The Detroit News reported one Friday that three warrants were filed against a prominent Wayne County official alleging he took kickbacks in exchange for lucrative county contracts.
The first warrant contended the official took money from a politically connected contractor in exchange for the county using his cleaning product called Solventol.
The second alleged the same official took nearly $18,000 from a meat vendor who in turn was permitted to sell beef and butter to county institutions.
The third charged that the official took another $10,000 from an insurance company for a share of Wayne County’s bonding and insurance business.
The official, Edward H. Williams, could not be reached for comment. That is because Williams died long ago, after serving three years in state prison for public bribery.
The Detroit News report of his indictment was from Friday, Dec. 26, 1941. The yellowing hardcopy of the paper was sent to me by a viewer who thought I might find the historical artifact interesting. When I called the viewer, he said he never noticed the county corruption story.
“Ha, ha,” he said. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s true. Corruption came before Coleman Young and Ed McNamara and Kwame Kilpatrick. Corruption is in Detroit’s very fiber.
The scandal must have been important because there it is in the left-hand column of the paper next to news of Gen. Douglas MacArthur fleeing Manila and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressing U.S. Congress three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For some context, a bottle of Pepsi Cola was selling for a nickel and women’s underpants went for 29 cents.
Williams was a member of the County Board of Auditors, a three-man committee that was the precursor to the current position of County Executive. All three members, it turns out, were sent to prison in 1942 as well as the county sheriff and a prosecutor. All for public malfeasance.
So here we are again. It’s 70 years later and we have an FBI probe into County Executive Bob Ficano and his deputies. The contracts they doled out. The political donations they received. (I’m told indictments could come as soon as February.)
Ficano claims ignorance, saying a lot of things went on under his nose that he was not aware of. And maybe that’s true. Maybe he was not an agent of commission.
But if his defense is omission -- that as leader of Michigan’s largest county he did not know his deputies were shaking down contractors, getting sweetheart severance deals and taking checks from people with business before the government -– then one has to wonder, who is running Wayne County?
When the last of the county auditors was tried in September 1942, the Detroit Free Press published an article that rings like an echo from the old train station. It reads in part:
"Altogether, Michigan’s taxpayers have taken a thorough financial drubbing from corrupt officials in this county ... it is inevitable that sooner or later another gang of rogues will take it over. Then the whole costly, shameful process will have to be gone through again –- with every taxpayer in Michigan as the ultimate sucker.”