Shark bait

This time it's Bob Ficano's blood in the water

For weeks now, there's been the smell of blood in the waters surrounding Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, and the media sharks have been dutifully circling, churning up one incriminating story after another.

The ongoing scandal resulted in Ficano doing a little bloodletting of his own on Friday, when he suspended two high-ranking members of his administration for one month without pay and canceled a six-figure contract with a third person neck-deep in the scandal.

Big Bob has to be hoping at this point that the furor will die down now that some punishment has been meted out to those he says were responsible for the $200,000 "severance" handed Turkia Mullin a few months back when she left her job as Wayne County's economic development director to become CEO of the Wayne County Airport Authority.

What remains to be seen is whether the actions announced by Ficano at a news conference Friday, along with Mullin's promise to return the money, will prompt the area's reporters to swim off in search of new prey.

Our guess is that there's been enough dishonesty, evasiveness and shady dealing exposed in recent weeks to convince anyone with even half a nose for news that more scandal could well be found lurking not far from the surface of this administration.

These troubled waters are new territory for a county administration that, until now, hasn't been subjected to much media scrutiny. For most of his time at the helm of Wayne County, the former sheriff benefited from the fact that so much media attention has been aimed at the felonious former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick. 

But that started to change on Sept. 27, when Channel 7's Heather Catallo (working in conjunction with her investigative producer Ross Jones) first broke the news that Mullin received a $200,000 going-away gift when she voluntarily gave up her job with the county to go run the airport authority.

The following day, Wayne County commissioners began calling for an investigation. Two days later, Detroit's daily papers and other area media were all over the story. (As far as we can tell, though, neither the Detroit News nor the Free Press had the good graces to credit WXYZ for landing this blockbuster of a scoop.)

From that point on, things have gotten increasingly bizarre.

On Sept. 29, Ficano, on radio station WJR, claimed that the payout was a "standard-type contract." Mullin — who, as it turns out, also received an additional $24,000 in compensation for unused sick leave and vacation time — also claimed that the $200,000 "severance" payment was guaranteed in a contract.

Since then, we've learned that there was never any legitimate contract. Instead, the Ficano administration served up a seven-sentence undated letter that was initially purported to be a contract. It was printed on discontinued stationery that is now no longer in use, but was in use in 2008 when Mullin took the development job.

But Ficano, according to published reports, subsequently said he had signed the letter just last month — on Sept. 2.

WXYZ has reported that the FBI is looking into the matter, which is a good thing. With a contract that never was, and a letter that appears to have been deliberately designed to deceive (why else would it have been placed on outdated stationery?) this has all the appearances of being not just inept bungling on the part of Ficano and Co. but outright chicanery.

Once the severance story broke, other revelations quickly began to surface.

One story that grabbed our attention was last week's piece by the Freep's John Wisely, who reported on the contents of a sworn deposition provided by former Wayne County Human Resources Director Timothy Taylor. Taylor, who (as we reported on last week) retired in April but was almost immediately rehired as an independent contractor at an annual salary of more than $117,000, signed off on a separate severance deal Sept. 3, granting Mullin an extra $24,567 payout for unused sick and vacation time.

As in indicator of just how cozy (and lucrative) things can be for higher-ups on the Wayne County payroll, Taylor, along with collecting a pension of more than $8,838 a month plus the six figures he was earning annually as a contractor with the county, also signed a contract with the airport authority that was worth as much as $10,000.

Or maybe he didn't sign a contract with the airport.

A particularly interesting thing about Wisely's story was the way those involved in Taylor's airport deal tripped all over themselves trying to explain exactly what was going on.

Taylor, according to the article, testified in a sworn deposition that he began working for the airport toward the end of August, and had put in about 21 hours worth of work, but had not yet submitted a bill. 

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, according to Wisely's story, airport spokesman Timothy Johnson confirmed that Taylor had a contract to work on labor relations issues for the airport. Hours later, the airport released a statement from Mullin saying Taylor's services as an independent contractor began in mid-August, but that his work for the airport "has since concluded."

