Kwame Kilpatrick: Disgraced Detroit mayor gets 'massive' 28-year sentence

The sentencing Thursday of Kwame Kilpatrick caps a saga that has gripped the financially strapped city for a decade and has become a frustrating symbol of Detroit's legacy of corruption.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick sits at his sentencing in Wayne County Circuit Court on an obstruction-of-justice conviction, May 25, 2010. Kilpatrick has been sentenced to 28 years in prison for corruption.

Disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced Thursday to 28 years in prison, the maximum time sought by federal prosecutors who say he raked the city of nearly $5 million in an extensive racketeering and extortion enterprise benefiting a close circle of family and friends.

Thursday’s sentencing hearing caps a saga that has gripped the financially strapped city for a decade and has become a frustrating symbol of its legacy of corruption.

In her sentencing, US District Judge Nancy Edmunds said Mr. Kilpatrick used “a pattern of threats and pressure” to “steer an astounding amount of business” to his inner circle, and she criticized him for living a lavish lifestyle loaded with perks for his family and friends while the city suffered.

“This is a massive sentence,” says Todd Haugh, a law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kent College of Law in Chicago and an expert on white-collar sentencing guidelines. “This is going to put him in the upper echelon of white-collar offenders in the sentencing ranges for the last 10 years.”

In March, Kilpatrick was convicted of 24 counts of corruption in a conspiracy case that included his father, Bernard Kilpatrick; his childhood friend Bobby Ferguson; and ex-water department director Victor Mercado. Those men will receive their prison sentences at successive dates, the first on Friday.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s five-month trial was the result of a six-year investigation that tracked what federal officials described as a scheme to strong-arm city contractors working for the Water and Sewerage Department into funneling $84 million in city contracts to shell companies operated by Mr. Ferguson. Prosecutors described Bernard Kilpatrick as the middleman whom contractors were forced to hire as a consultant to secure city contracts.

Some of the contracts were for the biggest public-works projects during Kilpatrick’s tenure as mayor, such as the demolition of Tiger Stadium and the partial demolition of the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

Kilpatrick’s defense lawyers had sought a 15-year sentence. Attorney Harold Gurewitz said the media frenzy surrounding the case worked against his client, making him “a scapegoat for all the city’s sins over the last 50 years.”

But what worked against him in the sentencing, Professor Haugh said, was his extensive criminal history, his lack of remorse, and “the elephant in the room” – Detroit’s current petition for a Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

Judge Edmunds stopped short of saying the bankruptcy played a direct role in her decision, but she said, “It was citizens of Detroit that suffered when they handed over their hard-earned tax dollars to the city.”

City, state, and federal officials often cite the financial mismanagement and corruption that flourished under the Kilpatrick administration as key factors that pushed the city toward insolvency. Earlier this year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) appointed an emergency financial manager to restructure Detroit’s finances and mitigate its $18 billion in debt, including $3.5 billion in underfunded pension liabilities and $5.7 billion in other retiree benefits.

Kilpatrick served as Detroit mayor between 2002 and 2008 after serving as a state representative between 1997 and 2001. Prosecutors said his wrongdoing spanned the tenure of both offices. Kilpatrick resigned during his second term as mayor to plead guilty to lying in a civil case involving a sex scandal with a top aide. He ended up serving a four-month prison term on two obstruction of justice felonies.

In a 10-minute speech to the court Thursday immediately before his sentencing, Kilpatrick denied immediate knowledge of wrongdoing and also denied that he stole money from the city, saying he “would never put any contractor or any person that’s a friend before anybody else and the people of the city.”

“The verdict said, that’s what happened. So there has to be something I needed to do that was much different than I did,” he added. He also trumpeted his achievements in office, including the development of three casinos and a hotel redevelopment project.

He said he “absolutely hated” being mayor as soon as six months into the position because “it was the hardest thing.”

The sentencing guidelines were related to a government estimate of $9.6 million the city lost to the conspiracy. Before the sentencing, Edmunds trimmed the estimate to $4.6 million.

Kilpatrick has been held at a federal prison in Milan, Mich., since his March conviction. Edmunds considered Kilpatrick a flight risk based on his earlier criminal record, and she would not release him on bond. It is uncertain if his months served will apply to his new sentence.

Kilpatrick has the option to appeal his sentence, Edmunds noted. Also, there will be a hearing sometime over the next 90 days in which a decision will be made on the amount of fines he has to pay.

On Thursday, Kilpatrick referenced the city’s petition for a Chapter 9 bankruptcy, saying he wants “the city to heal” from the time and money lost dealing with his legal woes.

“I want the city to prosper. I want the city to be great in the end. I want the city to have the same feeling it did in 2006 when the Super Bowl was here,” he said. “Everybody felt like this was their town.”

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