Taxpayers paid for 3 workers to raise cash for Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, Free Press investigation finds [Detroit Free Press]
(Detroit Free Press (MI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 29--Three top aides to Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano devoted much of their county work time to raising money for Ficano's political and nonprofit operations, with more than $500,000 they generated going to companies connected to families or friends of two of them.
The Ficano fund-raisers -- led by recently resigned Assistant Executive Nader Fakhouri -- targeted county contractors, with one e-mail from Fakhouri listing amounts from $5,000 to $25,000 that each of a dozen firms were expected to give to Ficano's 2010 re-election campaign. Other e-mails show Fakhouri ordered county department heads to support Ficano's annual fund-raising gala by selling $500 tickets.
A two-month Free Press review of campaign records and fund-raising e-mails, as well as interviews with current and former campaign insiders and Ficano aides, also found that Fakhouri sent e-mails from an address at QTI, the company that received more cash than any other vendor -- nearly $400,000 -- during Ficano's last re-election run.
QTI, which lists Fakhouri's sister as its president and is not in good standing with the state's business licensing division, was unknown to local and state political experts familiar with companies that do campaign work.
The fund-raising trio kept their jobs as the county slashed its work force by more than 28% -- almost 1,200 people -- and all county employees took a 10% pay cut to balance the budget.
Ficano defended his appointees, speculating that any campaign work they did during working hours was likely performed while on breaks from their county duties.
"We have very strict rules, we expect everybody to follow them," he said, inviting anyone with information of wrongdoing to report it.
Raising campaign money on government time is illegal. Experts said soliciting campaign funds but failing to use the money for political purposes could constitute embezzlement, fraud or money laundering.
Ficano said he is confident QTI earned its pay.
"Did we get service? Was it provided? Yes, it was," he said. "The campaign was successful. Obviously, the results speak for themselves."
3 workers raised money for County Executive Robert Ficano on taxpayers' dime, Free Press investigation finds
Down the hall from Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano's corner office on the 31st floor of Detroit's majestic Guardian Building sat three county employees: Nader Fakhouri, Valerie Denha and JoAnn Abdenour.
On the surface, little connected them.
Assistant County Executive Fakhouri, with a salary of $145,670, was one of Ficano's top aides and troubleshooters -- until he resigned a month ago.
Denha, with a salary of $100,000, was paid out of the county Department of Health and Human Services.
Abdenour, with a salary of $64,154, was paid by the Department of Technology.
But a Free Press investigation reveals that they had one thing in common: raising money -- lots of money -- for Ficano.
Other current and former county employees who worked with or near the three said they were widely perceived to be full-time political fund-raisers.
"All they did was campaign stuff," said one who, like many still employed by Ficano, would talk only if their names were not used.
It is illegal to raise political money on government time or to spend campaign contributions for other purposes.
Ficano said he believed the three operated within the "very strict rules" against county employees doing campaign work on public time and said there have been no complaints about them.
"If there's allegations that people are doing things inappropriately ... they've got to bring it to someone's attention," he said. "There are processes."
A Free Press review found that Ficano was not the only one who benefited from the fund-raising efforts on the 31st floor. More than $500,000 of the campaign cash that Fakhouri, Denha and Abdenour helped raise went to companies run by family and friends of Ficano appointees, including two of the fund-raising trio.
Fakhouri family businesses received much of it, including the largest payouts of Ficano's 2010 re-election run. QTI, a company that lists Fakhouri's sister Najwa Fakhouri as president, received nearly $400,000 from the campaign. Nader Fakhouri also sent e-mails from a QTI account.
Nader Fakhouri, director of Ficano's 2010 re-election campaign, declined numerous interview requests, telling the Free Press in an e-mail on Friday that he resigned March 31 because of health reasons.
"I plan on spending more time with my family and focus my attention on improving my health," he said. "I wish the county executive much success and thank the entire Wayne County staff for all of their hard work and dedication."
Records show that other companies connected to Nader Fakhouri's family and friends were paid more than $100,000 from Ficano political accounts.
Ficano's political action committee also paid $31,500 in 2009 to RDJ & Associates, which is run by Abdenour's longtime boyfriend, Rick Jones, who is also a Ficano appointee. Abdenour, Ficano's campaign treasurer, is a department executive in the Department of Technology.
Abdenour and Jones did not return messages seeking comment, including a certified letter with a return receipt the Free Press sent to RDJ & Associates.
The Free Press did not find any campaign payments to companies linked to Denha, whose job classification says she works for the county Department of Management and Budget, but other county officials and Ficano campaign staffers described her as Fakhouri's top fund-raising assistant.
The Free Press also found that a company connected to another former high-ranking Ficano aide, Assistant County Executive Michael Grundy, received $51,000 in 2010 and 2011 from Ficano's PAC and campaign account.
