that these women are being portrayed in a negative light simply because of their economic situation and history. Commissioner Peterson has projected himself as a champion of poor people and these women should not be forced to defend their current economic plight or history as the reason for this lawsuit. He has performed poorly in representing his district, which has the highest crime rate in the county, low educational achievement, substandard housing, poor community relations,chronic health issues and yet his attorney choose a strategy of debasing these women. Since he has no formal process by which he allows tenants to live in units, Maybe its time to look into the quality of the housing he offers to his tenants. He seems to cater to interests that are counterproductive to his constituency


Fri, Jul 30, 2010 : 11:02 p.m.

Unfortunately this is just one more blow to Ypsilanti and it's lack of quality individuals. Putting on a suit and attempting to present one's self as a professional does not impart integrity or class. This is very unfortunate for our black community as it reflects bad on all of us. Lastly, the real victims here are the women and children who had no where else to turn and these gentlemen, obviously predators, saw them as an easy mark. Clean it up guys you are a disgrace.


Thu, Jul 29, 2010 : 12:47 p.m.

Power corrupts. Will Peterson be deemed a sexual predator?

Will Stewart

Thu, Jul 29, 2010 : 10:23 a.m.

Peterson was the only person person (of several who were implicated) to have been convicted in the township firefighter scandal, although the fire chief lost his job over it.


Thu, Jul 29, 2010 : 7:38 a.m.

It's all a grab for cash now. If he would have done credit checks, required security deposits and screened the people he let in in the first place they wouldn't be going through this. All this does is cause other people with rental units to close them off to people having a difficult time.


Thu, Jul 29, 2010 : 7:17 a.m.

Did I read this right? The women were too scared to go to the cops, but they had no problems filing a lawsuit?? Sounds hinky to me.


Wed, Jul 28, 2010 : 10:55 p.m.

Why yes, DBH. Mr. Peterson pled to a misdeameanor for falsifying the firefighter hiring list for Ypsilanti Township, as a civil service commissioner, in about 1984 or 1985. He helped move candidates up the hiring list who had failed or not taken the test. Good memory. Shame the voters don't remember considering the legal costs that the Township incurred.


Wed, Jul 28, 2010 : 8:20 p.m.

Both men, of course, are presumed innocent until proven guilty. I am reminded, though, of some illegal transgression Ronnie Peterson either was convicted of, or pled guilty to, some years ago. I believe it had something to do with firefighters. Does anyone remember, or am I confusing him with someone else?