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Leave it to the lawyer to set us all straight: "I told you so three years ago," Steve Fishman said Monday. "Mr. Ficano did nothing wrong."

Not legally speaking, according to U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. Her office is closing its investigation into Wayne County corruption โ€” effectively exonerating Robert Ficano personally, if not the performance of his incompetent administration.

The former county executive leaves a legacy of bumbling and financial mismanagement demanding more than the attention of his successor, Warren Evans. The governor's office, the state Treasurer and the empire builders of mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert, to name three, are all picking their respective ways through the wreckage left by Ficano.

It's an impressive pile. There's the half-finished jail project on the east edge of downtown, a money pit that smacks more of communist-era East Berlin than a Detroit fueled by billions in private investment and buoyed by refreshing alignment between City Hall, philanthropy and the business community.

There's a $50 million structural deficit in the county budget, according to a new study by Ernst & Young; two of three bond ratings classified as junk; and a county pension fund that is only 44 percent funded, down from 95 percent a decade ago.

The state's most populous county is a potential candidate for a consent decree, an emergency manager, or both โ€” options Evans and Gov. Rick Snyder each hope to avoid. Still, the county's accumulated deficit is projected to roughly approximate its current general fund budget of $495 million by fiscal year 2019 if nothing changes.

But it has to. Judging by much of the free commentary on social media over the many months of the federal probe into Ficano's tenure, a lot of folks out there don't buy McQuade's absolution any more than they do Ficano's claim of vindication in an email to The Detroit News and interviews with other news outlets.

They're welcome to their opinions. Far more relevant in the arc of Detroit's and Wayne County's fitful walk back to credibility is the contribution McQuade and her team made to the effort by simply doing their jobs far more effectively than their predecessors, Republican and Democrat.

They convicted five members of Ficano's administration; sent former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to prison for 28 years, the longest corruption sentence ever awarded an elected official; sent a former City Council president, Monica Conyers, to federal prison.

Most importantly they sent a message of incalculable value to residents, business leaders and, especially, public officials in southeast Michigan potentially susceptible to a culture of corruption allowed to flourish for too long: namely, the people with federal muscle and the guts to flex it are watching and willing to act.

As public services go, that's huge. It's also a critical component in the turnaround taking place in Detroit and, if Evans gets his way, in Wayne County โ€” in some ways as big as the city's successful emergence from Chapter 9 and its defining "grand bargain."

McQuade's past four-plus years as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan draws a bright red line beneath the undeniable connection between corruption and its corrosive effect on the business of government.

The due diligence associated with the city's bankruptcy detailed the nexus of corruption and mismanagement at the heart the city's inexorable decline; the spiral accelerated during the cynical Kilpatrick years and, later, the Great Recession that followed.

The self-dealing exposed by McQuade & Co. in the Wayne County investigations opened a window on bureaucratic leeches far more interested in claiming rich early retirement packages or, in more nefarious cases, steering public money to cronies than doing their jobs.

The U.S. attorney and her team deserve medals, recognition for rolling up the kind of public corruption steadily consuming both the competence and credibility of local government around here.

Ficano may be legally vindicated. But his reputation as a manager and a leader is in tatters; look no further than the financial mess he left his successor and the constituents he spent the past dozen years claiming to represent.

They'll pay, along with county employees likely to see financial restructuring hit their paychecks, future pension accruals, current benefits and retiree health care.

Residents will hear talk of higher taxes to close the yawning budget gap, albeit not by the people who understand the implied quid pro quo. Evans, for one, knows he cannot propose any increase in millage rates without first showing that county leadership can get the county's finances back in order.

Ficano couldn't, the single biggest reason he's out and someone else is cleaning up the mess he left behind. That's a legacy he cannot deny, no matter what the U.S. attorney says.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.

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