Wayne County Commissioners ban hiring their relatives...starting now

DETROIT (WXYZ) - Wayne County Commissioners haven't even approved their new ethics rules, but they've already written their first exception.    

It was written in response to the county's new anti-nepotism clause, banning county officials from hiring relatives that they would supervise. The rule says it's designed to avoid even the "appearance of a conflict of interest," and was written to combat what some call a culture of cronyism inside Wayne County.

But some commissioners were concerned: two of them already have relatives working for them. Commissioner Ilona Varga's daughter has worked for her since 2003, earning $45,000. And Commissioner Martha Scott's granddaughter is on her payroll at a salary of $35,000. 

So when the commissioners realized they may already be in violation of their new rule, they decided to write up an exception. Commissioner Joan Gebhardt introduced an amendment saying that county employees already hired by their relative could stay. Most commissioners said an exception made sense. 

"Sometimes there may be one or two people who fall into that gray area," Commissioner Alicia Bell said.

"People are grandfathered in, it's just a term that happens so that people are not harmed," said Commissioner Irma Clark-Coleman.

But Commissioner Laura Cox disagreed. 

"I don't understand why we would have a nepotism clause in our ethics ordinance that says, 'Oh well, you're in here. We'll just keep you,'" she said.

"The whole point of the ethics ordinance is to prohibit the activity of nepotism."

Despite her objection, Cox was in the minority.  The commission voted 13-2 to let family members stay on the payroll.  The only other commissioner voting 'no' was Chairman Gary Woronchak.

He doesn't have a family member on the county payroll, but we've learned his daughter's paycheck has ties to Robert Ficano. Ficano's girlfriend Jumana Judeh has employed Woronchak's daughter at her Dearborn appraisal firm for the last two years.

Woronchak didn't want to talk on camera, but says he played no role in her getting the job.  He says his daughter's job with Ficano's girlfriend hasn't influenced how he oversees the county executive's office.

Brendan Dunleavy, Wayne County's former auditor general, says Woronchak's daughter working for Ficano's girlfriend could effect his ability to provide meaningful oversight.

"Absolutely it's inappropriate. Can Ficano influence Woronchak through his daughter? Absolutely," Dunleavy said.

As auditor general, Dunleavy exposed fraud and abuse inside the government until his contract wasn't renewed.  He sued the county and received a settlement.  

"These are just examples of how the commission doesn't have a clue what is even ethical, and what is impropriety or what is the appearance of impropriety," he said.

Woronchak's daughter has been working part time for Ficano's girlfriend recently and is now on maternity leave.  He says she's not sure if she'll return to Judeh's company as a full-time employee. 

Ilona Varga says her daughter is more than qualified for her position at the county, but critics say the real issue is that anti-nepotism rules should apply to everyone, regardless of when they were hired.

These ethics rules and this latest exemption, won't be final until Thursday, when the commission formally votes on whether or not to approve them.

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