Sunday, April 15, 2012

Robert Ficano's aides dashed to grab upper hand on severance news, e-mails show

The reaction of the administration of Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Free Press provides insight into how Ficano's insiders tried to defuse potentially unfavorable news.

Just before 5 p.m. Sept. 19, Free Press reporter John Wisely filed a FOIA request seeking severance documents for Turkia Awada Mullin, who left her job as the county's economic development boss in early September to become CEO of Metro Airport. Wisely had received a tip that Mullin had received a large severance when she voluntarily left her county job.

The county didn't provide the Free Press with a copy of the agreement for nearly two weeks.

But, according to e-mails the Free Press recently obtained under an information request, Ficano's top aides immediately started planning how to defuse the news the agreement would show -- that Mullin got $200,000 for leaving one job for another that paid even more.

The agreement included a confidentiality provision barring Mullin from disclosing the agreement except under court order.

The county reserved its right to disclose the deal "as permitted or required by law, including ... the Michigan Freedom of Information Act."

But the county appeared to want to give the story to someone other than Wisely, who had written a story in August raising questions about Mullin's appointment as airport director. The story noted that the executive search firm that helped hire her was run by Jack Krasula, an investor in a key county land deal Mullin had spearheaded.

Just before noon Sept. 20, Ficano's top aide, Deputy County Executive Azzam Elder, sent Mullin, Ficano's director of communications Lynn Ingram, press secretary Brooke Blackwell and others a copy of the severance agreement paid to Mullin's economic development predecessor, Mulu Birru.

He noted that former airport director Lester Robinson had paid severances to people who left the airport and that "although she didn't have to, Turkia agreed to reduce her severance down from 18 to 12 months."

Five hours later, Blackwell e-mailed a TV reporter she knew with the subject line "Story for you ... call me later."

The station later aired a story on Mullin's arrival at the airport and her plans to balance its budget but didn't mention the $200,000 severance payment, except in a separate online blog, which noted that it was a "standard severance" package.

When Wisely questioned Blackwell in an e-mail, she responded that it was Mullin, not her, who had given the severance details to the TV station.

Ingram, Blackwell's boss, was happy with the TV coverage, saying in a Sept. 21 e-mail to Ficano and others that the story "got the cat out of the bag for us." He wrote that Mullin appeared prepared and confident. They had arranged another interview for the following morning "and the issue will have been beaten to death," Ingram wrote.

He added: "Wisely will be left with nothing but scraps for page 8 of a week day edition."

He added a smiley face for emphasis.

Elder was pleased with the result, too. He sent Ficano and others an e-mail that night, saying: "Brooke and Lynn, I want to personally thank you for making a great result happen." He added, "Bob thank you for believing in all of us."

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