(WXYZ) Detroit - Some of Wayne County's top officials are traveling the world to promote trade, but who's picking up the tab for these junkets? And what are they spending the money on when they land overseas? Action News Investigator Heather Catallo went to the county executive looking for answers.
The money for these trips is coming from a fund similar to the one that got ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in trouble. He allegedly mis-spent thousands of dollars and it never came to light until the feds indicted him. That's because, by law, politicians don't have to tell you who gives to these funds and they don’t have to give us details of how the money’s spent.
"I've been in public office for 25 years. I'm not Kwame Kilpatrick, and my record shows that," Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told our Heather Catallo.
Ficano isn’t happy about our latest Action News Investigation. So much so that when we showed up for our interview, we found a camera pointed at us. What has the county’s top brass on edge are questions we’re asking about a little-known fund called the Wayne County Business Development Corporation. It's non-profit fund created last year, in part, to pay for "trade missions" for top county officials. The overseas trips are to faraway countries, with the worthy mission of drumming up business for Wayne County.
"It was really the companies and the labor that came together and said we want to form this non-profit in order to recruit and bring jobs to the area," said Ficano.
Last month, Ficano along with his two top deputies and their press secretary spent five days in Italy and France. Even Sheriff Benny Napoleon went along. His spokeswoman said it was to discuss “crime and security” with companies thinking of taking root in Wayne County. The UAW picked up his tab.
But unlike Ficano's campaign fund or political action committee, this fund isn't required to disclose who shells out money to pay for these trips, or exactly how it spends the money. And last year, it took in plenty of money: $100,000 in private donations.
Since September, Action News has been asking questions about just who those private donors are, and each time the answers seemed to change.
On September 28, story number one: we were told that names of donors to the fund couldn't be released because it would be against the law.
"We'd never share our list," wrote the county's press secretary. But there is no law that prohibits that. So on October 4 came story number two: the same spokeswoman told us in an e-mail that the county would release a list of members who support the fund. But that never came, and two days later on October 6, story number three: county officials told us they never would release the names, this time "due to privacy reasons."
Then, when we met with County Executive Robert Ficano, the story changed for the fourth time: yes, the county would be transparent…sort of.
The fund has been in existence for over a year—but suddenly, only hours before our interview was scheduled, a website was hastily created for the little-known fund. On it, they listed only some of the corporations and labor groups who’ve contributed, but wouldn't say what they provided.
"Do any county contractors contribute to this fund," asked Heather Catallo.
"I have no idea," Ficano responded.
Ficano may claim not to know, but we do. Like Strategic Staffing Solutions, the recipient of major county contracts. And the Roxbury Group: the Detroit real-estate consultant firm received just under $350,000 . And then there's the law firm Clark Hill: in just six months time, they’ve received just over $300,000 in county contracts.
"So other companies paid donations to this fund, and that paid for your trip," asked Catallo.
"Yes," responded Ficano.
"Do you see any potential for conflict of interest there," she asked.
"No," said Ficano. "Because we’re all working in the same arena, these are labor leaders, these are the major 500 corporations, and they don’t want to see the jobs go to South Alabama or Mississippi."
But remember, the fund released only a partial list of donors. How many other corporations or individuals wrote checks paying for county officials' overseas trips? It's still a mystery to taxpayers.
"Why not be more upfront about who the actual individual donors are," asked Catallo.
"Well, that’s up to the board," said Ficano. "We are one vote. If it were up to me, I would say sure, disclose all of it...but if you’re asking, it’s not controlled by Wayne County."
Let's take a closer look at just who controls and oversees the Wayne County Economic Development Corporation. The fund president is Azzam Elder: he’s Ficano's right hand man and the deputy county executive. He recently traveled with Ficano on a trade mission to France and Italy, along with Turkia Mullin, the fund's executive director, and the third highest paid county employee as the head of economic development.
Also on the board: Stacy Fox. Ficano said she doesn't work for the county, but until