Ficano defeated but unbowed: 'I feel really fortunate'

Steve Pardo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Robert Ficano's last few years as Wayne County executive were clouded by a stalled jail project, public furor over staff payouts and the conviction of four former aides in a federal corruption probe.

Still, as he prepares to finish more than 30 years in county government at the end of the month, Ficano insists he is leaving with his head held high and no regrets.

"I feel really fortunate. I've had 32 years of public service — 20 as sheriff and then 12 as county exec," he said. "Now it's just about working with the transition team."

Ficano, 62, has worked for Wayne County since 1983, when he was appointed sheriff. He won election to that post five times, was elected county executive in 2002, and was re-elected in 2006 and 2010.

But scandals within his administration contributed to his defeat in the August Democratic primary by former Sheriff Warren Evans, who is taking Ficano's place.

Ficano was once seen as unbeatable. After his loss to Evans, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said Ficano "could have been county executive for life if he just paid attention to detail."

But the federal probe and other problems in his administration proved to be the downfall of a man who, up until this year, had never lost an election. FBI agents served subpoenas on Ficano in October 2011, and a string of convictions for former county officials followed.

"Those things start adding up," said Joe DiSano, a Democratic strategist in Lansing. "He just had scandal after scandal after scandal and that took its toll."

Overall, Ficano handled the blows as well as anyone could have, DiSano said. But together, they were overwhelming.

"I think he made the mistake of trusting the wrong people," DiSano said. "The problem is the real legacy is going to be overshadowed by things he wasn't directly responsible for. I've never heard anyone accuse Bob Ficano of being a crook. And I think that's important."

Ficano legacy

Ficano hopes his legacy will be a rise in regional cooperation. He's proud of work done to renovate and expand Cobo Center and develop Aerotropolis — the regional development center near the airport.

Last year at this time, there was talk of an emergency manager coming to the county. That talk has been mostly quieted today. The county's deficit has been lowered, thanks to a $150 million transfer from the Wayne County treasurer's delinquent tax revolving fund. Ficano reduced staff, cut pay and implemented furloughs to save money.

"The financial escape that it looks like is going to occur was one that was a lot of hard work from a lot of people," Ficano said. "It's going to bear fruit."

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said Ficano was always focused on the issues and willing to work with others in the surrounding counties and beyond.

"Any time I called or had questions or wanted to work together on a project, he would take the call," said Hackel. "Any time you would talk to Bob, he was extremely cordial and diplomatic. He was always on point and on the issues wasn't just focused on Wayne County or Detroit."

Controversies begin in third term

Ficano's first two terms as county executive went relatively smoothly. But starting in 2008, the housing market's crash began straining county finances. Since then, Wayne County's property tax collections have shrunk by about $100 million a year because of falling home values.

Controversies started in his third term and kept coming. Millions of county dollars were invested in the Pinnacle Race Course — a failed venture in Huron Township that closed after two years in 2010.

His administration approved buyouts and lucrative pension deals for county employees not represented by a union. The one that likely proved the most damaging politically was the $200,000 payout in 2011 to former economic development chief Turkia Mullin. She returned the money after intense media coverage.

The stalled jail project also proved damaging.

Commissioners approved up to $300 million in bonds for construction of a new jail across from the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice. But a year and a half ago, Ficano halted construction after cost estimates soared more than $90 million over the approved amount.

Now, he said, jail plans are moving forward. He's confident county commissioners will approve restarting construction. About $160 million of the bond money has already been spent. It costs about $50,000 a month to maintain the half-built jail, county officials said. Costs to finish it are now estimated at $372.5 million.

Three current and former county officials were charged in September as part of a probe of the cost overruns: retired chief financial officer Carla Sledge, Chief Assistant Corporation Counsel Steven Collins and Anthony Parlovecchio, a former economic development deputy who was fired as owner representative of the jail project.

Defends himself

Regarding the FBI investigation of county government, Ficano steadfastly defends himself and says he has cooperated with authorities.

"We've been an open book and anything (the FBI) wanted they've been able to look at," Ficano said.

No charges have been leveled against him. And Ficano says he is confident none will be.

"There is no way I have done anything wrong or illegal," he said. "I know that. You can look at my bank account you can look at my house. You can look at my car. There's nothing there at all."

Overall, it's a waste of time to mull over regrets, Ficano said.

"The best you can do is say everything you do, you learn from," he said. "The people who broke the public trust, I'll level criticism at. If they broke the law, they should be punished. We'll help law enforcement go after them. I know in my own conscience who I am and what I've done." 222-2112