DETROIT (WXYZ) - Former Assistant Wayne County CEO Azzam Elder has filed a $25 Million whistleblower lawsuit against Wayne County, and his former boss, County Executive Robert Ficano.
Elder is alleging Robert Ficano concocted a huge cover-up.
And the lawsuit also reveals another golden parachute – there’s a document in the suit that shows Ficano sweetened Elder’s pension – potentially by almost $6 Million.
Late on Wednesday, Elder’s attorney filed this whistleblower lawsuit against the county, Ficano, and Wayne County Commissioners Bernard Parker and Gary Woronchak.
Elder resigned in November, after the 7 Action News Investigators exposed a severance scandal and the FBI investigation into Ficano’s administration.
In Elder’s lawsuit, he alleges Ficano was “aware of and had fully authorized the $200,000 severance payment” that was given to former Wayne County Economic Development chief Turkia Mullin when she voluntarily resigned.
After Action News broke the story about Mullin’s severance – Ficano suspended Elder. Federal grand jury subpoenas obtained by Action News also show that Elder is a focus of the federal investigation.
Elder’s attorney says Elder “was suspended, in part, for reporting to public bodies what were or what he suspected to believe were unlawful activities.”
“The Fieger Law Firm looks forward to pursuing justice on behalf of our client, Mr. Elder,” attorney Tom Warnicke told 7 Action News Investigator Heather Catallo.
In the lawsuit, attorney Warnicke alleges Ficano violated several laws, including laws that deal with:
-removing or destroying public records;
-intimidation, or hindering or obstructing a public employee;
-and false pretenses with intend to defraud.
Elder claims he urged Ficano to come clean to reporters about Mullin’s severance, but “Ficano told [Elder] that he could not afford to come clean because the timing was bad and it would hurt him politically.”
After the fury grew over Mullin’s severance, the Wayne County Commission demanded to know who else had separation deals with the county.
“Are there any other employees, appointees who have a severance package arrangement,” asked Wayne County Commission Vice-Chair Alisha Bell on October 4, 2011.
“I’m not aware of, and I do not believe, that there are any other separations, severances, end of employment compensation, however you want to characterize it,” answered Assistant County CEO Alan Helmkamp at the time.
But Elder did have a handsome separation agreement. According to the lawsuit, Elder had been deferring pay increases until the county was in better financial shape. In exchange for that, he would get between $300,000 and $350,000 if he left his job at Wayne County.
Elder says Ficano and Helmkamp both knew that – and “were concocting a plan of action to cover up the truth relating to the severance payout to Ms. Mullin, as well as other separation agreements that had been provided to the County appointees earlier in 2011.”
Elder says that cover-up included removing severance agreements from employees personnel files and failing to comply with public records requests, like the ones Action News often makes with the county.
Helmkamp denies the claims about him. "The allegations regarding me are pure fantasy. I stand by my public comments made at the time which were based upon the information provided to me,” Helmkamp told Action News.
“Mr. Elder had an agreement with the county and Mr. Ficano back in 2008, which was put into writing in the first part of 2009. It’s a written document; it’s attached as part of the lawsuit. When we became retained by Mr. Elder, we requested a copy of his entire employee file, that document was not produced by the county, pursuant to that request,” said Warnicke.
In addition to the $300,000 separation agreement, perhaps the most stunning revelation in Elder’s lawsuit is that memo Warnicke mentioned -- showing Ficano allegedly agreed to defer Elder’s salary and seriously boosted Elder’s potential pension payout. Former Wayne County Auditor General Brendan Dunleavy says it’s the craziest county document he’s ever seen.
“The story isn’t the $300,000 at all. The story is the retirement benefits. Under what he’s given Elder in retirement benefits, could cost the retirement board over Elder’s life $6 Million. It virtually, at age 42, could give Elder $146,000 a year for the rest of his life. And if he lives 40 years in retirement that’s going to be nearly $6 Million,” said Duleavy.
Wayne County sources tell Action News, Elder’s separation agreement was rescinded in early October. Dunleavy says it’s not that simple to take the agreement away.
“I’m not an attorney, but I do know, Mr Ficano, if he signed this document, is an idiot, because o f the fact, it does justify Azzam Elder… gave consideration for this agreement: Azzam Elder supposedly gave up a job, and in return for giving up the job, Bob Ficano gave him a $300,000 severance and $6 Million worth of additional retirement benefits... Can one party negate a contract? If you gave me your car, could I say I didn’t owe you any money for it,” said Dunleavy.
The memo included in the lawsuit does have Robert Ficano’s signature on it.
“I think it’s outrageous. I think you’ve got a County Executive that hasn’t had a balanced budget in 10 years, and all his staff is worried about is drafting these kinds of compensation packages,” said Dunleavy.
Elder also is accusing Wayne County Commissioner Bernard Parker of misusing his office on behalf of his son Bernard F. Parker III. The lawsuit says that county vendors told Elder that they felt harassed by the commissioner’s son “to engage in some type of scheme…,” but it is not clear from the lawsuit what the scheme is. Elder’s lawsuit also says that Parker advised Ficano to get rid of Elder because of the allegations he made against the commissioner and his son.
Parker released a press release, saying, "Mr. Elder's allegations against me, my son Bernard Parker III and Bp3 & Associates are false and unfounded. My inclusion in this lawsuit is simply a distraction technique... Filing a $25 million dollar lawsuit is a bogus attempt by Mr. Elder to shift the attention from his behavior, and the behavior of others, to me. I fully trust the legal process and expect the truth will prevail and justice will be served."
Robert Ficano’s press secretary released this statement from Ficano today: "While we have not been officially served with a lawsuit; I am disappointed that Mr. Elder continuously refuses to accept responsibility for his own actions. It's unfortunate that after his voluntary resignation he has chosen to be dishonest about events during his tenure to better serve himself in this suit. I look forward to the facts coming out. In the meantime, I will continue to move the county forward."
Commissioner Woronchak said, “I briefly reviewed the lawsuit and really can’t figure out why I’m named in it. My job is to continue to look for the truth in these matters, and to clean up Wayne County, and this isn’t going to distract me from that responsibility."
Turkia Mullin's lawyer is also weighing in on Elder's lawsuit. Ray Sterling released this statement: "We have reviewed Mr. Elder's lawsuit. We applaud his courage in speaking the truth and revealing how Turkia Mullin was and continues to be an innocent victim. Mr. Elder is the first of many people who will be coming forward to support Turkia Mullin's credibility, professionalism, and the great loss the people of Wayne County and all of Michigan have suffered when they lost her unique ability to attract jobs and large business and economic opportunities in the area."
Below, read the lawsuit filed today...
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