No more charges in Wayne Co. corruption probe

Robert Snell and Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Detroit — A wide-ranging three-year investigation of Wayne County government ended Monday after federal prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges against former county Executive Robert Ficano and two former high-ranking deputies.

It was a rare, quiet end of a public corruption case in a region recovering from former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s racketeering case and convictions against 38 people, including numerous public officials, including former Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announcement ends a prolonged investigation of fundraising and ties between Wayne County employees and contractors that netted five convictions. The investigation, the county’s financial decline and mismanagement transformed Ficano from one of the region’s most popular officeholders into a tarnished former politician.

“The government needs a case that is persuasive, and what persuades a jury is what we saw in the Kwame Kilpatrick (corruption) case: lining your own pocket and taking money that does not belong to you,” said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor. “In this case, we never really heard anything about that.”

In the Kilpatrick corruption case, prosecutors were armed with financial records showing more than $500,000 in unexplained cash in his bank accounts. The records helped send Detroit’s disgraced, former mayor to prison for 28 years following a years-long corruption investigation that netted 38 other convictions.

Ficano, a former county sheriff who is teaching law enforcement classes at Wayne County Community College District, hailed the announcement Monday.

“Today, my record and my good name have been cleared and I move on with confidence and renewed faith,” he said in a statement. “Those who prejudged and sensationalized the situation and the people involved in it have extracted a heavy price and ruined the reputation of many decent and honest citizens. I hope there is a lesson in this for them.”

The outcome was reminiscent of an earlier Wayne County corruption investigation. Federal and state police officers raided former county Executive Edward McNamara’s county and campaign offices in 2002 during an investigation that ended with convictions of two lower-level officials.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office refused to explain why Ficano or anyone else would not be charged following a three-year investigation.

“This was a decision made solely by the government after an extensive investigation that lasted over three years,” Ficano’s lawyer Steve Fishman wrote in an email. “It was not that ‘they couldn’t find any federal violations involving Ficano;’ it was that there was no evidence that Mr. Ficano did anything that was criminal or participated in any criminal activity.”

The Wayne County corruption investigation focused on former economic development chief Turkia Mullin and former Deputy Wayne County Executive Azzam Elder.

Lawyers for Elder and Mullin provided copies of a letter dated Monday from U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. She said investigators could not identify any violations of federal law involving Elder or Mullin.

Ficano has withstood an unusual level of scrutiny in the last three years, Henning said.

“They’ve looked at all of his campaign records, his money and under every rock to see if he hid something under one of those rocks,” Henning said. “I expect they didn’t find anything.

“At some point, they have to ask ‘do we have enough, not just to indict but to convict?’ The standard is probable cause, but that’s not the standard the Justice Department uses, especially in a corruption case. They have to be convinced they can win.”

The government’s decision now lifts a cloud of suspicion surrounding Ficano and Wayne County.

“As we are in the process of restoring both Wayne County’s financial footing and reputation, today’s announcement is welcome and will help us move forward,” Wayne County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak said via text message.

The three-year probe resulted in the convictions of five other individuals, including Wayne County’s chief information officer and an assistant Wayne County executive who served as the director of HealthChoice of Michigan.

Elder said he was not surprised by the government’s announcement.

“The damage inflicted on my family and my reputation throughout this ordeal has been immeasurable,” he said in a statement. “The lesson learned and remembered should be that a rush to judgment based on rumors and innuendo can be irreversible to ones’ reputation.”

In a statement Monday, Mullin said she had “full belief in the system and knew the truth would prevail. I am glad it is over and look forward to moving on with my life.”

John Truscott, who represented companies that had been named in the investigation’s subpoenas, said the investigation “threw a really wide net around anyone doing business with Wayne County.”

“It’s a relief for anybody who thought they were still under the microscope,” Truscott said.

Among his clients were Ron Boji and the Boji Group, a Lansing development company that was one of 14 companies named in a 2011 subpoena because it was among the companies that had a seat on the board of Mullin’s economic development nonprofit.

Boji’s brother-in-law, Nader Fakhouri, was an assistant county executive and a Ficano fundraiser. The Detroit News reported in 2011 that Fakhouri had an interest in two companies — subsidiaries of the Boji Group — that owned and built two state-leased office buildings that the county bought for nearly $14 million.

Fakhouri maintained he was never involved with the county’s decision to buy the buildings and that he disclosed his interest.

“We knew all along the deal had been vetted and everything was OK,” Truscott said. “We’ve been waiting for this decision.”

Former Wayne County Commissioner Bernard Parker said Monday as the investigation dragged on, it became clear there likely were no other charges coming.

“I think they did a good job investigating,” Parker said. “If there was anything, they would have found it.

“It sends a message that you better make sure everything is clean … and that you better be knowledgeable about what everyone is doing.”