DETROIT — A lawyer for Kwame Kilpatrick attacked the credibility of three key witnesses who testified at the former Detroit mayor’s corruption trial, telling jurors Tuesday that they were “bought and paid for” through plea deals with the government.
James Thomas urged the jury during his closing argument to find reasonable doubt in the government’s case, which included weeks of testimony about Kilpatrick’s alleged misdeeds during his nearly seven years in office, including bribery, extortion, conspiracy and fraud.
He said Kilpatrick’s access to large amounts of cash was due to savings and gifts from city workers and allies in the community. Thomas was deeply skeptical about very successful Detroit-area businessmen being portrayed as extortion victims who were muscled into hiring Kilpatrick buddy Bobby Ferguson on multimillion-dollar city water contracts.
“It sticks in my craw,” the attorney said in an argument that lasted all morning.
Ferguson “works in the cold and digs in the dirt,” Thomas said. “He has to pull up sewers that no one wants to touch. That’s hard work.”
Kilpatrick, his father, Bernard Kilpatrick, and Ferguson are charged with conspiring to rake in cash through rigged contracts, bribes and other criminal acts. Prosecutors gave their closing argument Monday, accusing Kwame Kilpatrick of turning city hall into a “private profit machine” where he spent more than $800,000 beyond his mayoral salary.
Thomas had a lot of ground to cover in his final remarks because Kilpatrick, 42, is charged with 30 crimes. Thomas zeroed in on three critical witnesses: political fundraiser Emma Bell, convention center contractor Karl Kado and Derrick Miller, Kilpatrick’s high school pal who became a top aide. All have pleaded guilty in the corruption probe.
Bell said she gave Kilpatrick a cut of donations, pulling money from her bra during their private meetings. Kado said he delivered $10,000 payments to Kilpatrick in brown bags. Miller said he often was the middle man, passing bribes to his boss from Kado and others.
“They had a heavy motivation to implicate Kwame Kilpatrick. There’s very little corroboration for what they say,” Thomas said. They’re “bought and paid for witnesses” with “hope of freedom and the hope that they can trade their troubles for Kwame Kilpatrick.”
He said Bell had a chronic gambling problem, the 72-year-old Kado was “demented” and Miller was a crafty liar.
Another witness, Mahlon Clift, testified in September that Ferguson gave him $90,000 to deliver to Kilpatrick in 2008. He said he flew to Chicago from Detroit with money stuffed in his pants.
“Incredible. … It doesn’t make sense,” Thomas told jurors. “Are you going to walk in that (airport security) line knowing you’ve got 90 grand of somebody’s money?”
Kilpatrick’s wife and three children live near Dallas. They attended the trial for the first time, along with his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Detroit. On Facebook, Kilpatrick said he was “blessed” to have his “squad” in the courtroom for “victory day.”
“Let Mr. Kilpatrick go home to his wife and kids,” Thomas pleaded with the jury.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds suddenly stopped the afternoon session because of ill jurors. Wednesday is an off day. Lawyers for Ferguson and Bernard Kilpatrick will give closing arguments Thursday, followed by a rebuttal from prosecutors and more jury instructions from the judge. It’s unclear whether deliberations will begin Thursday or Friday.
Kilpatrick resigned as mayor in 2008 in another scandal. He pleaded guilty to obstructing justice by lying in a civil case about whether he had had sex with a top aide. He subsequently served 14 months in prison for violating his probation in that case.