Fmr. Ficano appointee says he was forced to work on campaign during county time

DETROIT (WXYZ) - James Wallace says he's blowing the whistle on Robert Ficano's political machine. 

He was recently let go by the county, and filed a lawsuit that's leveling some very serious accusations against his former boss. If the FBI isn't looking into what he's saying, Wallace says they should be.

"I went through a year of my life, almost, of them just being awful, just being awful people because I wouldn't do what they say. Sometimes I had to because I was afraid of losing my job," he said.

What James Wallace had to do, he says, was break the law. For nine years, he was an appointee of Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, working just feet away from the CEO's office.  Part of his county job, he says, was to help operate Ficano's well-staffed political machine on county time, claims he's outlined in this whistleblower lawsuit.

In his first interview, Wallace says Ficano is lying when he says he's not aware of any county employees performing campaign work during county time. 

"It's very much ingrained in the culture there. I think a lot of the pressure that I received from my immediate supervisors is because they thought it was okay," Wallace said.

He was appointed by Ficano to be the CEO's graphic artist, making brochures, advertisements and mailings.  That included, he said, lots of political work that he was instructed to do on county time—a violation of federal law.

"It wasn't just Mr. Ficano, it was anyone he supported. I did commissioners, state representatives, I did some stuff for the treasurer," he recalls.

Wallace says he complained to his superiors often, telling them that he was afraid he was breaking the law. But he says managers assured him everything was fine. Wallace remembers talking with his boss about a negative political ad he'd just completed on county time, attacking Ficano's opponent.

"When I finished it, he said put this disclaimer on it.  Not paid for at taxpayer expense. Paid for by the political action committee," he says.

"The county paid for that," 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones asked.

"The county, the taxpayers paid for that. And that kind of stuff happened a lot," Wallace responded.

"That makes it more provable and attractive to a US Attorney or to a jury somewhere down the line," said Bill Kowalski, former assistant special agent in charge for the Detroit FBI.

Kowalski now works at Troy's Rehmann corporation. He says testimony and evidence like Wallace's could be of interest to the FBI, whose investigation into Wayne County has already netted five criminal charges and two guilty pleas.

"Undoubtedly, the FBI is very interested in this type of information, and when you're in the FBI and you see pleadings such as these, it certainly peaks your interest," Kowalski says.

Wallace says he was just one small piece of the Ficano machine. The County Executive's floor in the Guardian Building is made up of a North and South end. Wallace worked on the North end with other communications staffers.

"We all knew what was going on on the south end. Some of the people who did the political stuff I've never seen do any other function personally, except the political stuff. It was almost like there were two teams of Wayne County: there was a political team, and there was a team running things. And of course they would speak back and forth," Wallace says.

He also says appointees like JoAnn Abdenour and Valerie Denha, who shared the same floor as Wallace, worked almost exclusively on politics and fundraising. Their salaries total almost $165,000.

Wallace says they sometimes pressured appointees to buy tickets to Ficano campaign events. He remembers one conversation he had with Denha when he didn't. Wallace asked her why his paycheck from the campaign was shorted $500—the same cost as a ticket to Ficano's next fundraiser.

"She said well, it shows in our records that you didn't buy a ticket yet for our gala…I said ‘Valerie, I couldn't afford my kid's birthday present this year, I had to borrow money from my parents.'  And she went, ‘I'm just trying to help you out.'  It was pretty awful," Wallace says.

Wallace says Denha and Abdenour reported to Assistant County CEO Nader Fakhouri—who collected a county salary of more than $145,000 ($145,670). Until recently, he was Ficano's chief fundraiser.

Wallace said Fakhouri spent most of his time on the county clock raising money for Ficano.   

Ficano refused an interview for this story, but said neither Fakhouri nor any other appointee has ever worked on fundraising or politics during the work day.

"Let him double down on that under oath, let him say that under oath.  I believe he has full knowledge," Wallace says.

Wednesday, Ficano's office released this statement: 

"Mr. Wallace's accusations are simply not true.  Unfortunately, Mr. Wallace and many other County employees were terminated as part of a workforce reduction to respond to County financial challenges.  Mr. Wallace's claims to the contrary have no merit and will be thoroughly refuted in Court."  --Zenna Elhasan, Wayne County Corporation Counsel

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