For rebuilding Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick trial brings back bad memories

Kwame Kilpatrick, once lauded as the 'hip-hop mayor' of Detroit, is facing federal corruption charges. The trial, which started Friday, will loom large over a city trying to move beyond its past.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick walks to federal court on Sept. 6 in Detroit with attorney Jim Thomas.
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As Detroit struggles to fix its ongoing financial woes, blighted neighborhoods, and shrinking population, a divisive specter from its past has emerged: Kwame Kilpatrick.

Mr. Kilpatrick was Detroit’s mayor for six years before heading to prison in 2008 on a perjury charge. He is back as the principal target of a federal trial that charges him with 38 counts of racketeering conspiracy, extortion, bribery, fraud, false tax returns, and tax evasion.

Federal prosecutors essentially accuse Kilpatrick and three others of treating city hall like the central unit of an organized crime family: shaking down city contractors and nonprofit donors for bribes and wielding influence to reap millions of dollars in kickbacks. The charges also cover Kilpatrick’s time as a state representative from 1996 through 2001.

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The trial “is certainly not helpful to the city” as it tries to rebuild its image, and the proceedings could make major headlines until January, says Patrick Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. While a conviction would help the city “put Kilpatrick behind it,” he says, a hung jury and a second trial “could occupy the city for another year or even two.”

An acquittal could even give Kilpatrick a second life in local politics.

“He’s a very likable person, that’s why he remains such a polarizing figure – a lot of people still like him,” Professor Henning says. “If he could run again [for mayor], I think he could win, largely because turnout is so low, someone with the devoted following that he has would still follow him.”

Kilpatrick maintains he is innocent. Opening statements in the trial started Friday.

The story of Kilpatrick and his alleged co-conspirators – his father Bernard, childhood friend Bobby Ferguson, and former Detroit water chief Victor Mercado – is seen by many as the story of Detroit itself, which has been long maligned for corrupt politics and mismanaged assets. Detroit's current mayor, David Bing, has made government accountability the prime focus of his administration and has gone further than his recent predecessors in restructuring how the city spends money and offers services.

When Kilpatrick was charged two years ago, Mayor Bing released a short statement saying his administration was “disappointed by continued revelations of the mistakes of the past,” and that it would “continue to work hard to restructure city government to a level of accountability, transparency and performance.”

Kilpatrick was once a rising star in the Democratic Party in Michigan. Dubbed the "hip-hop mayor,” he became the youngest person ever elected in the city at age 31. His charisma helped win over voters, even as he installed family and friends in key administrative positions at city hall.

His tenure came crashing down when he pleaded guilty to two felony charges of obstruction of justice in 2008 in an unrelated scandal and subsequently spent 14 months in prison for a probation violation.

In opening statements Friday, Assistant US Attorney Mark Chutkow told jurors Kilpatrick and his associates “made themselves rich by taking public money for themselves and away from the city.” He said Kilpatrick redirected city contracts or pressured city contractors working with the city’s water and sewage department to subcontract with a company run by Mr. Ferguson for work that was often not performed.

In other cases, prosecutors say contracts were rigged so Ferguson would be awarded the job. These contracts involved some of the biggest public work during Kilpatrick’s tenure, such as the demolition of Tiger Stadium and the partial demolition of the Book Cadillac Hotel.

Kilpatrick pocketed more than $540,000 as mayor “over and above his salary,” Mr. Chutkow said.

Kilpatrick defense attorney James Thomas tried to discredit some of the government’s key witnesses. Mr. Thomas also described the prosecution’s strategy as a “scam” and said Kilpatrick was a victim of the “messy” business of local politics in Detroit.

“You’re going to learn about politics. Politics is like making sausage. You know it’s not pretty. It’s messy. But once it’s cooked, it tastes pretty good,” Thomas told jurors.

Due to the wealth of evidence and the challenge of connecting the dots, the government faces the hurdle of keeping jurors engaged for the length of the trial.

“The US is trying to say he was corrupt even before he was elected [as mayor], and that being elected was part of a plan,” says Henning. “They’re really putting on a case that shows a depth of corruption you don’t see very often.”

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