The Suite Life: Friends, family & political pals enjoy Detroit and Wayne County's private boxes

Ficano says charities & other groups benefit, too

DETROIT (WXYZ) - On a frigid night in January, nearly 20,000 packed Joe Louis Arena to see the Wings take on their arch-rival, the Chicago Blackhawks. You weren’t invited but, if you live in Detroit, the city's center ice suite belongs to you.  

It's part of a deal with the Detroit/Wayne County Stadium Authority, which owns the buildings and supplies the suites for free.

"It’s used for business purposes, it’s used for charity events," said Wayne County CEO Robert Ficano. "It’s used for a number of other things that actually generate positive activity for the county."

But neither the city nor county keep a list of how the suites are who's been invited to use them. So, for weeks, 7 Action News watched to see who made the guest list.

While charities like the Boys and Girls Club have been guests in the Wayne County suite,  plenty of Ficano's political allies, donors and friends have been invited, too.  In the suite at Joe Louis Arena, we found Gabe Leland. He's the son of county commissioner and Ficano supporter Burton Leland and a new city council member, too.

At Comerica Park, we saw longtime Ficano friend John Oram taking in a Tigers game and chatting with the CEO. Developer Ron Boji, who's thrown a fundraiser for Ficano at his home, has used the suite too, along with democratic strategist Mark Brewer. 

"What about Mark Brewer, he ever been in the suite?" Channel 7's Ross Jones asked.

"I really don’t know," Ficano responded.

"You don’t know?" Jones asked.

"No, I can’t recall," Ficano said.

"You weren’t with him that night?" Jones asked. 

"Who, Mark Brewer?" Ficano asked.

When shown a picture of Brewer seated next to him in the suite, Ficano said he recalled his visit.  Brewer's law firm was paid $1,000 weeks after the game for consulting.

"Mark Brewer is an attorney," Ficano said.

"Who’s worked for your campaign," Jones responded.

"Mark Brewer is an attorney that also gives a lot of advice," Ficano said. 

"And it’s just a coincidence that your campaign paid him?" Jones asked.

"They paid him a minimum fee," Ficano said.

The Wayne County suite is also a favorite spot of Ficano’s fundraiser JoAnn Abenour. She likes it so much that she used it to thank county officials for working on Ficano’s $500 a ticket campaign gala.  In an e-mail, staffers were invited to sit “…in the Wayne County suite” as thanks for all of their “hard work and support of the Gala.”

Ficano insisted that the suites aren't used for political meetings or to reward donors.

Wayne County Commissioners like Ilona Varga say, even though the suites are free, it doesn’t seem right using them while cutting employees pay and increasing healthcare costs.

"Perception is reality," Varga said. "I can’t afford a suite.  My constituents can’t afford a suite. No, we shouldn’t have them," she said.

But others do. Just down the hall from the county suite, you’ll find the city’s. Mayor Mike Duggan has been in office not even 2 months, but he wasted no time handing out some of the perks of the job.

Ernest Johnson’s influential Community Coalition was one of the first groups to endorse Duggan back in June. By January, he was enjoying the city’s suite. On Facebook that night he wrote, “Mayors office had it hook up.”

We spotted Deputy Mayor Ike McKinnon using the suite one night, too. He acknowledged bringing some of his friends along. Mayor Duggan's son Ed has been a guest in the suite as well.

Duggan declined to be interviewed for this story. His spokesman told us that the mayor had bigger issues to worry about than answering our questions.

In a statement, Mayor Duggan's spokesman John Roach said that governmental suites like the city's are common. Any food or drink purchased in the suite, Roach said, isn't paid for with taxpayer money.

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

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