This Didn't Start With Turkia Mullin: The Inter-connected Web Of Wayne County Politics From Ed McNamara To Renee Axt
November 2, 2011
Originally published on MLive.
The Turkia Mullin scandal isn’t simply about Turkia Mullin. She’s the tip of the iceberg. Just beneath the surface of this mess is the collusion between Wayne County public officials and the contractors with whom they do business.
Kick over almost any county contract, public appointment, or shadowy consulting firm and you’ll discover an interconnected web of Wayne County officials and power brokers that has remained largely out of the public eye for a generation.
As South Park's Eric Cartman once said: “If you cheat and fail, you’re a cheater. If you cheat and succeed, you're savvy.”
Wayne County’s “friends of program” have been some of the savviest cats in all the land, at least when it comes to skirting the spirit of an open government operating without fear or favor.
Renee Axt, RCP Consultants, and a $5.6 million county contract
In March 2009, five months after Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano appointed Renee Pipis Axt to the Airport Authority, the County Commission modified a two-year contract (beginning in 2007) with Actron Governmental Sales, LLC of Lincoln Park.
Under the new arrangement, Actron’s two-year contract to supply “GPS tether and electronic monitoring services” for the county sheriff increased in value from $3 million to as much as $4.1 million. In August of that same year, the Commission approved a one-year $1.5 million renewal of Actron’s contract.
According to records collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Actron’s lobbyist between 2007-2009 was Renee Pipis Axt’s RCP Associates. In addition to joining the Airport Authority board in 2008, Axt serves on the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan board of directors and worked in the administration of former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara.
What, if any, role RCP Associates played in securing Actron’s contract (ultimately worth as much as $5.6 million over three years) is impossible to say, because neither Actron nor RCP responded to voicemails left yesterday morning seeking clarification on their relationship.
The Airport Authority is technically a separate entity from county government, but four of the Authority’s seven board members are appointed by the County Executive. A fifth is selected by the County Commission. The remaining two are appointed by the governor.
“Certainly, it’s an inbred world in Wayne County,” said Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “The fact that [Axt], as an appointee of the county executive, is representing someone who is a significant vendor to the county certainly doesn’t suggest that she would have the kind of independence that you would like of someone serving on that airport commission.”
Axt’s position as both an appointee of the County Executive—she’s currently the Airport Authority Chair—and an agent of a county contractor falls into a kind of ethical gray area created by the peculiar nature of the Airport Authority.
“My guess is this is not illegal, but it’s exactly the kind of coziness that leads people to say: ‘oh, look how cozy this relationship is,’” said John Chamberlin, a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. “People on both ends of the appointment should be aware of the appearance of a conflict of interest in addition to an actual conflict of interest.”
He added that Axt’s connections to a county contractor while serving as an appointee “sounds problematic, but someone could convince me otherwise.”
“Sounds problematic” could be the leitmotif for relationships within Wayne County politics.
Six Degrees of 407 E. Fort St. #407
Axt’s ties to Wayne County government go beyond her position on the Airport Authority and any work RCP may have done on behalf of Actron.
In addition to chairing the Airport Authority, Axt is the Treasurer of the independent non-profit EDGE Opportunities/Wayne County Business Development Corporation.
EDGE paid a $75,000 bonus to Turkia Mullin, the now ex-CEO of the Airport Authority, for her work as Wayne County’s economic development director.
According to state corporation records, EDGE Opportunities and RCP Associates share the same office at 407 E. Fort Street #407 in Detroit’s Greektown.
As MLive reported last week, another tenant of that office suite is Tenmile Creek Excavation LLC, a Wayne County contractor. According to a City of Taylor newsletter, Tenmile Creek and RCP Associates were partners on a Taylor road resurfacing project in 2007.
Multiple business directories (Michiganpages, Myyellowpages, MerchantCircle, Chamberofcommerce.com, Google Maps) list RCP Associates as sharing its office at 407 E. Fort, as well as a phone number, with yet another firm -- Daniel Consulting. The online business directory Manta.com actually maintains a single listing for RCP and Daniel.
However, corporate records show RCP and Daniel to be separate legal entities. While RCP’s registered address is 407 E. Fort, Daniel Consulting is registered at a residential address in the City of Grosse Pointe.
It’s owner? Former Wayne County Airport Authority Director David Katz.
From Dave Katz to Turkia Mullin: Same as it ever was
McNamara insider Dave Katz was Airport Director from 1998-2000 despite no prior airport experience. Katz was described in a December 3, 2001 Detroit News article as former Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara’s “chief political fund-raiser.” He also managed Jennifer Granholm’s successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign.
Interestingly enough, like Turkia Mullin, Katz was selected to lead the airport despite having no previous experience with airport operations.
Dec. 3, 2001, Detroit News via californiaaviation.org: "Katz, a former social worker, had never worked at an airport and had no degree in business or management when he became airport director. Katz was best known for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to power McNamara's political machine.
"During Katz's tenure, there was a strong correlation between political donors and airport contractors that continues today.
"The News found that Metro Airport officials last year awarded $33.1 million in new contracts to political donors of McNamara."
Katz ran the airport from 1998 until 2000 and was succeeded by his deputy Lester Robinson.
An August 2001 report from the state Auditor General criticized Robinson for his role as managing partner and founder of Capital Financial Advisors and its subsidiary Pierce, Monroe and Associates. Both firms were airport contractors.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Pierce, Monroe and Associates hired Daniel Consultants as a lobbyist in 2006.
Daniel Consultants did not respond to a voicemail left yesterday morning to clarify their relationship with Axt’s RCP Associates.
Operating on the down low
Indeed, it’s quite difficult to find out much about RCP Associates or Daniel Consulting.
Renee Axt’s Wayne County Airport Authority bio described RCP Associates as “a business development and governmental relations consulting services firm providing services to private, public and non-profit organizations.” However, beyond that, the public record has very little about what these companies actually do.
In an era when every grandmother selling crafts at flea markets is online, neither RCP nor Daniel maintains a website. More accurately, they don’t have websites easily found via Google. It’s entirely possible they could have sites buried deep in the bowels of the World Wide Web.
Both firms are repeatedly listed at the same phone number which connects to a single voicemail box, with a generic outgoing message explaining that “the person you have dialed” isn’t available.
Like so much in Wayne County politics, Renee Pipis Axt’s RCP Consultants and David Katz’s Daniel Consulting apparently operate in the shadows of public life, rather than in the light of day.