Last Updated: October 19. 2011 3:27PM Christine MacDonald and Karen Bouffard/ The Detroit News
Detroit —The FBI has launched a probe of a $200,000 Wayne County severance, prompting Attorney General bill Schuette on Tuesday to decline calls to investigate.
Schuette’s spokesman, John Sellek, said his office confirmed the FBI is investigating the “Mullin situation,” eliminating the need for a state probe. The announcement came the same day the state House debated a measure from state Rep. John Olumba, D-Detroit, to urge Schuette to investigate.
“Attorney General Schuette commends the efforts of Rep. Olumba today before the Legislature and has full faith in the FBI to conduct a thorough investigation,” Sellek wrote in an email Tuesday.
The severance scandal has become the biggest firestorm of Robert Ficano’s eight-year tenure as county executive. His staff said Tuesday his office hasn’t been contacted by federal investigators.
“I welcome the opportunity to clear up the misinformation that has been out in the media for weeks and put this issue to rest once and for all,” Ficano said in a statement. “My administration and I will cooperate fully and expect to be fully exonerated.”
The News asked Ficano’s office to clarify the “misinformation,” but did not get a response late Tuesday.
FBI spokeswoman Sandra R. Berchtold would not confirm or deny an investigation.
The controversy erupted in late September, when Ficano’s office acknowledged former economic development director Turkia Mullin was paid $200,000 after she left that position that month to become CEO of Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The airport authority, whose members all have deep ties to Ficano’s administration or Wayne County, unanimously voted to give her the $250,000 post in August.
Public’s trust damaged
Public outrage prompted Mullin to promise to return the severance payment, while Ficano last week suspended two top aides — Deputy Executive Azzam Elder and Corporation Counsel Marianne Talon — without pay for 30 days. Ficano also fired Timothy Taylor, who retired this spring as the county’s human resources director but remained on the county’s payroll as a consultant.
Critics of how Ficano has handled the situation said the investigation might help build back taxpayers’ confidence.
“The public trust was violated,” said Commissioner Kevin McNamara, D-Canton. “The most thorough investigation possible could restore that.”
Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak, D-Dearborn, said he’s seeking clarification of what the FBI is investigating, but has a message for agents: “Come on in.”
“Accountability has to be tops on our list right now,” Woronchak said. “If the FBI has reason to look into this matter, they should do so with the full cooperation from Wayne County government.”
Woronchak said the investigation won’t halt a county commission probe that is focused on whether a two-paragraph, undated letter guaranteeing Mullin the severance payment was “meant to deceive.” The panel also wants to establish ordinances to give it more oversight in appointee contracts. Woronchak and other commissioners are upset Mullin’s deal was never brought before the commission. A committee investigating the controversy meets Thursday.
Ficano’s staff had said the letter was created about the time Mullin was appointed to the post in early 2009. but Ficano said Friday it actually was written Sept. 2 to document a verbal agreement made to give Mullin the payout, which was similar to her predecessor’s. it was written on letterhead that was used when Mullin got the post but since has been discontinued.
Nonprofit under scrutiny
Larry Dubin, a University of Detroit Mercy School of Law professor, said it’s hard to know exactly what the FBI might be looking at, but suggested questions surrounding the origin of the letter might be of interest.
“Why was it done in that manner?” Dubin said. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office has been very interested in investigating public corruption.”
The Wayne County Commission also is examining a nonprofit formed under Mullin’s tenure, Edge Opportunities, that is funded by local businesses to foster economic growth. The group paid her a $75,000 bonus, according to Mullin and members of the nonprofit.
The nonprofit is registered to Mullin’s sister’s house in Birmingham, according to state and IRS records. The sister, Mariam Awada, bought the house in 2006 for nearly $2.5 million from Kathleen M. Harrington, the wife of Patrick Harrington, according to county and city records.
Records show Patrick Harrington is an imprisoned mortgage broker who was involved in two gas station sales that led to Mullin being sued for legal malpractice while she was in private practice. Mullin settled one lawsuit, and in another a jury found she was professionally negligent but owed no damages. She wasn’t charged and didn’t face professional sanctions.
Mullin lived at the home after her divorce, but no longer resides there, her attorney Michael Sullivan said in an email. Sullivan said of Awada’s purchase of the home: “If it was mr. Harrington’s wife, that is a mere coincidence.”
Commissioners also want to know why Taylor, who retired from the county and was working part time, signed a severance with Mullin Sept. 3 that gave her another $24,567 in unused sick and vacation time. His successor, Georgetta Kelly, was in place at the time, but did not sign it.
“I did nothing inappropriate, illegal or immoral,” Taylor said when reached Tuesday.
Rep. Olumba said he’s upset Schuette has declined involvement. A House panel Tuesday postponed voting on his resolution. “I am disappointed in the way government has acted from the attorney general to the state House,” Olumba said.
Olumba last week accused his colleagues and Michael Grundy, an appointee of Ficano, of trying to strong-arm him into retracting his request. he also accused his party of backing off because they don’t want to risk losing Ficano’s political donations.
Before Tuesday’s announcement, Schuette had said he referred the matter to the Prosecuting Attorneys Coordinating Council, a group of statewide prosecutors who can step in during potential conflicts of interest. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy also had declined to conduct an investigation.
State Rep. Tom McMillin, chairman of the House Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee, said the committee should delay voting until members could find out more about the council.
News staffers Joel Kurth and Mike Wilkinson contributed.
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