Stinking to high heaven

Ficano’s follies include sweetheart payoff to appointee

OK, breakfast clubbers: Where's the outrage?

If you live in Wayne County and you are not ready to march to Robert Ficano's office with blazing torches and pitchforks, you must have been chugging Thorazine for weeks.

Last week, we learned that a rather striking woman named Turkia Awada Mullin got $200,000 in severance from the cash-strapped county when she left her job as director of development.

Did they lay her off?

Hell, no. Ficano got her an even better job recently — as CEO of Detroit Metropolitan Airport. There, she is making $250,000 a year, doing a job that partly involves laying off one-sixth of the airport employees. Ficano, meanwhile, has imposed a 20 percent pay cut on unionized county workers, something the union (AFSCME) is fighting in the courts. The county, by the way, has a $160 million deficit.

Nevertheless, Ficano thought he ought to give Mullin a year's salary on her way out the door to get a better job. Fortunately, the newspapers found out about it. Mullin, who was once a poor girl growing up in Warren, has clearly left the proletariat behind.

"I'm paid what I'm worth. I've earned everything I got," she arrogantly told reporters, claiming she could have gotten much more elsewhere. Our asking about her double-dipping was a "ridiculous level of scrutiny." Well, self-awareness is rare these days. To be fair, it is true that she doesn't list a conscience on her résumé.

But what in the hell was Ficano thinking when he gave her a year's salary for accepting a better-paying job? Apparently, that's the way the boys do business in Wayne County. Mullin's predecessor on the development job, one Mulu Birru, denied getting such a settlement when he left. That is, till somebody produced the pay stub.

Birru was either a liar, or so corrupt or stupid that he had forgotten that he'd gotten an extra $200,000 of the taxpayers' cash. Just the kind of guy you want as a public servant. 

However, there's probably little joy in Turkiaville these days. Late last week, she talked to her capo, Bobby F, who was off in China. That provoked a sudden attitude adjustment. She overcame her earlier arrogance and said that returning the money was the right thing to do, after she whined a bit that going to the airport actually meant a pay cut for her darling self. Seems that when she was struggling along as the development director, she was getting an extra $75,000 a year from what WXYZ-TV called a "shadowy nonprofit" development corporation, which is funded, in part, from anonymous donations.

Those donations include contractors who do business with the county, the TV station reported. Incidentally, the 43-year-old Mullin — who now makes more money than Ficano — was chosen to run Metro despite having no experience whatsoever at airport management. Chosen over four candidates with airport experience. But, then, Ficano appoints four of the seven airport board members.

Yes, they do things differently in Wayne.

Incidentally, guess what would happen if Turkia got into a snit, got Bobby to find her another job, or quit the airport to work at Neiman-Marcus tomorrow? Why, Wayne County would have to pay her another $125,000 in severance. This lady looks after herself.

The county commissioners professed ignorance and said they knew nothing about her severance, which raises suspicions about their level of competence, Ficano's living up to his obligations to keep them properly informed, or both. L. Brooks Patterson, the good ol'-boy executive of much richer Oakland County, said he thought the severance deal was nuts. The development director in his county is paid far less than Mullin was, as was the one in Macomb.

Deborah Gordon, an employment law attorney who has a long track record of ably defending women who get the short end of the stick, told the Detroit News that she had never heard of anything like the Turkia Awada Mullin severance payoff.

"That is such a sweetheart deal it's illogical," she said. "There's something very strange going on there."

No kidding. But things are different in Wayne, where at least 80 Ficano appointees make at least $100,000 a year. This pattern of Tammany Hall-style conduct goes back at least as far as the days of Boss Ed McNamara. Years ago, I wrote about how the Wayne County taxpayers voted to build a new youth prison. Ed took the money and used it for something else, and happily got away with it.

He's dead now, but the big casino keeps on rolling. To their credit, both Detroit newspapers have been all over the $200,000 good-bye kiss story. But they haven't been nearly as hard on Mullin as they were on poor Karen Dumas, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's former communications director. They hounded her out of office in June for being allegedly arrogant and abrasive. When Dumas quit, she told me she didn't get any severance at all, except her accrued vacation pay.

Nobody even hinted she was out to feather her own nest. The newspapers have never subjected Mullin to a fraction of the scrutiny Bing's much lower-paid press secretary got.

As far as I know, only Channel 7's Heather Catallo reported that, as development director, Mullin was the key figure in the Pinnacle Race Track debacle, which cost taxpayers $30 million, never produced the promised thousands of jobs, and which, according to the county auditor, was marked by slipshod bookkeeping.

But, hey — Crain's Detroit Business did tell us two years ago that Turkia Awada Mullin was one of a number of "women to watch."

Guess we should have paid better attention. By the way, which Wayne County community do you suppose Mullin lives in? Where do you think she is reinvesting, in the form of property taxes, some small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars taxpayers have paid her?

Give up? The answer is ... none of them! She lives in Birmingham, in Oakland County. Incidentally, I'd like Bob Ficano to know that I could be persuaded to leave the Metro Times and write this column for a Wayne County newsletter. He could even pay me a little less than Turkia gets; I am a modest and humble man.

It all depends on the severance.

Solidarity, not forever: Last week I talked to Mark Gaffney, who was forced out of his job as state director of the AFL-CIO this week, primarily because the Democrats got wiped out in the elections last year. This was a little like firing a good manager for the sins of a really bad baseball team. I admired Gaffney, who understood the plight of the workingman and also knew the world was changing.

Gaffney was a Teamster and National Maritime Union guy who worked hard jobs on Great Lakes freighters in his youth, before earning degrees in both philosophy and labor relations from Michigan State. When I saw him last week he was less worried about himself than he was America's 14 million unemployed.

He knows that not only do workers need strong unions; society needs them too, if democracy is going to survive. He also has never seen politicians before like the ones we have now.

"Disagreements are fine, but the purpose of our legislature should not be to reduce the living standards of working people," he told me. I think labor may miss his voice more than they know. 

Scroll to read more Metro Detroit articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.