How Kwame Kilpatrick's Arrogance Spawned a Reign of Corruption in Detroit
Editor's Note: On Monday, Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of 24 crimes, including racketeering, extortion, mail, and wire fraud, bribery, and tax violations. Kilpatrick and co-defendant Bobby Ferguston were sent to federal prison in Milan and are awaiting a sentencing date. The following article was first published in DBusienss in the May-June 2011 issue.
Kwame Kilpatrick knew how to make an entrance.
There was electric chattering among the gathered throng — reporters and camera crews, politicians and political hacks, plainclothes cops, average citizens, and calculating businesspeople looking to hitch their wagons early. Michigan’s attorney general at the time, Jennifer Granholm, was there, standing to the full extent of her petite frame.
All had answered an invitation in 2001 to greet the harbinger of yet another New Age for Detroit. It was, in the parlance of politicos, a grip-and-grin for the mayor-elect. The site was the Renaissance Center, named in a public contest when it was built decades before as the symbol of an earlier citywide rebirth that went nowhere.
But this time was different. This time the mantle had been draped on young shoulders. He was no graying member of Detroit’s tragically inbred political system. He didn’t bear old baggage. He was only 31, full of energy, full of presence — and, significantly, potent new blood in a dreadfully weary and troubled town. His charisma was undeniable.
Kwame Malik Kilpatrick was change incarnate, and even the dogs of the press seemed hopeful that this young man was indeed “The Chosen One” who would be the bridge between city and suburb, black and white, Detroit and Washington, penury and prosperity.
By his own telling, Kwame Kilpatrick (he commonly refers to himself in the third person) was indeed chosen to lead, and specifically to lead Detroit out of the desert.
A month before he was elected mayor, candidate Kilpatrick related an intimate, personal story to the Metro Times. It was the tale of his own moment of doubt, his private Gethsemane, when he — like his critics — anguished over his age and wondered whether he was too young for the job.
As he settled down in his basement to pray, he opened the Bible and, lo, there was the story of David, the 30-year-old king of Israel and Judah. He was a great king. It was a sign.
“That day,” a convincingly sincere Kilpatrick told the Metro Times reporter, “I decided to do what God wants me to do, instead of making excuses.”
Then, in a bit of narrative that would prove prescient, the reporter wrote:
“As David illustrated, no human is perfect. Though he conquered Jerusalem and was remembered as a righteous, God-fearing leader, David also had that unfortunate fling with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed to cover it up. Indeed, God gave David many blessings at a tender age, but he was not always pleased with how the young king used power.”
When he committed adultery with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, King David brought the wrath of God down upon his house. David said he was sorry, so sorry, but he was punished anyway. Kilpatrick the candidate either didn’t know, or neglected to read, this passage of the Bible story.
A month later, Kilpatrick defeated former Detroit City Council President Gil Hill for the city’s top job. Hill had been a rising star in the Detroit Police Department before fading into unexplained obscurity there. And now the mayor-elect made his entrance into the RenCen grip-and-grin.
He was enormous, 6-feet-4, and with enough avoirdupois to magnify his bigness. Yet he was not the largest man in the room.
Kilpatrick was attended by several oversized men who might have been bigger copies of him, but with other faces. They maintained the stony visages of those on alert, of the Beefeaters, of the Secret Service, of palace guards. They were the new, benevolent king’s muscle.
In the near-giddiness of the room, any possibility of malevolence was overlooked. No one asked why this charismatic, family-oriented, trailblazing young man, the embodiment of Detroit’s hope for healing, prosperity, and a return to prominence, needed a goon squad.
By December 2010, Kwame Kilpatrick sat in a Michigan prison cell, no longer mayor, no longer strutting as Detroit’s great young hope. Rather, he now was a national joke, a man so far fallen and so reviled that he put up a website to collect compliments (and legal-fund donations) from anyone who might still have a good word to say.
Then his real troubles began.
As Christmas 2010 neared, the self-anointed Moses who would lead Detroit out of the wilderness, he who once referred to himself as “God’s guy,” was named in a 38-count federal indictment as head of a criminal racket the feds called “The Kilpatrick Enterprise.”
