Unclear contract, muddled legal issues about controversial Wayne County "severance package"

Oct 6, 2011

The revelation that Wayne County paid its former economic development chief a $200,000 “severance package” to take another, better-paying county job has raised a lot of eyebrows.

It’s also raised questions about whether the payment to now-Metro Airport CEO Turkia Awada Mullin violated the law.

Article 11, Section 3 of the Michigan state constitution forbids extra compensation for public officials “after the service has been rendered or the contract entered into.”

Wayne State University law professor Justin Long says if Mullin’s contract specifically outlined conditions for the payment, it wouldn’t break the law.

“If she satisfied the condition to meet that, that would be ok,” Long says. “But if she received the compensation after having already done the work, that would be unacceptable.”

“The key in the case law seems to be when the decision for extra compensation was made,” Long adds. “It has to be for prospective work—work that is not yet done.”

But questions about Mullin’s contract have only muddled the issue further. That agreement was an undated letter from Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano.

It stated only that Mullin would receive the same salary as her predecessor, and 12 months of severance pay. After initially defending the payment, Mullin has now agreed to return it.

John Selleck, a spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office, calls the whole situation “a raw deal for taxpayers.” But he says the office has reviewed the law, and says at this point it “hasn’t seen anything that would trigger state-level involvement.”

Selleck says the Attorney General’s office will keep an eye on the situation. But he says it’s likely an issue for the Wayne County Commission to resolve under the county charter.

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, said in a statement:

“The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office has a longstanding conflict of interest policy which prohibits us from launching an investigating about allegations and claim asserted against elected officials responsible for allocating the budget of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office.”

Miller adds: “We will continue to refer all inquiries regarding this matter to the Office of the Michigan Attorney General.”