Wayne County appointees entitled to severance says Judge

DETROIT (WXYZ) - The taxpayers will be footing the bill for several of the Wayne County Executives appointees to quit. 

A judge ruled that the county will have to pay thousands of dollars to some of Robert Ficano's top people.

7 Action News was the first to tell you about these deals that the county executive tried to keep secret… and now a judge has ruled that the county must pay.

"I find there to be no ambiguity at all," said Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Michael Sapala.

Last year, fifteen of Ficano's appointees were promised generous separation agreements in exchange for staying with the county, instead of taking an early retirement buyout that was offered to others.  7 Action News has learned that they were in line to receive payments as high as about $80,000 – if they decided to stay with the county until at least February 1, 2012.  All told, the deals totaled about $850,000.

After the 7 Action News Investigators exposed Turkia Mullin's $200,000 severance deal, Ficano rescinded the other severance deals.  Friday morning, Judge Sapala ruled the county must honor the contracts with the appointees.

"The issue before is whether or not the agreement struck between the parties knowingly, intentionally, and voluntarily is binding, and the answer to the question is a clear yes.  And for that reason plaintiffs motion for declaratory judgment is granted.  Andthe county is bound by the agreement," said Judge Sapala.

Ficano says the deals were not severance – they were separation agreements.  But his former right hand man, ex-Deputy CEO Azzam Elder said in his January lawsuit that Ficano was trying to hide the truth from the public, and concocted a plan to "(remove) the Severance Agreements from each of the employees personnel files."

In fact, when county commissioners asked about other deals with other appointees after we exposed the severance scandal – assistant county CEO Alan Helmkamp said there weren't any.

Helmkamp bite from Ross story in Nov: "I'm not aware of, and I do not believe, that there are any other separations, severances, end of employment compensation, however you want to characterize it."

Helmkamp later said he didn't know about the deals for the 15 – most of whom should now be able to cash in and walk way.

Homeland Security Director James Buford, Department of Public Services Director Hassan Saab, Assistant County CEO Cameron Priebe, Equipment Division Manager Keith Lee, Juvenile Detention Facility Manager Leonard Dixon, and Facilities Management Director Kerreen Conley are all named in the lawsuit  –  but their attorney, Ed Plato says the judge's decision should apply to all 15 employees who agreed to stay.

"It was a shame we had to go this extent, file a lawsuit, nobody – of course nobody wants to have to sue their boss and their employer.   So I was glad we were able to quickly resolve this," said Farmington Hills attorney Ed Plato.

Outside the courtroom, Buford said he would submit his paperwork to retire right away.

"I won't give them another chance to do this," said Buford.

Action News has also learned that county lawyers may have tried to avoid reporters at Friday's hearing.  We were originally told that the appointees and county lawyers would be squaring off inside the  court room at 9:00 AM.

Multiples sources tell the 7 Action News Investigators that the county was hoping we'd miss the ruling from the judge.  Suddenly on Thursday we got word that we'd better be in court an hour earlier -- by 8:00 AM – or we'd miss the proceeding, like county lawyers had hoped.

Ficano released a statement Friday saying he respects the ruling, but disputes the term severance – instead calling them separation agreements – even though employment lawyers we've spoken to say there's really no difference.

His press secretary also denies that they tried to change the hearing time today.

It's unclear yet how this ruling will impact Elder. He has filed a separate lawsuit.  He was one of the 15 in the group – but he also had that earlier severance deal for more than $300,000.  Some lawyers believe today's ruling could help him – but he's also suing on other matters beyond just the severance.

Here's the county executive's full statement: "To be clear about today's ruling, while I respect it, it is being mischaracterized as "severances" when in fact they are "separation agreements" that were offered to over 200 county employees. These agreements have saved the county $2.6 million in taxpayers dollars, and are similar to those offered in the automotive industry and to the state's teachers."

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