The company, CARF Consultants, was created by Stephen Randall, who also helped create the nonprofit HealthChoice Foundation of Michigan, an offshoot of the county's HealthChoice insurance program for small businesses and low-income workers. Grundy was the executive director of HealthChoice until he was fired by Ficano last year for refusing to cooperate with an internal investigation of its spending.
Randall did not return messages or respond to a certified letter the Free Press sent to the address listed for CARF in state records and campaign documents.
A federal grand jury indicted Grundy last month on 25 charges alleging that he and a friend engineered a kickback scheme to bilk HealthChoice out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Grundy's lawyer has denied the charges.
Ficano said he was not familiar with CARF Consultants.
"If it's associated with Mr. Grundy, I really don't have any comment on it," he said.
Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor and coauthor of "The Prosecution and Defense of Public Corruption: The Law and Legal Strategies," said: "If the campaign official was directing funds to a friend or a colleague, or perhaps into his or her own pocket by running it through fictitious vendors or fictitious companies, then certainly you'd have the possibility of embezzlement or fraud."
Ficano said he doesn't manage the day-to-day operations of his campaign entities, which raised about $3 million for his last election. But he said QTI's billings were in line with previous campaign fund-raisers.
"Services were delivered," he said. "There are invoices and they were paid."
He also cited dozens of projects that Nader Fakhouri worked on for the county, including a six-month effort to see whether Wayne County could launch its own version of the Kalamazoo Promise, which provides college scholarships for students in public schools. He also praised the business acumen of Denha, who has a master of business administration from the University of Michigan.
Of Abdenour, Ficano said: "JoAnn's a very hard worker. I know she does a full day's work at the county. I also know she loves politics."
Ficano said he asked Abdenour to review her personal e-mail and found that, on average, she sent about one campaign-related e-mail a month during working hours.
"If she's engaging in less than one a month on her lunch hour," Ficano said, "then she's within the rules."
Following the trail
The Free Press spent two months examining thousands of pages of campaign, business and county records, and dozens of fund-raising e-mails exchanged by the Ficano appointees. The newspaper also interviewed more than a dozen current and former campaign and county workers. The investigation found that Fakhouri, Denha and Abdenour helped raise about $3 million since 2006 for Ficano's political and nonprofit funds.
James Wallace, who had an office near the three until he was fired by the county in January, said his interactions with them were almost exclusively political.
"I never saw Nader unless it was for a political thing, or the State of the County (address)," said Wallace, a graphic artist who is suing the county over his dismissal, claiming he was fired for objecting to doing political work on county time.
Ficano said the work Wallace considered political was really county business, citing a full-page ad the campaign paid for to raise awareness of Ficano's budget battle with the Wayne County Circuit Court. He said the campaign bought the ad "so that the taxpayers don't have the burden" and called it an important effort to raise public awareness.
The Free Press investigation shows that the fund-raising trio targeted county contractors for contributions and required county department heads to support their boss' annual fund-raising gala by selling $500 tickets to the event.
The trio kept their jobs despite austerity measures that shrank the county work force by more than 28% -- almost 1,200 workers -- since 2006.
'Did I miss anyone?'
As Ficano's campaign director, Fakhouri was preparing for the county executive's 2010 re-election run when, in November 2009, he sent an e-mail to Tahir Kazmi, the county's chief information officer, saying he expected $185,000 in campaign contributions from a dozen technology companies getting county business.
The e-mail listed target amounts from $5,000 to $25,000, then added: "Did I miss anyone?"
In the same e-mail, Fakhouri tells Kazmi: "This is my favor of you it will help me in what I need to do for next year" if the county can "carve out 2 staffing positions for Atrient," a Birmingham-based technology company. Fakhouri's e-mail also says he expects Atrient to contribute $5,000 to Ficano's 2010 campaign.
In December 2009, county officials recommended that the Wayne County Commission approve a $411,600 contract for Atrient "to provide two application developers," saying they were the low bidder.
The commission approved the deal in April 2010. In May, Atrient founder Sam Attisha contributed $1,500 to Ficano's re-election fund. The next month, Attisha contributed $4,500 to Ficano's PAC.
But Attisha denied last week that any quid pro quo was involved. He said his contract was a "just about a break-even" deal for Atrient, and he never was approached to contribute to Ficano, but did so as part of making business contacts.
"A lot of these (fund-raising) events are intended for networking," he said, "not because someone told us you need to do this."
The Free Press obtained copies of four e-mails soliciting contributions that Fakhouri sent in 2010 during normal county work hours. The Free Press also obtained more than 10 campaign-related e-mails Ficano campaign treasurer Abdenour sent during work hours in 2009-10.
On May 3, 2010, an Abdenour e-mail summoned department heads to a post-work meeting to pick up the $500 tickets they were expected to sell for Ficano's June fund-raising gala at Ford Field, annually his most lucrative event.
