Kwame Kilpatrick guilty: For destitute Detroit, downfall of ex-mayor complete

Kwame Kilpatrick, once seen as a fresh hopeful face for Detroit when he became the financially troubled city's youngest mayor, was found guilty of enriching himself while in office.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick leaves federal court after being convicted Monday, in Detroit, of corruption charges, ensuring a return to prison for a man once among the nation's youngest big-city leaders.
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Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was found guilty Monday under federal corruption charges of scheming to enrich himself and his close confidants during his tenure in public office.

The verdict, which was announced after 15 days of jury deliberations, concludes a saga that has gripped the destitute city for over two years and represents the staggering downfall of Mr. Kilpatrick.

Kilpatrick, the youngest mayor in Detroit’s history, was once heralded as a fresh face to politics in the city, which is saddled with a staggering debt and has seen its industry, population, and tax revenues plummet and its crime rate soar.

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The tales of personal excess resulting from systemic graft arrives one day before the city tries to make a last-ditch attempt to fight the takeover of its troubled finances by an emergency financial manager. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says that decades of corruption and mismanagement have created a financial burden for the city it cannot handle on its own and that the only way out is to cede temporary control to the state, which will allow it to create structural changes that would lead it to solvency.

The five-month trial dates back to December 2010 when Kilpatrick, his father Bernard Kilpatrick, his childhood friend Bobby Ferguson, and former water department director Victor Mercado were charged with 45 counts of racketeering conspiracy, bribery, extortion and tax evasion.

Kilpatrick was convicted on 24 of 30 counts. On three counts, he was found not guilty, and on three no verdict was reached. Mr. Ferguson was convicted of 9 of 11 counts. Bernard Kilpatrick received a conviction of a lessor tax charge. Mr. Mercado struck a plea deal in November and awaits sentencing.

The primary thrust of the government’s case, which resulted from a six-year investigation, was that all four conspired in what prosecutors described as “the Kilpatrick enterprise,” a multi-year extortion scheme to strong-arm city contractors working for the city’s water and sewerage department to funnel a total of $84 million in city contracts to shell companies operated by Mr. Ferguson.

Prosecutors described Bernard Kilpatrick as the middleman who contractors were forced to hire as a consultant in order to secure city contracts, some of which were for the biggest public work projects during Kilpatrick’s tenure, such as the demolition of Tiger Stadium and the partial demolition of the Book Cadillac Hotel.

Kwame Kilpatrick, who was charged with the majority of the counts, was portrayed as the ringleader who wielded influence to reap millions of dollars in kickbacks. Kilpatrick served as mayor of Detroit between 2002 and 2008 after serving as a state representative between 1996 and 2001. Prosecutors said his wrongdoing spanned the tenure of both offices.

The case made in the trial against Kilpatrick and his cohorts was overwhelming. Prosecutors rested after four months of testimony. Witnesses included a roll call of former Kilpatrick friends or aides. In total, 90 witnesses took the stand in the trial for both sides.

The most serious guilty verdict for Kilpatrick is for the single racketeering charge, a felony that can bring 20 years in prison.

Most often used to target organized crime, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) law is increasingly used in high-profile public corruption trials, including the federal case against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2011. While Kilpatrick’s defense attorneys argued that their client was innocent because the gifts he received were unsolicited, or that others in his office approved the expenses, under the law, all the government had to prove was that Kilpatrick had knowledge of the bribe.  

“Either you need solicitation of the bribe or the giving or receiving of something of value,” says William Kresse, director of the Center for the Study of Fraud and Corruption at Saint Xavier University in Chicago.

“We know what a bribe is: When a politician asks for money in exchange he will grant the favor. But it doesn’t have to have all of those elements, it needs one of them,” Mr. Kresse says. “Part of the rationale for the law is it is so hard to prove all of the elements. All prosecutors needed to show was there was an acceptance of the gift.”

One tool prosecutors used in their case were text messages between Kilpatrick and Mr. Ferguson and others that Assistant US Attorney Mark Chutkow says described “a crime scene frozen in time.” The messages showed Kilpatrick knowingly held contracts to help Ferguson.

The trial documented Kilpatrick’s opulent lifestyle, which was funded primarily by a foundation meant to support voter education and youth programs. Instead the fund was used to expense lavish family vacations, college tuition for relatives, and personal items. Several businessmen testified they were forced to provide Kilpatrick with expensive jewelry, suits, and vacations in order to maintain their multimillion dollar contracts.

Mr. Chutlow said in his closing arguments that Ferguson shared more than $125 million in spoils with Kilpatrick and that the mayor spent $840,000 past what his salary covered during his time as mayor.

“Mr. Kilpatrick lived way beyond the means of a public official,” he told jurors.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing released a statement shortly after the verdict saying he was “pleased that this long trial has ended,” which will allow the city to “finally put this negative chapter in Detroit’s history behind us. It is time for all of us to move forward with a renewed commitment to transparency and high ethical standards in our city government.”

The guilty verdict is not the first in Kilpatrick’s troubled political career. He resigned during his second term as mayor in 2008 to plead guilty to lying in a civil case involving a sex scandal with a top aide. He ended up serving a 14-month prison term in 2008 on two obstruction of justice felonies. 

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