He helped turn Detroit's riverfront into an attraction. Feds say he stole $40M while doing it

DETROIT (AP) — A man who for years controlled the finances at a group that has turned Detroit's riverfront into a popular attraction was charged Wednesday with embezzling tens of millions of dollars.

William Smith routinely used money from the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy to pay credit card bills for travel, hotels, limousines, household goods, clothing and jewelry, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in federal court.

The fraud is “simply astonishing in scale,” said U.S. Attorney Dawn Ison, who pegged the theft at $40 million.

Smith, who was chief financial officer from 2011 until he was fired in May, was charged with bank and wire fraud. He was led into court in handcuffs and subsequently released on bond.

Defense attorney Gerald Evelyn did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Smith has not spoken publicly since the scandal broke on May 14 when the Riverfront Conservancy said he was being placed on leave. He was fired Friday.

The mission of the Riverfront Conservancy is to transform miles of shore along the Detroit River into a place for recreation with plazas, pavilions and green space.

Philanthropists and foundations have poured millions into ongoing projects, including the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. Wilson, who died in 2014, lived in suburban Detroit and was the owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills.

The 44-member Riverfront Conservancy board of directors is stocked with major business leaders and public officials, who have been stunned by the allegations.

“We each feel a sense of responsibility to overcome this horrific act,” the board said last week.