"Nader has asked that I indicate that this meeting is mandatory," Abdenour wrote. "Following this initial meeting, you or your designee will be asked to come by the campaign office and provide a report and submit checks."
According to Ficano's campaign finance report, the June 23 event drew 700 people, cost $86,359 to host and raised $338,750, for a net gain of $252,390.
The Free Press obtained other campaign e-mails sent between noon and 1 p.m. -- lunch hour -- but didn't include those in its count of political e-mails sent on county time.
Ficano said he did not believe Fakhouri forced any vendor to contribute or any department head to sell fund-raiser tickets.
"It's obvious the companies that do business with the county are enthusiastic about the direction the county is going in," he said.
Ficano said he could not comment on Fakhouri's e-mails because he had not seen them.
"The one thing I can say is that we have a very strict policy that you are not to do any political activity or coerce anybody into any type of contribution," he added.
Campaign finance records show that between 2005 and 2010, Ficano's political accounts reimbursed Fakhouri for more than $62,000 in expenses he incurred for lunches, office supplies, travel, cell phone bills and sporting event "tickets for constituents."
'No funny business'
A May 19, 2009, e-mail from county official Michael Moon -- sent to Fakhouri, Abdenour and Denha -- acknowledges a Fakhouri request that Moon notify donors of three ways to support Ficano's campaign and nonprofit funds.
"Thanks, Nader," the e-mail said, "we'll make sure folks appropriately know about their many options to help Mr. Ficano."
Wallace, the former county employee, said the only time he worked with Abdenour on a nonpolitical county function was at a service expo the county sponsored on Belle Isle. Wallace said his dealings with Denha were political, as well.
"She was involved with the events," he said. Wallace added that he did see Fakhouri work on the Robert Ficano Hope Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to local students.
Wallace said he was often asked to design on county time posters, golf outing programs, raffle tickets and occasionally T-shirts for Ficano's campaigns and other events. He said the assignments came through Fakhouri, Denha and his boss, marketing director Thomas Downey, who would place them on Wallace's calendar.
Health and Human Services Director Edith Killins said Fakhouri and Denha helped her on special projects. "I've worked with Nader, and I've worked with Valerie," Killins said Friday, acknowledging that Denha was, until recently, paid out of her department's budget.
"She was looking at some of the services that we were providing," Killins said. "She would oversee the finance pieces of it to see if the budget we prepared was working."
Shelley Sams, who was one of the Ficano campaign's only paid staffers until she quit about 18 months ago, said she didn't believe Fakhouri did any political work on county time.
She described Fakhouri as "completely professional, honest, respectful ... no funny business, no nothing."
Fakhouri, 43, is a Detroit native who joined county government as a telecommunications worker in 2003. In 2005, he married Janeen Boji, whose family runs the Boji Group, a privately held Lansing company with interests in real estate, wholesale distribution, retail and hospitality.
Each year, Ficano's appointees are required to disclose any property, beyond their home, that they own in Wayne County, as well as disclosing any potential conflicts of interest with their county jobs. In 2009, Fakhouri reported a 17.5% "passive investor" interest in a development in Hamtramck that was purchased by the Wayne County Building Authority. The development company involved was a subsidiary of the Boji Group, but Fakhouri did not list it as a potential conflict of interest on a separate county form.
Boji spokesman John Truscott said Fakhouri never had an active role in the Hamtramck deal.
Last year, federal agents subpoenaed county records related to the Boji Group and 13 other companies as part of their probe of possible public corruption.
Denha is a longtime friend of Fakhouri's wife, Janeen Boji, and signed as a witness when the couple married.
Abdenour, Ficano's campaign treasurer, joined the county in May 2005, and in January 2007, Ficano hired her boyfriend, Jones, who now is an executive in the department of Children and Family Services with a salary of $60,000.
The Free Press obtained five fund-raising e-mails Fakhouri sent between May 2009 and June 2010 from "email@example.com," QTI's website.
The website lists about a dozen clients and includes two letters praising QTI's work helping businesses with wiring and other IT connection issues. One of the letters is from the Boji Group and signed by Janeen Boji.
The Ficano campaign's first payments to QTI came in 2007, for supplying audio/visual equipment and computer database work. Campaign reports show that by 2010, QTI was providing IT services and consulting and had become the campaign's largest expense.
Nevertheless, veteran state and local political consultants -- including members of Ficano's own re-election team -- said they had never heard of QTI and did not know what work it was doing for Ficano.
Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing, considered a state expert on voter lists, received more than $7,220 in 2010 from the Ficano campaign for producing such lists -- one of the functions QTI reportedly performed for the campaign.
Grebner said he had never heard of QTI.
Michigan campaign finance reports on file with the Secretary of State indicate that no candidates for state office have ever used QTI.