Late that same day, spokesman Scott Wintner, according to Wisely, "said Taylor never did any work for the airport authority, never billed the airport and never got paid." 

Wintner also told Wisely that  "hiring Tim was her [Mullin's] suggestion." 

So, was there or was there not a contract? And did Taylor do any actual work, or didn't he?

Adding to the perception that there's a lot of back-scratching going on here was an Oct. 8 story in The Detroit News revealing that Mullin was hired by the airport authority — where four of the seven board members are Ficano appointees — even though, among the leading candidates, she was the only one to have had no experience actually running an airport.

Last week, the News pushed that aspect of the story further along by reporting that one of the members of the airport authority who voted to appoint Mullin as the authority's CEO had made "$442,000 just weeks earlier from a land sale she [Mullin] had helped engineer."

The story went on to reveal that Charlie J. Williams, a former Wayne County deputy executive, worked as a "facilitator and mediator" in a $14 million sale of a parking lot for a new county jail downtown. The deal — which Mullin signed off on as the county's chief development officer — paid him a 3 percent commission.

"Two weeks after the sale was completed on July 14, Williams voted to hire Mullin for the airport job. ... He also was one of the three members of a search committee that recommended her for the job above four finalists with airport management experience."

Williams — who held high-ranking city posts in the Coleman Young era and was appointed to the airport board by Ficano — insisted that there was no quid pro quo involved, and that there was no conflict of interest in the deal, which had the Greektown Casino selling the property to the county. 

"I made my money from the casino," Williams told The News. "It's not a conflict of interest."

More questions about Mullin were raised on Oct. 10, when Mike Wilkinson and Christine MacDonald at The News reported that she had been sued three times over allegations of professional misconduct while working as a private attorney.

"The civil suits claim Turkia Mullin breached ethics when she represented both buyers and sellers in the sale of gas stations that were backed by federal funds. Some of the principals in the deals later were indicted or convicted for fraud after taxpayers lost $26 million on failed Small Business Administration loans," the paper reported.

"Mullin wasn't charged and didn't face professional sanctions. But some involved in the deals accused her of wrongdoing in civil court, and one questions why airport officials named her in August to the post that pays $250,000 per year."

In the midst of all this came a story posted on this rag's web site last week. The scoop was a swan song of sorts for MT staff writer Sandra Svoboda, who departed for a job with the federal government days after filing a piece that revealed how dozens of top officials in the Ficano administration received a buyout worth as much as 24 weeks' pay if they retired by April 1 of this year. 

"About 40 employees — high-ranking appointees of County Executive Robert Ficano's among them — received up to 24 weeks of their salaried pay in addition to payouts of their unused sick and vacation time when they retired or left earlier this year, " Svoboda reported. 

But here's the kicker: "As many as 20 of them have returned to the county on separate contracts, collecting both pensions and wages funded by taxpayers." That tidbit was confirmed by Ficano Chief of Staff Matthew Schenk. 

Among the beneficiaries of this was the above-mentioned Timothy Taylor, who received a buyout for retiring early, making him eligible for an $8,800-a-month pension, and then signed a contract one month later that allotted him as much as $117,000 annually.

All this comes at a time when the country faces an accumulated budget deficit of $160 million.

At his press conference last Friday, Ficano announced that two top aides — deputy executive Azzam Elder and corporation counsel Marianne Talon — were being suspended for one month without pay for their roles in the Mullin severance fiasco. And Taylor's contract was canceled.

From where we sit, Big Bob's barbecue carries the distinct whiff of roasting scapegoat.

Will the exec's actions be enough to quell further scrutiny? We hope not. But the Wayne County executive job is one that carries much political power. Evidence of that was found in another story that broke last week in The News.

It seems that state Rep. John Olumba has gone on record saying that "his colleagues tried to strong-arm him into retracting his request that state Attorney General Bill Schuette investigate the severance scandal."

"It leads me to believe there is something that needs to be uncovered," Olumba said at a press conference last week.

Here's some friendly advice, Bobby F.: Don't go tossing that can of shark repellent into the trash just yet.

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