DETROIT (AP) — As Detroit residents fled one of the nation’s most-distressed cities in waves, then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick enriched himself and his allies by rigging public contracts, shaking down businessmen and pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars, the government alleges.
A jury will hear that damning portrayal of the flashy, charismatic former leader, who’s already spent more than a year in prison in an unrelated case, when he returns to federal court Friday to face a slew of corruption charges.
Kilpatrick’s previous 14-month prison term followed a probation violation after his 2008 conviction for lying from the witness stand about an extramarital affair later revealed in sexually explicit text messages. If the jury finds him guilty in the corruption case, he could go back behind bars for more than a decade.
The 100-page indictment describes him muscling contractors, rewarding pals and repeatedly reaping illegal benefits — cash, travel, golf, even yoga — while running a city that struggled more than most during the economic downturn.
“What is extraordinary here is just the volume of evidence, the breadth of the indictment,” said David Steingold, a defense attorney not involved in the federal case. “I can’t speak to it, but it looks as though they’re just trying to overwhelm Mr. Kilpatrick. They’re trying to throw so much mud at him.”
The charges appear daunting: racketeering conspiracy, extortion, bribery, fraud, false tax returns and tax evasion.
Kilpatrick, who now lives in Grand Prairie, Texas, has declared his innocence, most recently in August during a 90-minute session with reporters. He called the government’s case “irresponsible” and “horrible.”
“Was I corrupt? Absolutely not,” said Kilpatrick, wearing a tailored suit and cufflinks, his sartorial trademark when he was at City Hall.
Prosecutors, of course, are prepared to offer a different story — and they’ll have help. The trial will resemble a Kilpatrick Cabinet meeting as many longtime associates who held high-ranking city jobs testify against him.
At least 10 people who have pleaded guilty in the investigation are on the government’s witness list, including former Deputy Mayor Kandia Milton and brother DeDan Milton, who was Kilpatrick’s executive assistant.
Derrick Miller, who has known Kilpatrick since high school, could emerge as the star. He pleaded guilty to corruption and tax crimes committed while he was Detroit’s chief administrative officer. The indictment says he was a crucial middle man, passing cash to Kilpatrick, including $10,000 in a restaurant bathroom.
Another convicted felon, political fundraiser Emma Bell, is expected to testify about $286,000 in kickbacks to Kilpatrick. The government says James Rosendall, who was trying to get a sludge-recycling contract for a Texas company, provided more than $100,000 in cash, private jet flights, entertainment and political donations.
“This is a very big case. There’s no mistake about it. I’m ready,” Kilpatrick defense attorney James Thomas said outside court, adding that he never sought a plea deal for the former mayor.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds rejected Thomas’s request that the trial be moved out of Detroit because of the effect of extensive media coverage on the ability of jurors to be fair to the ex-mayor and his co-defendants.
Kilpatrick is accused of working hand-in-glove with his father, Bernard, and longtime pal Bobby Ferguson. They, too, are on trial, charged with the same racketeering conspiracy, along with former Detroit water boss Victor Mercado.
Bernard Kilpatrick is accused of coercing contractors to pay him or lose business with the city. The indictment says father and son together got $1.2 million through racketeering over a seven-year period.
Ferguson is at the center of many of the alleged schemes. The government says Kwame Kilpatrick intervened to get city work for his buddy by rigging contracts or insisting that other bidders hire Ferguson’s construction company.
Outside the downtown courthouse, the city Kilpatrick left behind is struggling.
His troubles rubbed off on his mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who lost her U.S. House seat in 2010 after 14 years. Detroit’s population has dropped 25 percent to 714,000, much of it while Kilpatrick was mayor. Public schools are under the control of an emergency manager. Police officers are working 12-hour shifts with 10 percent pay cuts.
The current mayor, Dave Bing, fearing that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder would send a manager to take over City Hall, struck a deal last spring to fix the city’s poor finances with input from an outside board.
Bing said he doesn’t have much interest in the trial.
“I don’t have time for that,” he said last week while celebrating the rebirth of a century-old aquarium.
Kilpatrick has been under scrutiny for years. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to obstructing justice in a civil trial involving retaliation against police officers, a case that cost Detroit $8.4 million. A judge later sent him to prison for more than a year for violating his probation in that matter.
Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr., who was interim mayor following Kilpatrick’s 2008 resignation, said the sooner the corruption trial ends, the better. He recalled how a friend traveling out of state was repeatedly asked about Kilpatrick.
“Is that good for Detroit’s image? Probably not,” Cockrel said. “I’ve moved on. I think the people of Detroit, for the most part, have moved on as well. … Kwame Kilpatrick represents the past. We need to be looking toward the future.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
(AP Photo/Detroit News, David Coates)