Some of the charges reached back to Kilpatrick’s days in the Michigan Legislature when, after succeeding his mother there at age 26, he became the first African-American minority leader of House Democrats. Shortly before he used that currency to run for mayor, the supposed wunderkind was cited by the Democratic Leadership Council as, ironically, “one to watch.”
Also charged in the indictment were his father, Bernard Kilpatrick, whose work as a “political consultant” allegedly included collecting kickbacks from city contractors; Kwame’s longtime buddy Bobby Ferguson, a mercurial, fast-talking contractor who was granted “tens of millions of dollars” in city jobs that the indictment alleges he never did or had gained by extortion; former mayoral aide Derrick Miller; and Victor Mercado, the former head of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department.
Even before the feds weighed in with their long-gestated criminal case, the rise and fall of Kwame Kilpatrick was almost routinely called “a tragedy” in news coverage of the state’s ongoing investigation. It began with perjury and culminated in his being jailed for failing to pay restitution to the city he claimed to love while living in luxury in Texas, where he moved his family for a clean start.
It was a tragedy, said those who characterized it as such, that a young man so full of promise had been felled by his own hubris. Many excuses were made for his behavior before, during, and after the so-called “text-message scandal,” in which he and mayoral chief of staff Christine Beatty — high school classmates — carried on a sexual affair that was damningly detailed in their own electronic messages to one another.
To date, the criminal and civic charges and convictions stemming from Kilpatrick’s dalliances have cost taxpayers plenty. Factoring in legal bills from private and public attorneys, settlements, time in court, and prison time, the cost is approaching $20 million — and counting. “The federal charges against Kilpatrick, his father Bernard Kilpatrick, and certain staff and friends are going to cost taxpayers a lot more,” says David Littmann, senior economist for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. “The federal charges are going to play out over the next two or three years (starting in May), in the top echelon of our criminal justice system,” Littmann says.
Unlike the mayor, Beatty resigned when the texts hit the fan. Upon her departure, Kilpatrick said: “She gave a lot in terms of work ethic and professionalism to the city. We both made some mistakes. What she did was the right thing to do.” In discarding his paramour, the mayor neglected to explain why stepping down wasn’t the right thing for him.
He had already established that he was the chosen one. He had said he was sorry and, like the coddled child who believes that by uttering those words they will be forgiven of any transgression, he stayed put in office. Falling back repeatedly on the corrupt politician’s self-serving arsenal of God, flag, and family, Kilpatrick continued to pound his Bible and quote verses that let him off the hook. But the Bible also contains a well-known Proverb that he either had not read, ignored, or simply chose not to cite. It’s the one that predicts, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
“God’s guy” had gotten the cosmic ziggy, and the inference, often, was that he didn’t deserve it.
In Detroit leadership circles, he had plenty of company.
Two years after Kilpatrick was elected mayor, the feds handed down a 27-count indictment against then-City Councilwoman Kay Everett. She was accused of shaking down a city contractor for $150,000 in cash, vacations, and free meals, as well as demanding — and being presented with — 17 pounds of sausage worth $124.95. Everett died less than a month later of kidney disease. Upon her death, she was routinely praised as a dedicated public servant.
In August 2006, former city councilman and member of the Detroit Public Schools board, Alonzo “Lonnie” Bates — notorious for financing his penchant for the high life on the taxpayers’ nickel — drew a 33-month jail sentence for bank fraud and theft. Indeed, his nickname while in public office was “Two-Lunch Lonnie,” so given by begrudging businesspeople seeking his influence or vote. As it played out time and again, Bates would order one lunch to eat and one lunch to go, without ever picking up the tab. Surprisingly, a Detroit public school continues to bear his name.
Early last year, Monica Conyers — former city councilwoman, Detroit pension fund trustee and, for a brief time, council president pro tem — was sentenced to more than three years in prison after pleading guilty to a shakedown scheme. She and her bagman, Sam Riddle — who, like Bernard Kilpatrick, referred to himself as a “political consultant” — collected nearly $70,000 in bribes for her votes on the council. She quit the council after pleading guilty to bribery, but at sentencing tried to withdraw her plea, saying, “I may be guilty of extortion, but I never took a bribe.” Even after admitting her guilt, however she defined it, and resigning from City Council, she continued to take calls from supporters on her local cable-TV show, Ask the Councilwoman with Monica Conyers. “I’m not going to not do my show,” she said.