"As far as I'm aware, almost everybody (in political services) has multiple clients," said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. "It would be pretty unusual to have a single client who could keep someone in a consulting business. At that point, I don't know that you'd describe it so much as a consulting business as a direct employee of the campaign."
Although QTI received $148,000 from Ficano's campaign and PAC in 2011, the state slated the company for automatic dissolution in 2009 because it hadn't filed an annual report since 2008. In the annual report filed after its founding in 1998 and in later reports and on its website, QTI lists "telecommunication services" and providing medical workers as its business purposes.
While it previously listed its address at homes in Troy subdivisions -- including addresses also used by Nader Fakhouri -- QTI's current address is a rented mailbox in a Troy strip mall.
Two campaign workers said they had never seen Najwa Fakhouri -- the sister listed as QTI's president -- at Ficano's campaign office.
She did not respond to interview requests made by phone, messages left at addresses linked to her in online databases and left with relatives, or to a certified letter with a return receipt.
On Friday, John Freeman, a former federal prosecutor who represents QTI, sent the Free Press a statement: "Quantum is a legitimate business operating in the state of Michigan since 1998," Freeman wrote. "Quantum was originally founded with the mission of providing cost-effective solutions for technology. Quantum, and its owner, Najwa Fakhouri, are not engaged in criminal activity. Furthermore, Quantum and Ms. Fakhouri intend to fully cooperate with the authorities in the event they are asked to do so."
There are other Ficano campaign expenditures with companies linked to Fakhouri.
Mekani & Associates received $72,000 between 2008 and 2010 for what Ficano campaign records describe only as "legal work for any RAF comm issues," a reference to the Robert A. Ficano Committee, his re-election campaign account.
Neb Mekani, a lawyer who works with Nader Fakhouri's brother-in-law Ron Boji, said he did some work for the campaign, but declined to provide specifics, citing attorney-client privilege. Mainly, he said, he was a liaison to the Chaldean community and as a consultant, trying to raise awareness of Wayne County's programs for businesses.
When asked to provide an example, Mekani said he tried to get the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers (AFPD) to move its headquarters from Farmington Hills into Wayne County.
Auday Arabo, AFPD president and CEO, said he spoke to Fakhouri and county officials about such a move, but never to Mekani.
"It's news to me if Neb had anything to do with it," Arabo said. "His name was never brought up."
Arabo's predecessor, Jane Shallal, said she doesn't remember Mekani lobbying the association, either.
"He might have brought it up at a presentation," she said, adding, "I don't recall speaking to him directly."
Ficano said he did not have details of what Mekani did for the campaign.
"I'm not into all the day-to-day of the campaign and some of the vendors and what they do," he said.
AFPD eventually relocated to West Bloomfield, remaining in Oakland County.
Some recipients of Ficano campaign money were clear and detailed about services performed.
Longtime southeastern Michigan political consultant Eddie McDonald said that for $17,500, his company, EFM Associates, developed Ficano's 2010 campaign plan, creating a time line for getting things done. McDonald said he attended campaign meetings to ensure they were organized and meeting weekly and monthly targets for such things as getting voters to the polls, visiting churches and seeking endorsements.
Steve Hood of Ronin America showed the Free Press the block-by-block maps of likely voters he created for $4,500 for the Ficano campaign's ground troops in 2008.
But there are other businesses -- including Absolute Services and CARF Consultants -- that received tens of thousands of dollars in Ficano campaign money with no indication of what they provided.
Absolute Services and founder Kern Tomlin were paid $70,500 for consulting between 2008 and 2011. But corporate information services and an associate of Tomlin's said Absolute Services was a landscaping firm.
The address listed for the company was a home in northwest Detroit. An interview request sent by registered mail with a return receipt garnered no response.
Tomlin's son, Ed Tomlin, did respond to messages left by the Free Press, saying he didn't know what his father's company does, and he declined to help a reporter contact him.
"You'll have to get that yourself," he said.
Ficano said he could not detail the services Kern Tomlin and his company provided, but he recalled the elder Tomlin helping coordinate meetings and other events with senior citizens. Kern Tomlin has served as president of the board of the Village of Brush Park Manor Paradise Valley, a home for senior citizens. CARF Consultants, which was paid $51,000 from 2010 to 2011 from Ficano's campaign and PAC funds, did not respond to messages or a certified letter from the Free Press about its role in Ficano's campaign. The address the firm provided on state incorporation papers comes back to a former convent in Hamtramck.
City officials said it is currently being used as a halfway house.
Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or firstname.lastname@example.org and M.L. Elrick: 313-222-6582 or email@example.com. Staff writers Kristi Tanner, Jennifer Dixon and special writer Jonathan Timm contributed to this report.
More Details: File a complaint
People who suspect waste, fraud or abuse in Wayne County government can report it anonymously by calling 313-224-5566 or going to www .co .wayne .mi .us /report .htm .
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