DETROIT (WXYZ) - An Action News Investigation triggered a special hearing at the Wayne County Commission today. The commissioners are demanding to know how the county’s economic development chief walked away with $200,000 in severance just for taking a higher paying job at the airport… all while county workers are taking pay cuts.
This hearing brought some surprising admissions: First, that Turkia Mullin never actually had a contract. And that she wasn’t the only one who just recently got severance from the taxpayers.
“I am obviously responsible for the actions of my administration and therefore I accept responsibility for the payment that Ms. Mullin received upon her separation from employment with Wayne County,” said Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano Tuesday morning.
Ficano read a prepared statement at the special meeting of the Wayne County Commission, responding to the firestorm that erupted from our story last week. Action News Investigator Heather Catallo first reported that Ficano’s former economic development czar was given a $200,000 severance payment to voluntarily leave her job.
“I made a direct call from overseas to Miss Mullin and I asked that she return the money. And I was very pleased that we agreed that returning the money was the right thing to do… I will put protections in place so this situation isn’t repeated,” Ficano read to the commissioners.
Ficano spent less than five minutes inside the Commission chambers before leaving for another meeting. He answered no questions from reporters.
“This issue has been a distraction to everyone. It’s been a distraction to the administration, so beyond that he’s addressed the commission,” said Ficano press secretary Brooke Blackwell.
Ficano also escaped the barrage of comments from commissioners.
“Oakland County and Macomb County pay less, and pay less without secret deals or bonuses. And they do better,” said Commissioner Laura Cox.
“We need to reassure the public trust because that’s what’s been lost here,” said Commissioner Kevin McNamara.
Commissioners were upset they were kept in the dark about Turkia Mullin’s big payout. She left in August, to become the CEO of Detroit Metro Airport, where she’s making $250,000 a year. After insisting since last Tuesday that Mullin’s payment was guaranteed to her in her contract, today the County Executive’s story changed. His office admitted Mullin never had a contract.
“Your press secretary issued a statement saying it was a contract, the person that was the former director issued a statement that ‘she has a contract,’ everything that was used in the media, the word contract was used, all of a sudden now it’s not a contract,” said Commissioner Bernard Parker.
Left to defend the administration, and plead for forgiveness, was a top Ficano appointee: assistant CEO Alan Helmkamp.
“There were mistakes in process. There were mistakes in paperwork. And at the end of the day, and the ultimate question… there were mistakes in judgment,” Helmkamp told the commissioners.
We also learned today that it wasn’t just Mullin who walked out the door with a generous county severance. Her secretary, Sherry Galafaro also left with a gift from taxpayers: hers was than $15,000. That money, like Mullin’s, will be returned to the taxpayers. It’s unclear if that payment was approved by Ficano. Meanwhile, commissioners are forming a task force to examine just what went wrong here.
One of the key things they’ll investigate– when this undated letter from Ficano about Mullin’s severance was written.
“It really seems sloppy that somebody would write a letter and forget to put a date on it. It looks really bad,” said Wayne County Commission Chair Gary Woronchak.
We have put in several requests to speak directly to Mr. Ficano about this. So far, his press secretary isn’t returning our calls about when he’ll be available to answer questions.