Riddle — variously called “The Riddler,” the “Mouth that Roared,” and just plain Sam — managed to encapsulate nearly everything wrong with Detroit in one oft-quoted sentence:
“The only difference between Detroit and Third World nations in terms of corruption is that there are no goats in the streets in Detroit.” He was in a unique position to know.
Having served as a consultant to Everett, and later to Monica Conyers, Riddle was indicted last July on charges of bribery, extortion, conspiracy, mail fraud, and making false statements to the FBI.
Indicted with him was a former member of the Michigan House, Mary Waters, who was gingerly described by the local press as Riddle’s “domestic partner.” The charges arose from a scheme to grease the skids for a Detroit pawnshop’s move to suburban Southfield.
Riddle was accused of accepting $45,000 in cash and a $5,500 Breitling watch — and Waters a $6,000 Rolex — from the shop’s owner to bribe Southfield Councilman William Lattimore, who was charged with taking $12,500 for his vote to approve the move. All three pleaded guilty. Riddle got 37 months in federal prison, Waters was sentenced to one year’s probation for failing to claim the watch on her tax return, and Lattimore was sentenced to 18 months behind bars.
The tragedy of Kwame Kilpatrick isn’t his personal fall, but what he did to the city he claimed to love. Before he was first elected mayor, there were those who suggested that this may be the city’s next-generation post-racial mayor, in much the same way Barack Obama’s election was naively touted by some as “post-racial.”
But racial animus is thriving in the United States, as has been repeatedly proven in the political and public reactions to Obama, his policies, and his person.
Nowhere is it more evident than in Detroit, which since the 1967 riots has nearly always led the list of the most racially divided metropolitan areas in the country. It remains so today, thanks to high-profile contributions by Kwame Kilpatrick, his mother, and his father. The national press was watching, and what it saw was a racial mosh pit where anything can happen.
Salon.com’s Edward McClelland, in reporting on the scandals in Detroit and their potential effect on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, wrote: “The local news emanating every day from this black city to its white suburbs has featured the legal, sexual, and administrative misadventures of a black mayor who doesn’t just play the race card, he is the race card.
“Kilpatrick is an odious politician, but he’s only a symptom of Detroit’s problems — a monster created by the racial estrangement between urban blacks and suburban whites. Kilpatrick kept himself in office by exploiting Detroit’s tensions, cleverly maneuvering on a political landscape that was in place before he was born.”
Adolph Mongo, another Detroit “political consultant” and seasoned player of the metro area’s racial divide, was behind a provocative full-page ad in a 2005 special edition of the Michigan Chronicle that honored Rosa Parks upon her death. The ad compared the coverage of Detroit’s crooked mayor to a lynching, and said so against a backdrop of black men hanging from trees. Stepping from the shadows much later, like a terrorist taking late credit for a bombing, Mongo not only admitted the ad was his, but said it was “among my finest work.”
It was the same year that Mayor Kilpatrick’s mother, speaking in support of his re-election bid, made her own racially divisive speech that seemed to say the struggles of the civil rights movement had all happened in order to elevate her son politically.
Playing on the longstanding us (Detroit blacks) versus them (suburban whites) attitudes dividing metro Detroit, Cheeks Kilpatrick exhorted her listeners, shouting:
“He didn’t just get up in here by just coming. Y’all sent him up in here. Don’t let nobody talk about y’all’s boy. Too many people died for us. We’re here to fight.”
When Waters used video of the comments in her own attack ads trying to unseat Cheeks Kilpatrick three years later, Mongo, the originator of the lynching ad, called the commercial sleazy.
But in early 2008, as a coda to his state-of-the-city address, Kwame Kilpatrick also exposed himself as the worst of the race-baiters in trying to maintain his support among black constituents. After celebrating his own achievements in running the troubled city, the so-called “Hip Hop Mayor” lost his charisma and his cool in what some observers saw as an enraged ad lib.
