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"FBI goes after records in Wayne County payout investigation"


 
Thursday, October 20, 2011

FBI goes after records in Wayne County payout investigation
BY JOHN WISELY, JIM SCHAEFER AND KATHLEEN GRAY
The Detroit (MI) Free Press


The FBI wasted no time Wednesday -- a day after it agreed to take over an
investigation of questionable compensation practices in Wayne County
government -- in sending a team of agents armed with subpoenas to county
offices in Detroit.

County Executive Robert Ficano moved quickly, too, retaining Steve Fishman,
a top Detroit criminal attorney, to defend him. Fishman said late Wednesday
that Ficano has paid his retainer, not county taxpayers.

Neither the FBI nor Ficano's office would say what records were being
sought, though they are believed to involve the $200,000 severance payment
to Turkia Awada Mullin, the county's former chief development officer who
left her post willingly last month to become CEO of Detroit Metro Airport.

"It's a federal subpoena, so I can't say what it is," Ficano said. But
"there is nothing that is going to come up. ... No matter what happens, we
welcome the investigation."

Ficano would not say whether the subpoenas involved Mullin's severance,
saying he was prevented by law from discussing details.

Mullin's compensation has been at the center of a storm, even after she
agreed to return the $200,000. As of Friday, she was still arranging to
repay it, assistant county executive Alan Helmkamp said.

County commissioners plan to meet at 10 a.m. today to get more information
from Ficano's team about how and why the payment was made. They'll also be
asking about an additional $75,000 -- beyond her base pay of $200,000 as the
county's economic development czar -- that she received from Edge
Opportunities, a nonprofit organization designed to bolster economic
development in Wayne County.

The board that runs Edge Opportunities includes four people, all with close
links to Wayne County government.

Besides Mullin, the board includes:

. Azzam Elder, Ficano's deputy, who is suspended for 30 days for his role in
the payment.

. Renee Pipis Axt, chairwoman of the board that runs Metro Airport, who
voted to hire Mullin there.

. Stacy Fox, a real estate lawyer whose firm, the Roxbury Group, received at
least $349,000 in contracts from the Wayne County Land Bank during Mullin's
tenure, according to documents obtained by the Free Press.

Elder could not be reached for comment. Mullin, Axt and Fox did not return
messages seeking comment Wednesday.

The subpoenas stunned county commissioners ahead of their scheduled hearing
today. It's unclear whether Ficano's staff will answer any questions in
light of the federal subpoenas.

"I'm glad they're here and if they find criminal action, then we can deal
with that and then move forward and get on with the business of county
government," said commission Chairman Gary Woronchak. "I think nothing else
but full openness and disclosure is in order to restore the people's
confidence in Wayne County government."

Woronchak said no subpoenas were served on floors dedicated to the County
Commission in the county's offices inside the Guardian Building in downtown
Detroit.

"We're just observing like everyone out there," he said.

"I hope there is nothing here," said Commissioner Bernard Parker, D-Detroit.
"But our county executive welcomed them in, and they took him up on it."

Parker was referring to a comment from Ficano on Tuesday in which he said he
welcomed the FBI to clear the air over the scandal, in which he said he
expects to be fully exonerated. Ficano said Wednesday that he will
cooperate.

The fact that federal agents used subpoenas instead of search warrants is an
important distinction, said Wayne State University law professor and former
federal prosecutor Peter Henning.

Subpoenas are less intrusive than search warrants. A search warrant would
require probable cause that there has been criminal conduct, and federal
investigators obviously haven't made that determination, he said.

"That means they're not concerned about the documents being lost or
destroyed," Henning said. "At this point, they're doing what they're
supposed to do. Let's see if there's anything there. And there's a chance
that it won't go any further than this."

Mullin got the severance after leaving her job for the airport position with
a $250,000 annual salary.

Parker, who also serves on the board of the airport, said he didn't see any
reason for either Mullin or Ficano to step down at this point.

"Any time a person is notified that the FBI is going to be involved ... the
only prudent thing to do is to hire an experienced criminal lawyer," Fishman
told the Free Press on Wednesday. He said he has not had any contact yet
with federal investigators and wouldn't speculate on any interest they might
have in Ficano.

"I just was retained this morning. It's way too early for me to talk to
anybody," Fishman said. "I have no reason to believe he's a target," he said
of Ficano.

Fishman has represented other politicians and prominent figures, such as
Detroit's ex-City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, former NBA and University of
Michigan star Chris Webber and Detroit Piston Ben Wallace.

John Sellek, a spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, said
Tuesday that the FBI had agreed to handle a request for an investigation
into the pay practices in Wayne County.

FBI spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said the agency wouldn't confirm nor deny
that it is investigating Ficano. She also would not discuss whether FBI
agents are entering county offices.

When the story broke late last month, Ficano and Mullin initially defended
the severance payment to Mullin, saying she'd earned it and they were in
line with what her predecessor, Mulu Birru, received when he left the post
in 2009.

But after a public outcry, Ficano and Mullin agreed the $200,000 should be
returned. Ficano acknowledged last week that the payment never should have
been made.

Key moments in the Wayne County severance scandal

 . Aug. 2: Wayne County economic development chief Turkia Awada Mullin named
Detroit Metro Airport CEO, which raises her salary from $200,000 to
$250,000.

 . Sept. 19: Acting on a tip, the Free Press files a public records request
asking county to provide details on any severance Mullin received upon
leaving the county.

. Sept. 21: WDIV-TV (Channel 4), where Ficano's press secretary worked
before joining the county this spring, reports the severance in a blog.

 . Sept. 27: County officials confirm to WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) that Mullin
received a $200,000 severance when she left the county for the airport.
County Executive Robert Ficano calls the payment "standard" practice for top
appointees, and that the county must pay it under Mullin's contract. Mullin
tells the Free Press: "I'm paid what I'm worth."

 . Sept. 29: Mullin acknowledges she also received $75,000 from Edge
Opportunities, a nonprofit funded by area businesses that is affiliated with
the Wayne County Business Development Corp. Some of those businesses
received contracts from Wayne County, Crain's Detroit Business has reported.
County commissioners say they were never told of the payments and did not
approve them.

 . Sept. 30: Mullin produces an undated, 123-word letter signed by Ficano.
Letter said she is to receive one year's severance upon leaving.

 . Sept. 30: Hours after producing the mysterious letter, Mullin and Ficano
issue a statement saying Mullin will return the $200,000, calling it a
distraction. Ficano applauds the move, saying, "It's never been about money
with Turkia."

 . Oct. 4: County Commission can't get answers from Ficano's office at a
hearing on who authorized the severance check to Mullin. Ficano accepts
responsibility but takes no questions before leaving. His aide promises an
internal review.

 . Oct. 11: Commissioners learn Mullin also received thousands of dollars in
unused sick and leave time from the county. The payments were authorized by
the county's former director of human resources Timothy Taylor.

 . Friday: Ficano announces his deputy, Azzam Elder, and the county's top
lawyer, Marianne Talon, are suspended for 30 days without pay, and Taylor,
who was working part-time, had been fired for their roles in the scandal.
Ficano apologizes, calls severance a "mistake."

 . Tuesday: FBI tells state officials that it will investigate the county.

 . Wednesday: FBI serves subpoenas on county offices; Ficano hires a
criminal defense lawyer.

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