Investigators must get to the bottom of jail debacle

Federal investigators are poking around the Wayne County jail mess, as they should. The FBI is reportedly trying to determine whether there was any wrongdoing in the boneheaded decision to build the new jail downtown, the awarding of contracts or management of the project, which is now $91 million over budget and stopped dead in its tracks.

Those are questions that need answers. So far, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano hasn’t been forthcoming in providing those answers to the taxpayers who are on the hook for this white elephant.

Ficano has said only that when the jail was first proposed for the site at the northeast entrance to downtown Detroit, the rebirth of the central business district was in its nascent stages and no one considered it would become a hot property. Businesses in the area, however, did complain about the site selection, and some even moved out of the area when the jail was approved, not wanting to share a neighborhood with inmates.

The deal was orchestrated by Ficano’s former development director Turkia Mullin, whose career hit the spotlight when the county executive installed her as director of Detroit Metro Airport and sent her away with a $200,000 severance package.

Purchase of the land from the former owners of Greektown Casino was negotiated by Ficano crony Charlie Williams who walked away with $420,000 for his brief brokerage services.

Construction was allowed to proceed virtually unsupervised after Mullin was broomed, and the result is that a jail that was supposed to cost roughly $225 million is now projected to come in at $91 million over budget – if it’s completed.

It shouldn’t be. Continuing construction, which has been delayed for 60 days, would be throwing good money after bad.

Wayne County received proposals this week for alternative uses for the site and the partially built jail structure. One of them came from new Greektown Casino owner Dan Gilbert, who would like to wipe away the old and new jails and courthouses from the site and turn the area into an entertainment/office district.

State officials are offering up the abandoned Mound Road prison on the east side of Detroit for a justice complex that would include the jail and courthouses.

Wayne County has little choice but to walk away from the new jail, even if it means absorbing much of the $120 million it’s already spent on the project. The cost-overruns have mandated downsizing the structure to the point where it will no longer meet the county’s lock-up needs.

Ficano had hoped an investor interested in the site would make the county whole on the $120 million to spare him from having to explain to taxpayers how and why he squandered so much of their money.

That’s not likely to happen.

Taxpayers are going to take a big hit, but one that can be somewhat mitigated by scrapping the project and selling the land.

But Ficano shouldn’t be allowed to walk away from this debacle without explaining what went wrong.

Why didn’t the county take the state’s offer of the Mound Road site two years ago, before construction began? Why was there no oversight? And what caused the $91 million in overruns?

Presumably, the FBI is asking those questions. Taxpayers deserve to hear the answers, too.