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"Turkia Mullin's promising rise now in limbo"
Monday, October 31, 2011
Turkia Mullin's promising rise now in limbo
CEO driven from her earliest days to achieve
By Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit (MI) News
When Turkia Mullin was a teenager, she was determined to be a queen.
During her senior year at Lincoln High School in Warren, she helped make the
yearbook fundraising campaign the most successful ever when she collected
the most pennies. As a result, she was crowned the school's 1986 Penny
"I could easily get used to life as a queen," Mullin is quoted in the
two-page yearbook spread on the event.
But Mullin's reign in Wayne County as CEO of Detroit Metropolitan Airport
could come to a halt soon, as a special meeting today could lead to the end
of her two-month tenure. The meeting could cap the meteoric rise of Mullin,
43, who climbed out of poverty as a youth and decades later became one of
the region's most controversial public employees: She received a $200,000
severance upon resigning as Wayne County economic development director, then
became the top airport executive despite lacking airport management
Since the revelation of her severance, outrage has erupted, people have been
punished, and a federal investigation has been launched. It also was
revealed that Mullin has been sued three times over alleged professional
misconduct while she was an attorney in private practice.
Mullin - who earned $200,000 as Wayne County economic development director
and now earns $250,000 as the top airport executive - did not respond to a
request on Friday to comment on this story. Initially she said she was worth
the salary and suggested that the outcry over her severance package and the
airport appointment was sexist. She has since been silent on the issue, and
Friday she returned the severance less the taxes.
Regardless, many have argued that she has become too much of a distraction
to be an effective leader and should step aside from the airport position.
"It would be best for the county, the airport authority and (Wayne County
Executive) Robert Ficano," said Ernest Johnson, who recently retired from
Wayne County as an executive assistant. "It looked ugly. It looked like she
just walked in and got the (airport) job. The community is in an uproar.
They don't believe that she earned her job."
If Mullin is let go, it would be a dramatic fall for someone who not too
long ago was admired for her zeal, hard work and effectiveness at attracting
jobs to Wayne County.
"Had she not had all this past baggage, she would have probably been a great
leader," said Wayne County Commissioner Ilona Varga, D-Lincoln Park.
Mullin, whose maiden name is Awada, was 2 years old when her parents brought
her to the United States from Lebanon.
Living in Warren
The family settled in Warren, where she lived with four siblings in one
bedroom. Her father worked on an auto assembly line; her mother grew fruits
and vegetables to earn money to buy a car.
While attending high school, Mullin anglicized her name to Terri Awada,
according to the 1986 yearbook in which she appeared numerous times.
Bridget Brennan - a high school friend who now lives in metro Atlanta and is
no longer in touch with her - said most of the students were Caucasian, so
being from an ethnic group was a difficult spot to be in.
"To come into a situation like that and be as well-liked as she was took a
lot of stamina and courage. She had those characteristics," said Brennan,
whose maiden name is Winningham.
Mullin was smart and ambitious but was also popular, Brennan said.
Mullin became student council president and a member of the National Honor
Society. She ran track, played in the concert band and led a "hard nose
defense" during the annual powder puff football game, according to the
She also was voted the senior class's best dancer and was nominated to the
court of Penny Queen, which she won for her efforts in the fundraiser that
raised more than $3,000 that year for the yearbook.
"The more motivated you were to get out there and collect those pennies, the
greater chance you had to win," said Brennan. "I was nominated but I didn't
win. But I didn't have that ambition to bang on doors and collect pennies.
She definitely had the drive, once she was nominated, to win."
After graduation, Mullin enlisted into the Army, where she received medals
for commendation and achievement. She joined, she would explain later in a
lawsuit deposition, to "be all that I could be."
2 years in the Army
After a two-year Army stint, she graduated in 1993 from Wayne State
University, where she majored in accounting.
She received a law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy in 1996, and
interned for retired federal court Judge Donald Scheer.
Mullin married in 1993. She and her husband had two children, born in 2002
But Mullin filed for divorce in 2006, citing a breakdown in the marriage and
a long history of alleged drug use by her husband, according to court
After securing her law degree, Mullin was employed for five years in the
late 1990s for a large Michigan law firm, where she structured tax deals and
incorporated small- to medium-size companies.
>From 2001 to 2003, Mullin was the principal of her own law firm with three
attorneys who represented small- and medium-size businesses in real estate
and other corporate matters.
Besides being a lawyer, Mullin also has a real estate license.
She is a member of numerous professional organizations and groups such as
Arab & Jewish Friends and Seeds of Peace. She was named a woman of the year
in 2009 by the YWCA.
United Auto Workers President Bob King wrote a recommendation letter for
Mullin's application to the airport position.
'A tireless worker'
"She has a vision that moves people to action," he wrote. "Turkia is a
tireless worker with great energy and enthusiasm. I have seen her work
nonstop from dawn until late evening. Her drive makes her an extremely
effective advocate for Wayne County."
But there are flaws, some observers noted.
Gary Woronchak, chairman of the Wayne County Commission, said: "She was
highly regarded on some projects and some projects didn't go quite as we
"Overall, she was regarded as energetic, sometimes a little unfiltered, not
a politician by any means."
While in private practice, Mullin was involved in sales of several gas
stations subsidized by federal loans.
Some of the stations failed, prompting lawsuits by the purchasers alleging
they were over-appraised. Mullin was sued on claims she represented both the
buyers and sellers of the stations, an uncommon legal practice.
She settled one suit and was found professionally negligent in another, but
no damages were awarded.
Client in prison
One of her biggest clients, mortgage broker Patrick Harrington, is in
federal prison for his role in doling out fraudulent Small Business
Administration loans, two of which involved gas station sales in which
Mullin served as an attorney. Another client, Abdulla Al-Jufairi, was later
indicted on fraud charges. He left the country before he was indicted and
now lives in Qatar.
In 2003, Mullin stepped into public life when she became the principal
attorney overseeing Wayne County's real estate division. Three years later,
she became of the executive director of the Wayne County Land Bank.
In 2005, she became the county's assistant chief executive officer; in 2009,
she was named the county's chief economic development director.
Mullin has insisted she negotiated the $200,000 severance in her contract
and that she earned it as a result of bringing more than $5 billion in
investments to Wayne County. That has since been questioned.
Mullin also has noted that the severance was similar to an agreement with
her predecessor. But news of the payment outraged many taxpayers and county
workers who have been asked to take pay cuts by the county. Meantime, two
top county aides were suspended and another terminated for their role in the
severance. And Ficano has apologized publicly. On Friday, he issued a
statement saying Mullin's effectiveness at the airport had been
Only a month ago, Mullin wondered how she got all this attention. "How did I
get to be Marie Antoinette?"
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