DETROIT (WXYZ) - It’s a distinction Wayne county officials aren’t very proud of: the worst roads in the state. But has the county been diverting millions of dollars that could have been used to help fix those roads?
It’s a story Scott Lewis and the Action News Investigators have been working on for months.
Wayne County officials insist they’ve done nothing wrong, but evidence to the contrary is mounting fast, and the Ficano administration is on the defensive.
Whether he’s cutting a ribbon, giving a speech or courting the press, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano has always been one of the region’s most highly visible officials.
But that changed when the Action News Investigators started looking into allegations of misspent county road funds. Suddenly, Ficano was no longer accessible, “respectfully declining” repeated requests for on-camera interviews.
So we showed up at the annual Easter Marshmallow drop to drop a few questions on the County Exec.
“Scott, you know better than that,” Ficano said when approached by Channel 7’s Scott Lewis.
You’ll hear what Ficano has to say shortly. Right now, what led us to this encounter with Wayne County’s most powerful politician.
For months, the Action News Investigators have been looking into what numerous reliable sources have been telling us: that for years, Ficano’s administration has been misusing millions in county road money to pay the salaries of appointees who have nothing to do with maintaining our roads.
And if you’ve been on the County’s roads lately, you know they need every dime they can get. A recent study says they have the most damaged in the state, with more than 1,800 miles in need of repair.
For four years, James Jackson ran Wayne County’s Department of Public Services, the agency that oversees roads. He said he complained about employees being paid out of the road's fund that did not work for the department, and recalled his conversation with Action News.
“When the question was asked, 'Why are these people on our budget,'...the response would be, 'Well, that’s where we need to put them so you know, don’t really worry about that. We got that taken care of.' Not a good answer for me," he said.
Jackson voluntarily resigned from the county last spring. He says while he was in charge, the Ficano administration used millions in road funds, your tax dollars, to pay salaries of appointees who didn’t work in his department. Jackson says he was so concerned that the county was misusing roads funding, he didn’t sign his last budget.
"What were these people doing if they weren’t doing road work," asked Lewis.
"Well, I do believe they were doing things the administration felt were worthwhile to them," responded Jackson.
"I do know that those things were not directly tangible to what was happening n DPS or roads maintenance," he said.
Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano called the allegation "completely false."
But James Jackson isn’t the only one who’s blown the whistle. The Action News Investigators obtained a 2005 memo from former Department of Public Services Director of Administration Greg Hicks. He tells a top Ficano aide that DPS could save more than 1.6 million dollars by cutting 12 employees “not working directly” for the roads department.
And there’s more: a 2007 report by the county’s auditor general warns of more than $650,000 in roads salaries that he called “questionable.” The county tells us the auditor’s concerns were put to rest. But that’s news to the auditor, who tells us he’s still never received a good explanation.
So who are these people getting these sizeable paychecks? Well, there’s Wassim Mahfouz for one. He makes almost sixty grand as Ficano’s liaison to the Arabic community. So what does that have to do with fixing roads?
"You go out to people about road conditions and pot holes," asked Lewis.
"If we receive any complaints, uh, from, you know, people," Mahfouz responded.
And then there’s recently retired Ernest Johnson, who made sixty-nine thousand out of the road fund and listed as a “Department Executive.” But did he really work for the Roads Department?
"Uh, no," Johnson told Action News.
"That’s the first I heard of it," he said.
Johnson acknowledged that in his almost eight years with the County, he never worked on its crumbling roads. So why was he paid with road funds?
"I think that’s a mistake," he said.
Is Ben Hemmingway a mistake too? He definitely spent a lot of time driving on county roads. At a salary of 66 thousand five hundred dollars, multiple sources say his main job was as the running errands and chauffeuring Assistant County CEO Nader Fakhouri.
Reached by phone, Hemmingway told Action News he was an executive assistant for an assistant CEO, but denied playing the role of chauffer. There are other’s on the list too, making as much as $110,000 a year. Sources say they perform virtually no work for the county’s roads.
Back at the marshmallow drop, Ficano denies there’s any wrongdoing here.
"You’ve looked at the numbers, the commission’s looked at the numbers, the state’s looked at the numbers, and they say everything’s legitimate and good," Ficano said.
But the fact is the County Commission has been stonewalled by Ficano’s office. Commissioner Bernard Parker says his requests went ignored.
"It only makes it more suspicious that something’s not going right. If everything was proper there, I think they would just generate the report," said Parker.
And the state isn’t watching either. A spokesman for the Department of Transportation tells Action News “we do not do an audit” of the county’s road funds.
And get this: the State Treasury Department, the agency responsible for doing those audits, hasn’t done one in Wayne County for at least a decade.
"We get money from the state from the gasoline tax," Ficano said.
"That is only, that’s less than 50% of the road funding. We put general fund money into the rest of it."
But that’s not true either, according to former Department Head James Jackson and other county sources. There’s virtually no general fund money inside the Road’s Fund.
“We make people multi-task,” said Ficano.
“You don’t just have one function anymore. So if you work, you may do things for the roads, I do things for the roads,” he said.
Visibly upset, Ficano told Action News that we’re making “a mountain out of a mole hill.”
A Ficano spokesman tells us that much of the county’s road fund is discretionary, and be can be spent as they see fit. Department heads may disagree with their choices, the spokesman says, but it’s their choice to make. But perhaps the most serious issue here? The largest source of the county’s road funding comes from the state. This money, by law, needs to be spent on roads. If it’s not, the county could have to pay it back.
Since November, we’ve been asking the county for the names of people paid with these state-restricted road dollars. They told us no such records exist. When we asked Macomb and Oakland counties for the same information, they handed it over no questions asked.
As for James Jackson, he says he resigned last spring when he was told his department would have to start making layoffs. He says he couldn’t stomach letting people go while he knew there were employees being paid with roads funds that didn’t belong there.
If you have a tip for the Action News Investigative Team, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at (248) 827-9466.
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