August 7, 2014 at 10:33 am

2011 scandal, subpoenas presaged Ficano's 1st election defeat in 30 years

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano posted a message on Facebook Wednesday saying he 'will always be a cheerleader for Wayne County.' (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Detroit— In the end, Robert Ficano stood in a corner, next to the bathroom, not ready to acknowledge his first election defeat in 30 years.

As supporters packed signs and balloons early Wednesday and left Mario’s Italian Restaurant, Ficano stayed huddled in the back with longtime fundraiser Nader Fakhouri. Hours earlier, supporters said he was done. Ficano was polling a distant fifth but he wouldn’t admit he was trounced by former Sheriff Warren Evans.

“All the numbers aren’t counted,” Ficano said.

As he spoke, a flat-screen television was loaded into a minivan. Through the night, it was tuned to the Detroit Tigers game, not election results, an acknowledgment that, come January, Ficano will be out of office for the first time since 1983.

That’s the year he was appointed sheriff. He was re-elected four times, then spent 12 years as executive, building a political machine and harboring aspirations for governor, former aide Ernest Johnson said.

The defeat caps the slow fall since FBI agents served subpoenas on Ficano in October 2011. Four former aides have pleaded guilty or been convicted of bribery in the ongoing probe. Aides and pollsters repeatedly warned Ficano he had no chance of winning. Ficano ignored them all, publicly declaring “I’m not a quitter.”

“He could have been county executive for life if he just paid attention to detail,” said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

Ficano’s defeat was guaranteed once a scandal erupted in 2011 over a $200,000 severance to Turkia Mullin, his former economic development chief, said Joe DiSano, a Democratic strategist in Lansing. Ficano initially defended the payment, then demanded its return and later complained he was betrayed.

Mullin was behind several big-ticket projects that failed, such as The Pinnacle Race Track in Huron Township that closed after spending millions in county money, and a $300 million jail whose construction stopped last year because of cost overruns.

Ficano’s predecessor, Edward McNamara, has an airport terminal named in his honor at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Ficano wanted a similar project.

“He so badly wanted a legacy project in a time when there is huge budgetary pressure that he was willing to let other people make those decisions and run with them,” DiSano said. “The results blew up in his face.”

Mullin also led the county’s 2009 move from the Old Wayne County Building on Randolph and purchase of the Guardian Building. The skyscraper cost more than double its original $27 million price and isolated Ficano, Johnson said.

In the old building, Ficano worked alongside staffers on the third floor, ate in the cafeteria and walked the stairs daily to work. In the Guardian, Ficano was ensconced on the top floor, behind two locked doors, a secretary and an elevator that required a security code most staffers didn’t have. On the same floor: Fakhouri and Deputy Executive Azzam Elder, who along with Mullin were known by Ficano as “the Young Turks.”

“You would only see his Cadillac parked out front. You would never see him,” said Johnson, a seven-year consitutent services aide who retired in 2010.

“Ficano got addicted to the trappings of the county executive office. He liked having a driver, going to parades, throwing candy and traveling to China, Italy and everywhere on trade missions. He enjoyed it and let the others do the work.”

After his 2006 re-election, Ficano commissioned statewide name recognition polls in preparation for a possible 2010 bid for governor, Johnson and two former aides said.

Ficano focused on bolstering his power base in Metro Detroit, building a $600,000 political war chest that at one point was among the largest in Michigan and using the money to back allies on the County Commission, Detroit City Council and other agencies such as the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Mullin served about two months as executive director at the airport before she was fired in 2011. She sued and was awarded more than $700,000 in back pay.

“Their goal was to expand the power base beyond Wayne County,” state Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, the county’s former environment director, told The News last year. “They had the right people in place at the airport for it to happen. It didn’t take much to connect the dots for it to all fall into place.”

After the severance scandal, Ficano’s problems multiplied.

Funding of the county’s pension system fell below 50 percent and officials blamed a series of early buyouts that Ficano offered to his former appointees. The county’s finances were so precarious commissioners spoke openly about the state appointing an emergency manager. Construction of the jail stopped last year when costs soared.

“It was just a series of blunders and peccadillos he could never recover from,” Patterson said. “When you’ve been in office a long time, it’s easy but dangerous to take it easy. But he left major decisions in the hands of subordinates and it cost him.”

Ficano’s Young Turks left in the early days of the crisis. No prominent politicians came to his defense. Even Tuesday, a longtime aide complained the media focused on “four screwups” who took bribes, rather than 100-plus appointees who have not faced charges.

“A lot of his allies and friends across the spectrum have retired and moved on,” DiSano said. “After the Turkia Mullin scandal, he didn’t have the relationships with people to help pull him through.”

Polling before the election showed Ficano finishing well behind the pack. His best hope was a crowded field that split the vote, Johnson said. Then Evans entered the race in May. And Ficano’s longtime ally, the UAW, decided to remain neutral.

The victory marks a comeback of sorts for Evans, a longtime public official who served as Ficano’s undersheriff in the 1980s. Evans was sheriff from 2003 to 2009, when he became Detroit police chief. He was forced to quit a year later following a series of controversies, including the death of a girl during a police raid.

Evans said it was clear voters “had enough” of Ficano and the only issue was “who else” would win.

“The final outcome is pretty much what we saw when we started polling at the very beginning,” Evans said. “We had a big lead in the beginning, and we finished about as strong as I think we began.”

Evans was the sole African-American among the five major candidates in an 11-candidate field and enjoyed substantial support in Detroit. Three others, Westland Mayor Bill Wild, state Rep. Phil Cavanagh and Commissioner Kevin McNamara, split the suburban vote.

Hours after Evans declared victory to supporters including former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Ficano gave up the ghost.

He called about 5 a.m. and congratulated Evans. It went to voice mail. By mid-afternoon Wednesday, Ficano posted a message on Facebook saying he “will always be a cheerleader for Wayne County.”

jkurth@detroitnews.com
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