“In the past 30 days I’ve been called a nigger more than anytime in my entire life,” he said. “In the past three days I’ve received more death threats than I have in my entire administration. I’ve heard these words before, but I’ve never heard people say them about my wife and children. I have to say this because it’s very personal to me. I don’t believe that a Nielsen rating is worth the life of my children or your children. This unethical, illegal lynch mob mentality has to stop.”
Less than a year before, Kilpatrick was part of an NAACP-sponsored “funeral” for that most incendiary of racial epithets, saying, “Today we’re not just burying the ‘N-word,’ we’re taking it out of our spirit. Die, N-word. We don’t want to see you ’round here no more.”
But when the text messages with Beatty came to light, they were replete with the word, as Kilpatrick and Beatty referred to one another gangsta-style as “nigga” and, perversely, “nigette.”
When Kilpatrick disinterred the word in his state-of-the-city address, he was immediately condemned by state and local leaders, including then Gov. Jennifer Granholm. And Sam Riddle, ever quotable, also weighed in.
“The mayor engaged in the most repulsive form of race-baiting I’ve seen in 30 years of political consulting,” Riddle told Newsweek. “That was no ad-lib. That was a calculated move to pimp the emotions of Detroit so he can build a political base predicated on the politics of race.”
Business — or at least several of its biggest names in Michigan — loved Kwame Kilpatrick, even as a confessed felon.
By the end of his first term, his honesty and scruples had already been called into serious question when it was revealed that he’d bilked taxpayers for the cost of a lease for his wife’s red Navigator SUV, and had used his city-paid credit card for at least $210,000 of high-living, expensive trips and accommodations for his entourage. It was a scandal, but not nearly on the scale of the racketeering case he now faces. Compounding his problems were rumors, dating back to early in his first term, that he had hosted a stripper party in the mayor’s official residence, the Manoogian Mansion, which was interrupted when his wife, Carlita Kilpatrick, returned home before she was expected, saw a lap dancer with her man, and beat her bloody. (The rumors, never confirmed, continue to be the basis of a federal civil lawsuit brought by the family of the dancer, who was shot to death not long after the party allegedly took place.)
In early 2003, after categorically denying that such a party took place, Kilpatrick told Hour Detroit magazine why he thought such scurrilous things were being said about him and his administration.
“I think the reason that it comes out is that we are sexy,” he said. “I think this is a sexy administration because of the youth.”
Two years later, after Time magazine cited him as one of the worst big-city mayors in the country, and after his second-place showing in the primary seemed to obliterate his chances for re-election, Kilpatrick and his campaign enjoyed an 11th-hour infusion of cash from several business leaders, which was enough to return him to office.
But that support was fleeting. Soon after, the “sexy” young mayor dragged the city through the muck of his affair with Beatty, gaffed taxpayers for more than $9 million in hush-money to settle a lawsuit brought by the cops who had blown the whistle on that affair and others, did more than three months in jail for obstructing justice and assaulting a cop, confessed that he had committed perjury in trying to cover up his extramarital affairs, and finally resigned from office.
In turn, Kilpatrick was fired last May from his job as a software salesman for Compuware Corp’s Texas subsidiary, Covisint, after he was sentenced to as many as five years in prison for stiffing Detroit taxpayers on their restitution, hiding assets, and claiming poverty while living in a posh rental home in a Dallas suburb.
The financial effects of Kwame Kilpatrick’s crimes will likely never be totted up. The total is already far more than the $20 million he agreed to pay in trying to bury his philandering with Beatty, the taxpayer cost of prosecuting the perjury case against him and his illicit lover, the tab for the federal racketeering case that could continue for years, and the nepotism and high living that have been thoroughly documented by local news organizations.
The unknowable costs are much bigger. Recklessness and corruption did not bring the city to the ruin it now strives to reverse. But the colossal task of rebuilding Detroit into some semblance of a healthy, functioning civic entity has been made inestimably more difficult because of the disrepute, scorn, and ridicule that greeted the city on a national stage while its young mayor played out his fantasies.
Kwame Kilpatrick sits in prison, waiting for the full effect of the federal boot that has begun to drop.
Some still call that a tragedy.
But the real tragedy is this: Kwame Kilpatrick knew how to make an entrance, but he didn’t know how to leave. db