Corruption and waste lead to Ficano's ouster from Wayne County's top post

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Bob Ficano was swept into office 12 years ago, promising to fight against the very corruption that would come to define his administration. 

"To those who are skeptical, I say it’s a new day in Wayne County," he said at his inauguration, "and a fresh new start!"

For the first few years, Ficano lived up to his word.  Splashy headlines celebrated his focus on ethics, and a commitment to open and fair government.  He was, by all appearances, the man Wayne County needed.

"He was really on the right track.  2003 through the end of 2006, it was an amazing place to work," said appointee Steve Hood, who worked for Ficano for 6 years.  "It was full of hope, it was full of vigor."

One of Ficano's hallmarks through is career was his openness: he was one of the region’s most accessible politicians.  Most reporters had his cell phone, and he was known to take their calls even in the shower. But by the end of his first term, the faces surrounding Ficano began to change.  He appointed a new deputy CEO, Azzam Elder, who brought in his own team.

"There was a switch. The culture of the county switched," Hood said. "It didn’t seem as open and embracing, that’s the first thing I saw."

The culture changed, and so did the stories Ficano was used to seeing.  In 2010, Heather Catallo and I exposed Ficano’s secret EDGE Fund, fueled with contributions from county contractors and paying for Ficano and his appointees’ overseas trade missions.  Later on, we uncovered that while Wayne County roads crumbled, Ficano was stashing his own appointees on the road’s budget.  

Very quickly, Ficano didn’t view reporters as allies anymore; especially those on Channel 7, who he said made too many requests for public records.

"At Channel 7, over the last two and a half years, have submitted over a hundred (Freedom of Information Act requests)," Ficano said in a 2011 interview. "The next closest is the (Detroit) Free Press, which has submitted 25." 

But those pesky public records requests would lead to Ficano’s undoing. In September 2011, 7 Action News uncovered Economic Development Chief’s Turkia Mullin’s secret $200,000 severance, paid to her as she voluntarily left one government job, for another that paid her even more.  Ficano initially defended it, then later apologized for it. But he could never outrun it.

Mullin wasn’t the only one getting rich while the county sank: Elder was set to receive a $300,000 severance, and a pension that could pay him millions.  Another Ficano aide netted a $76,000 payout without ever even leaving her job.  And a secret deal Ficano carved out for top appointees like his former chief of staff allowed the 41-year-old to collect an annual pension that totaled nearly six figures.

Ficano evaded the questions, but not the feds. The FBI launched a probe into Mullin’s severance, whichnetted plenty of bigger fish.  So far, five have been convicted as part of a years-long probe looking at bribery and extortion inside the county. 

But Ficano’s image was tarnished as much by bundled decision as it was by corruption. His biggest blunders sits along Gratiot: the county’s abandoned jail project that was sidelined after cost-overruns pushed the county towards financial ruin. 

Four years ago in the CEO's primary race, no one would even run against Ficano.  Last night, his team watched as he could barely hold on to fifth place.  He took to the podium at 11 PM, knowing he couldn’t win, but choosing not to concede. That came hours later, in a press release issued this morning.

The man who once couldn’t refuse an interview, couldn’t face the cameras in defeat.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.


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