Obtained by FBI, campaign emails show Ficano officials expected big donations from county vendors

(WXYZ) DETROIT - When he took office in 2003, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano promised a new era of ethics. But e-mails we've obtained cast serious doubt that Ficano made good on his word. 

The e-mails show how his administration expected county vendors to write large checks to Ficano's campaign war chest. And many of the e-mails are written by or about Ficano's campaign czar Nader Fakhouri.

In an e-mail Fakhouri sent to another appointee in 2009, he writes about "preliminary numbers" for what he thinks county vendors should give to Ficano's campaign fund:

-$25,000 each from Secure 24, AT&T, Open Text, Strategic Business Partners and Strategic Staffing Solutions

-$15,000 from CATS Co.

-$10,000 from Sync Technologies, ASG Renaissance and CISCO

-and $5,000 from Peter Chang Enterprises and Optech

It's not clear if all those vendors were solicited, but several of them later gave to Ficano's PAC.  We spoke with one who said he felt obligated to. That vendor did not want his name used for fear of retribution, but told 7 Action News:

"It's disgusting that they're going after vendors like that…I just don't think it's proper."

Campaign finance expert Rich Robinson says when vendors are leaned on for contributions, it's common for them to factor that cost into their next county bid.

"It's a world where there is corruption of dependence," Robinson said. 

"You end up with kind of a political tax rolled into it, because I don't think the vendor says, well, we'll squeeze this out of our profits this year," he said.

Other e-mails show that campaign work is often required of appointees.  In one from last May sent by JoAnn Abdenour, Fakhouri's fundraising deputy, she ordered department heads to attend a meeting for the upcoming Ficano Gala, a campaign fundraiser at Ford Field.

The meeting is "mandatory," she writes..  The purpose, she said, was to get an update on appointee ticket sales.

Other e-mails from Abdenour were more harsh.  When Treasurer Ray Wojtowicz was last up for re-election, a candidate Ficano supported , about 100 appointees received an e-mail that told them they had to work the campaign's phone banks.  "…there are NO EXCEPTIONS for this week's phone bank…everyone is expected to participate," she wrote.

Those e-mails conflict with the county's own rules.  Every year, appointees sign statements acknowledging that "no…county employee is obligated to engage in campaign or other political activities."

In a different e-mail, also from Abdenour, she tells an IT department appointee to solicit ITdepartment vendors:

"Nader has asked that you reach out to a company called 22 nd Century Tech and ask them for $2500 and Max Wolfgang at Sarcom and ask them for $5000 for the PAC…"

"…Nader is confident they will come thru," she writes .

A few weeks earlier, Ficano's office had asked the Wayne County Commission to approve an increase in Sarcom's county contract, and to approve a new contract for 22 nd Century Tech.

Robinson says it's harder for vendors to say no when he's being solicited by someone who oversees their contract.

"It's much tougher position for that individual to be in," he said.

"It's somebody with whom they have a relationship on which their business is dependent."

Scores of other e-mails show campaign or political work being discussed while employees were on county time. In one,Fakhouri briefed appointees on campaign strategy in the middle of the county work day. 

"Just some more intel on (Phil Cavanaugh)," the note reads. Cavanaugh was the candidate Ficano's office opposed for County Treasurer.

"Our huge 200,000 negative mail piece has been completed and is being printed," he writes.

Fakhouri, who would not go on camera, told 7 Action News that all fundraising-related emails were written during lunch or breaks.

E-mails also show that some employees were asked to work on Ficano's charity, the Wayne County Vision fund, on county time. The charity gives scholarships to high school students. But some Ficano aides objected.   

"…the Vision Fund is not an official county funded program," wrote Ficano appointee Cindy Dingell in January 2009.

"…try to be cautious about using internal resources for this," she wrote.  

In a statement, county officials say "the county has strict rules prohibiting campaign work on county time.  It has never been mandatory for any employee to participate or donate to any campaign fundraising event."

They also point out that 22nd Century and Sarcom had contracts before Ficano took office and have not donated to his PAC.

One reason for that, we've learned: the county appointee asked to solicit those vendors never solicited the companies. He didn't feel comfortable asking them for money.

If you have a tip for the 7 Action News Investigative Team, contact us at tips@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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