In dispirited Detroit, mayor pleads guilty

Plea deal ousts Kilpatrick after an eight-month scandal. Interim mayor inherits a city in a slump.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters
Resigned: Kwame Kilpatrick, in court Sept. 4, must give up his post as mayor of Detroit.

A protracted scandal that has paralyzed Detroit and made its city government a spectacle for much of the US ended Thursday when Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to two felony counts, abruptly ending his tenure as mayor and giving the city a new and uncertain future.

The plea agreement calls for Mr. Kilpatrick to serve four months in jail and five years' probation, leave office within two weeks, pay $1 million in restitution to the city, and surrender his law license. It came even as Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) was conducting a hearing, at the request of the Detroit City Council, into whether she should take the unusual step of removing Kilpatrick from office.

For a troubled Detroit, the deal concludes eight months of limbo that began after steamy text messages between Kilpatrick and a political aide became public. It also ends a mayoral tenure that has included both striking accomplishments and titillating scandal. City Council President Ken Cockrel is set to become interim mayor, and a special election is likely to be held in several months to elect a permanent mayor.

But beyond that, Detroit's future is murky.

"The idea that somehow all Detroit's problems are going to be cured with the departure of Kwame Kilpatrick is laughable.... The same problems are going to persist, and it's totally unclear as to who the successor on a long-term basis ... will be and how well that person might work with the City Council," says Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

Kilpatrick's legacy, he adds, "is going to be [that of] a bright, charismatic, energetic young mayor who in fact was doing a lot of things well but had personal flaws that brought him down."

Kilpatrick was charged in March with eight felony counts, including perjury, obstruction of justice, and misconduct in office. Two more counts were added in August. He pleaded guilty Thursday to obstruction of justice through committing perjury.

The charges stemmed from an extramarital affair between Kilpatrick and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty, who later resigned. After text messages between the two surfaced in January, questions arose about Kilpatrick's testimony denying the affair, which came during a lawsuit last summer looking into whether he had three police officers fired for pursuing an investigation that could have uncovered the affair. Kilpatrick later persuaded the city council to approve an $8.4 million settlement with the officers, allegedly in an effort to keep the text messages from becoming public.

Kilpatrick had resisted the multiplying calls for his resignation, including a statement from the Obama campaign Wednesday night that his legal troubles "have been a distraction the city cannot afford." But as Governor Granholm's hearing progressed, he decided to enter the plea agreement.

"I lied under oath in the case of Gary Brown and Harold Nelthrope versus the city of Detroit," Kilpatrick told the court Thursday. "I did so with the intent to mislead the court and jury, to impede and obstruct the disposition of justice."

Ever since he took office in 2002 at age 31, Kilpatrick has grabbed media attention. Dubbed America's "Hip-Hop Mayor" and known for his flashy clothes and winsome charisma, he pledged to bring a renaissance to struggling Detroit. Many say he has helped the Rust Belt city, bringing in new development projects and promises of jobs, and recently announcing a deal with Quicken Loans that would move its headquarters and 4,000 employees from Livonia, Mich., to downtown Detroit.

"If you look at downtown Detroit now and compare it to what it looked like when he came into office, the turnaround is obvious," says Earl Ryan, director of the Citizens Research Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that doesn't take official positions on elected leaders. "He had good relations with the business community. I think it's fairly evident that good things were happening."

But scandal has swirled around the mayor almost from the day he took office. While these felony counts are the first criminal charges he's faced, Kilpatrick has struggled with other scandals, including reports of excessive partying, misuse of a city credit card for his own entertainment, and criticisms that he had the city lease a Lincoln Navigator for his wife's personal use.

With his latest problems, his efforts to help the city stalled.

"A lot of things went on hold largely because people were not confident of where leadership was going to come from in the future," says Mr. Ryan of Citizens Research Council.

For the time being, the city's myriad economic and social troubles, which have worsened as the auto industry has faltered during the credit crunch, fall into the lap of Mr. Cockrel, the interim mayor.

"One of the major issues that Detroit is going to have to confront … is Detroit's role in the region," says Ryan. "It has got to both cooperate and get strength from the surrounding suburbs."

Ryan is cautiously optimistic that the city can move forward, especially if the auto industry is able to mount a comeback. But others are less sanguine.

"Detroit is a calamity," says Mr. Ballenger of Inside Michigan Politics. "The stereotypes are terrible and the defenders of Detroit keep saying Detroit is getting a bum rap … but in this case, more and more it appears that reality is fitting the stereotype all too neatly."

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