The spectacle of FBI agents raiding the homes of Detroit City Council members Janee Ayers and Scott Benson in what the bureau describes as “an ongoing public corruption investigation” has shaken whatever confidence Detroiters have placed in their city’s elected leaders.

Without explaining how it suspects the two lawmakers may have violated the law or what evidence it expects to find in the property its agents seized, the FBI has delivered a crippling body blow to both lawmakers’ career prospects. No employer would renew an employee’s contract without satisfying the concerns raised by such an aggressive law enforcement initiative, and Detroit voters should exercise the same caution.

In the long run, the FBI will have to demonstrate that the corruption it suspects is so serious that its decision to raid the incumbents’ homes just two months before the November general election was justified. Unless it can marshal persuasive evidence implicating Ayers and Benson in significant crimes, the bureau will invite suspicion about its own motives.

But it’s unlikely that the feds will charge or clear either council member before Detroit’s Nov. 2 election. So fairly or not, it’s incumbent on Ayers and Benson to explain why they believe they have been targeted, and why Detroit voters should not hesitate before granting each another four-year term.

An election turned upside down

Until last Wednesday, Ayers and Benson each seemed on a glide path to re-election in November.

Other council members selected Ayers in 2015 from a field of 135 Detroiters seeking appointment to the seat vacated by former Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins. Ayers won a special election the following year and was re-elected to her first four-year term in 2017. She was the leading vote-getter in this month’s five-way primary contest for two at-large seats.

Benson, who represents Detroit’s northeastern-most council district, faces no opposition in his November bid for re-election to a third term.

The Free Press Editorial Board endorsed Benson in both of his previous city council campaigns. We endorsed Ayers in 2016 and 2017 and again in this month’s primary.

The FBI’s ongoing probe appears to be a continuation of an investigation that has already resulted in the indictment of District 4 Councilman Andrew Spivey. Spivey, who is not seeking re-election, was arraigned Aug. 3 on a single felony count of conspiring to commit bribery. Federal prosecutors allege that Spivey and an unnamed staffer referred to in court documents as “Public Official A” accepted more than $35,000 in bribery payments from 2016 to 2020.

Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s office is saying who offered the bribes or for what purpose. But Mayor Mike Duggan, who says he has not been briefed on the federal investigation, believes it focuses on the city’s contracts with towing companies.

‘No comment’ is not an option

To be clear: Neither Ayers nor Benson has been charged with any crime or ethical impropriety. Both council members should enjoy the presumption of innocence. And private citizens in similarly awkward circumstances might be well advised to say nothing publicly until prosecutors either produce compelling evidence against them or absolve them of criminal wrongdoing.

But sitting council members enjoy no such luxury. To earn the electorate’s continued confidence—and ours—Ayers and Benson will have to answer questions raised by the raids on their homes and offices:

Æ What have Ayers and Benson (or their lawyers) been told about the federal investigation, which now appears focused on their own conduct?

Æ What was seized in the searches conducted by FBI agents, and what reassurance can Ayers and Benson offer voters that what investigators found will exonerate them of illegal or unethical behavior?

Æ What information have they provided to investigators, and what assurances have they received in return?

Voters’ interests come first

To repeat: Private citizens have no legal obligation to prove their innocence, or even to respond to allegations, however baseless. And speaking publicly about an investigation that might result in criminal charges, even unfounded ones, might contravene the advice any cautious lawyer would offer Ayers and Benson

But holding public office entails an obligation to resolve any conflicts between the office-holder’s interest and the public’s in favor of the latter. Ayers and Benson surely have the right to remain silent, but in exercising that right they risk forfeiting a wary electorate’s trust. However unfairly, the ball is in the incumbent candidates’ court.

Qualified candidates who were reluctant to challenge either Ayers or Benson previously are already reconsidering their prospects in light of this week’s developments. There is no provision for expanding the number of names that appear on the Nov. 2 ballot. But candidates have until mid-October to declare their interest in conducting an 11th-hour write-in campaign—and even Benson could be vulnerable to such a challenge if he fails to address the elephant in the room forthrightly.

If Ayers and Benson contend they have done nothing wrong, they should say so loudly, and produce any credible witnesses and evidence that could support their claims.

But they can’t remain silent and expect to retain voters’ confidence.