Wayne County deal with fired staffer could cost taxpayers $850K

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Courtesy of The Detroit News:


Detroit —Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano enhanced the pension of a fired administrator by several hundred thousand dollars to get her to drop a lawsuit alleging illegal activities, according to newly released documents.

Ficano’s administration on Friday released details of a controversial — but until-now secret — 2004 settlement to former Detroit-Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency director Patricia Kukula. The release came days before a federal judge was to rule Monday on a challenge to open the file.

The union activist who brought the challenge, Robert Davis, said the complicated settlement could end up costing taxpayers more than $850,000. Davis said that makes it far worse than the $200,000 severance to former economic development director Turkia Mullin that prompted an FBI investigation into Ficano’s administration.

“Taxpayers (need to) know how screwed up Wayne County government is,” Davis said.

“You have employees within the county making less than $35,000 a year carrying the burden of the county’s mismanagement, (while) Robert Ficano enriches his friends and pays off individuals who could ruin his political career.”

Ficano spokeswoman Brooke Blackwell wrote in an email the settlement was not a “cover-up” and she said there’s no comparison between it and the Mullin payment that has since been returned. Kukula’s deal is “not a severance agreement — it’s a lawsuit settlement,” Blackwell said.

Kukula, who was fired from the agency months into her tenure in 2003, sued alleging she was retaliated against for reporting that Ficano’s staff was “misusing mental health funds … (and) employed members of his personal staff using mental health dollars, when in fact they were not performing mental health work.”

She dropped the suit in 2004. In return, according to documents released Friday, she received some $60,000 and was credited four years and 11 months of service time to enable her to retire with a pension that paid $90,420 per year. She agreed to defer collecting it until April 2009.

Kukula was 47 when she was fired, too young to draw a pension, and now is 55. Depending on how long she lives, the enhancements could be worth $600,000 or more over the life of the pension, according to estimates provided to The Detroit News by a labor accountant

Davis plans to return to U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman’s court on Monday to seek documents pinpointing the worth of the enhancements. Those were omitted from Friday’s release, he said.

Speaking to The Detroit News on Thursday, Kukula would only say she was cooperating with Davis’ lawsuit.

“I resigned and (the suit) was settled 7½ years ago, that’s what I can say,” said Kukula, who is now vice president of corporate development for the Detroit Medical Center. Her boss, DMC CEO Mike Duggan, was Wayne County’s deputy executive under Ficano’s predecessor, Edward McNamara.

Earlier Friday, Wayne Circuit Judge Robert Colombo Jr. cast doubt on Davis’ challenge of the validity of Mullin’s contract with the Wayne County Airport Authority.

She was named its CEO in September but fired in October amid the FBI probe. Last month, Colombo ruled the airport board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act with its search for Mullin.

Mullin is also suing the airport authority alleging she was fired after an illegally closed meeting. Her attorney, Ray Sterling, wants Colombo to toss her termination.

He said he has reviewed Mullin’s personnel file from the airport authority and found no indication of any wrongdoing on her part. “There’s not one bad word about her in that file,” he said.

Authority board members have not said what Mullin did to warrant her firing.

Her airport contract calls for her to receive to receive nearly three years’ compensation, more than $700,000, if she is fired without cause.

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