Regime of once powerful Wayne County boss facing federal scrutiny
Can Robert Ficano, the man who once wielded enormous influence and power and whose political machine was unmatched compared to other political heavyweights in Wayne County, now survive the rigorous federal scrutiny that has so quickly engulfed his administration?
That is the question on the mind of every political entity in the city and beyond. For the last four weeks I’ve been listening to people from various political backgrounds playing the soothsayer’s role, making predictions about the future of the county executive and his administration.
Some believe that the end of his administration is a foregone conclusion, while others are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as long as he doesn’t get indicted and stained in the process.
While it is important to state clearly that Ficano has repeatedly declared his innocence and has not been charged with any crime, it is difficult to fathom how his administration can function effectively under the climate of a widening federal investigation that has already nabbed one of his top lieutenants, Tahir Kazmi.
Kazmi, the county’s former chief information officer, was recently charged by federal prosecutors with extortion, theft and obstruction of justice, hallmarks of federal corruption probes.
“We are turning over every stone in this case, and anyone who tampers with our investigation will be charged with obstruction of justice. We hope that these charges will encourage others to come forward and assist us in our investigation rather than impede it. The citizens of Wayne County are entitled to a thorough investigation to ensure that they are receiving the honest government they deserve,” was how the determined U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Barbara McQuade described the charges.
The charges against Kazmi signal what some predict is a harbinger for things to come in county government as FBI agents enhance their investigations with more subpoenas to try to connect possible spider web corruption in the Wayne County regime.
“If these allegations are true, this is outrageous. We have been fully cooperative. If somebody did something wrong, we are going to hold them fully accountable,” Ficano said recently in an urgent news conference held in the lobby of the Guardian Building after the Kazmi charges were announced.
The federal investigation is not over. Ficano’s former deputy, Azzam Elder, the man widely perceived by many to have had power that exceeded his title, and Turkia Awada Mullin, the county’s former economic chief, whose doubtful appointment to CEO of the Detroit Metro Airport blew the covers off the $200,000 severance package, are all reported to be under the federal microscope.
Michael Grundy, another top Ficano lieutenant and political operative, who ran the county’s insurance program for the poor, is also under federal scrutiny, facing disturbing allegations of shakedown from a county client, as well as reports of wiring thousands of dollars of public dollars to a fledging IT company owned by a childhood friend.
With all of these investigations focusing on the Ficano administration — and the men and women who served under him occupying significant positions that warranted public trust and responsibility — it is hard to imagine how Ficano’s administration can ride out the political storm.
How can his administration earn the public confidence when reports of county misuse of funds meant for the most vulnerable in society by some of his former executives are dominating the headlines?
The individuals under scrutiny were not just regular employees. They were key members of Ficano’s cabinet running departments, and by the stroke of a pen changed lives.
In a different setting, a board would have asked Ficano to resign a long time ago for either being a bad manager or not having a clue as to what his lieutenants were allegedly doing.
Was he that much in the dark about what was happening or was he just going along with the program?
This investigation is crucial because it involves possible economic crimes and breaching the public’s trust.
Ficano will continue to declare his innocence after every federal charge is announced with one press conference after another regarding one more of his former cabinet members. The public can only stomach so much. The reports of possible cases of corruption, bribery and extortion by individuals who were sworn to uphold the interests of taxpayers are a disturbing distraction for the Ficano administration.
We saw this political circus play out before with the Kwame Kilpatrick administration, where the former mayor tried to make the case that his legal woes would not affect his duties as the city’s chief executive officer, when it eventually did just that, resulting in him being forced to leave office.
Of course, Ficano is not Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick’s initial legal issues emanated from his personal affairs. Even though Ficano has not been charged, everyone around him that has left his administration, it appears, is getting ready to fall.
Given the close relationship between him and some of his former lieutenants, like Elder who is now bent on exposing his former boss, will Ficano testify against his former right hand man, or will it be the reverse?
As the wheels of justice turn with dizzying speed, Wayne County is like a stone rolling down the mountainside.
One would think that what’s taking place in Detroit City Hall corruption probe will serve as a valuable lesson for some county officials to be more honest and forthright.
Ficano is set to give his State of the County address on Wednesday, Feb. 29. The county executive will certainly try to be upbeat despite the federal probe, amd it is important for him to restore public confidence in Wayne
County government. The speech should not only be about budget cuts. It should also be about ethics, and a string of preventive measures to ensure that taxpayers are not cheated.
In addition to the State of the County speech, Ficano should deliver the State of the Anti-Corruption speech and reassure taxpayers that their dollars are in the hands of good stewards who understand that the business of working for the public is a privilege and not a birthright.
That will be a good start for assuring Wayne County taxpayers who feel betrayed by every report of malfeasance and possible corruption emanating from one of the most powerful local governments in Michigan.
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of a six-part series on the Obama presidency, including “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published in 2010. His latest book is “Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue written by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. His upcoming books in 2012 are “Obama and Jewish Loyalty” and “Obama and Business Loyalty.” Listen to him every Thursday, 11:30 a.m., on WDET 101.9 FM Detroit and every Sunday, 9 to 10 p.m. on the Obama Watch program on WLIB 1190 AM-New York. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.