Scandals derail 30-year political career for Wayne County’s Ficano
Robert Ficano at Plymouth Township ground-breaking ceremony in May 2013
Aug. 6, 2014 PLYMOUTH VOICE.
Plymouth Michigan News
By: John Wisely / Detroit Free Press
It was before dawn in China, Sept. 29, 2011, when word back home leaked out that Ficano had approved a $200,000 severance package for top aide Turkia Awada Mullin when she left to take a better job at Metro Airport.
Ficano’s disjointed response, plus the 12-hour time difference, magnified the perception that he was out of touch. Ficano spent almost three years trying to shed that image, but a series of blunders, played out beneath a public glare, only made matters worse.
An ongoing grand jury probe of county government, which netted four guilty pleas and one conviction on corruption related charges, made Ficano’s name toxic in voters’ mind.
On Tuesday, they rendered their verdict, giving Ficano just 6% of the vote in an 11-person primary race with 72% of precincts reporting. In heavily Democratic Wayne County, Warren Evans held a commanding lead. The winner of the primary is expected to breeze through November’s general election.
The scandals tarnished a run of election victories stretching to 1984 and some policy successes, including the expansion of Cobo Center and converting to a regional authority. Ficano also is credited with standing up for autoworkers by supporting the 2008 government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, even buying TV advertisements in the home state of senators who opposed the plan.
Ficano was a man who was sometimes mentioned as gubernatorial material. Now he will spend the last five months of his political career a lame duck. In appearances before the election, Ficano repeatedly used the word betrayed to describe his predicament.
Friends, critics and political observers said he has a point.
“I don’t think Bob Ficano personally ever took one dime in these scandals,” Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said. “But you have to make sure that the people around you are just as clean.”
Patterson said Ficano staffers, some of whom are now serving prison terms, helped bring down their boss, but Ficano shares some of the blame. He trusted aides with too much power and didn’t watch them closely enough. Failed projects such as the Pinnacle Race Course in Huron Township, which closed in just three years, and the downtown jail, which was halted amid cost overruns and a criminal probe, hurt, too, Patterson said.
“The public will forgive one or two, but he racked up a series of them,” Patterson said. “His legacy will probably be one of mismanagement and bad choices. He put the wrong people in charge.”
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel agreed.
“The reality is you make appointments and you bring people in, and based on their actions, it’s a reflection on yours,” Hackel said. “Unfortunately, people judge you on your last best efforts.”
Hackel said he doubts Ficano broke the law. If he had, he would have been charged by now, Hackel said.
The probe of county government has not concluded, but it’s been a public disaster for Ficano. Among those caught up in the probe are:
■ Michael Grundy, a former assistant county executive who pleaded guilty to wire fraud for wiring $400,000 from Health Choice, an insurance program for poor residents, to a company controlled by his friend. He is serving 7 ½ years.
■ Tahir Kazmi, former chief information officer who pleaded guilty to bribery for taking cash, gifts and travel from a county IT vendor. He is serving 57 months in prison.
■ David Edwards, a former deputy to Kazmi who pleaded guilty to bribery for taking $13,000 in cash from a county vendor. He is serving a year in prison.
■ Zayd Allebban, who worked with Kazmi and Edwards in the IT department, was convicted of obstructing justice for helping create bogus receipts to mask bribe payments. He is serving 41 months in prison.
■ Keith Griffin, who pleaded guilty to conspiring with Grundy to commit wire fraud by illegally accepting $400,000 from Health Choice. He is to be sentenced Sept. 9.
Both Patterson and Hackel said that they always had good personal relationships with Ficano. Patterson said despite their political differences, he considers Ficano a friend. When Patterson’s son died, Ficano was one of the first to offer condolences.
“That meant a lot to me,” Patterson said. “In that respect, he’s a very good guy.”
Hackel agreed: “He’s been very good to me personally and professionally.”
Ficano’s fall from grace came at a time when he was at the peak of his power politically. In the three years before the scandal broke, Ficano was raising an average of $451,000 a year for his campaign, more than $1,200 a day, all year long.
His war chest scared off serious challengers for his job. With more than 200 appointees to help work phone banks, buy fund-raising tickets and knock on doors during campaigns, his political machine was able to support allies who ran for county as well as state offices and target adversaries.
Phil Cavanagh, who was among Ficano’s challengers for the executive seat this summer, said he was on the receiving end of both barrels of Ficano’s political guns in 2008 when he challenged county Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz. Cavanagh was a county commissioner at the time and three weeks before the Democratic primary, he received word that polling showed him leading Wojtowicz, a 32-year incumbent.
Cavanagh said Ficano’s team of appointees mobilized phone banks to defeat him and pounded him in mailings to voters calling him untrustworthy. One included a photo of Cavanagh standing beside embattled Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Those mailings probably cost $50,000 to $80,000 apiece, Cavanagh said.
“I didn’t have the resources to respond,” Cavanagh said. “How do you defend against that kind of lie?”
In a primary with 10 candidates trying to unseat him, Wojtowicz held on to win with 42% to Cavanagh’s 26%.
Series of scandals
But in the end, Ficano couldn’t shake his own image of scandal, which solidified in voters’ minds over several years.
Ficano initially defended the payout to Mullin, calling it standard for an executive at her level, but later backtracked and called it a mistake.
One of Mullin’s marquee projects, the Pinnacle Race Course in Huron Township, went bust, closing just three years after opening. An auditor later concluded the debacle cost the county $35.2 million but never generated promised jobs.
As the county fought a chronic budget deficit, Ficano offered generous buyouts to senior aides, giving them lucrative pensions guaranteed by taxpayers. One that went to Matthew Schenk, Ficano’s former chief of staff, provides for $96,000 annually beginning at age 42 with lifetime medical coverage.
What was supposed to be a $300-million new jail downtown was halted amid cost overruns and a criminal probe. Its steel girders stand rusting near the corner of Gratiot and St. Antoine.
“It’s like he was floating on a sea of corruption and incompetence,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, who has watched Ficano for years. “It’s amazing that he allowed this to happen.”
Ballenger said Ficano is finished politically and his legacy will likely be one of scandal.
But others say Ficano hasn’t gotten enough credit for the good things he’s done. Converting Cobo Center into a regional authority after decades of struggling under corruption and mismanagement by the city of Detroit, is a monumental achievement, said Steve Hood, a political consultant who worked for Ficano from 2003 through 2009.
“That was all Bob Ficano,” Hood said. “He’ll never be remembered for that. He’ll be remembered for all this craziness and that’s sad. His people just sold him down the drain.”