By Steve Neavling and Bernie Woodall
DETROIT, March 11 (Reuters) - Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, once seen as a rising star in Democratic Party politics, was convicted on Monday on two dozen federal charges of corruption and bribery during his seven-year tenure.
U.S. prosecutors accused Kilpatrick, 42, of widespread corruption, extorting bribes from contractors who wanted to get or keep city contracts, and turning the mayor’s office into “Kilpatrick Incorporated” from 2001 until he resigned in 2008.
Kilpatrick could face prison sentences of up to 20 years for the most serious charges for steering more than $83 million worth of municipal contracts to his friend Bobby Ferguson, a city contractor, who shared some of the money with the former mayor.
“Kwame Kilpatrick didn’t lead the city. He looted the city,” Barbara McQuade, the U.S. attorney in Detroit, told a news conference. “While Kwame Kilpatrick enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, he watched the quality of life erode for the people of Detroit.”
Many people in Detroit believe Kilpatrick contributed to the decline of the city, home of the U.S. auto industry. The verdict was handed down as Detroit’s financial crisis was nearing a new low, with Michigan state soon expected to appoint an emergency financial manager, a move that could lead to the biggest municipal bankruptcy in the United States.
The 12 jurors, who deliberated for 14 days from mid-February in a U.S. District Court trial that started last September, returned a sweeping verdict against Kilpatrick following the biggest public corruption probe in Detroit in decades.
Jurors found Kilpatrick guilty of racketeering, extortion, bribery, mail and wire fraud, and tax charges.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds ordered Kilpatrick and Ferguson, who was found guilty of racketeering, extortion and bribery, immediately taken into custody pending sentencing after a hearing on Monday afternoon. Both men had been free on bail during the trial.
“You showed disregard and contempt for the people of the city of Detroit, and a willingness to lie,” she told Kilpatrick.
No sentencing dates have been scheduled.
Kilpatrick’s father, Bernard Kilpatrick, who was also charged in the corruption case, was convicted on a single count of signing a false tax return.
Edmunds, before reading the decisions, said the jurors reached the verdicts late on Friday, but “wanted to go home and sleep on it” until Monday. They were unanimous on 40 of the 45 charges against the three defendants.
Kwame Kilpatrick, who wore a dark suit and patterned tie in court, was quiet as the verdicts were read, resting his chin on folded hands. At times, Kilpatrick shook his head.
Lawyers for the three men had argued that the government’s case was built on weak evidence and witnesses who lied to gain favor with prosecutors in their own public corruption cases.
James Thomas, Kilpatrick’s attorney, said he would argue for a relatively light sentence and planned to appeal.
“We came here with a lot of baggage,” Thomas said after Kilpatrick was taken into custody. “It was a tough case.”
“He might not show it, but obviously this is affecting him,” Thomas said of Kilpatrick.
Ferguson’s attorney, Michael Rataj, told reporters after the verdict that it was too soon to talk about possible appeals.
Jurors told reporters the deliberations were intense at times. They asked not to be identified for privacy reasons.
“There was always respect, (but) sometimes arguments got a little heated,” one juror said.
Another juror said she had twice voted for Kilpatrick for mayor, but changed her mind about him after hearing the evidence.
“I saw a lot that really turned my stomach, and I couldn’t believe this type of thing was going on,” she said.
Few people awaited the verdict outside the courthouse in downtown Detroit. A handful of passersby spoke to reporters.
James Jones, 42, and Arthur Bryant, 59, both lifelong Detroit residents, stood across the street from the courthouse and yelled encouragement to the former mayor.
“It’s not like this is the first time,” Jones said. “There has been pay-to-play in every city, every state, for a long, long time. They are singling him out because he’s a black man. Why aren’t they going after the ones who paid him?”
Others supported the prosecution and verdict.
“I‘m not happy that he’s guilty, but I‘m happy that we are getting justice,” Asaeli Giles said. “It would have been a travesty if they had gotten away with this.”
Kilpatrick was elected Detroit mayor at age 31 in 2001 and re-elected in 2005, but his tenure was marked by accusations of cronyism, nepotism and lavish spending. The allegations spanned Kilpatrick’s tenure as mayor and the year before and after.
Witnesses in the trial included a top former mayoral aide, a mayoral fundraiser and a former city contractor. The evidence ranged from text messages to bank checks, federal wiretaps and surveillance video.
Former Detroit Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, who teaches Detroit political history at Wayne State University, has said she believes the culture under the Kilpatrick administration exacerbated the city’s already deeply compromised financial infrastructure.
Detroit has lost more than half of its population since the 1950s, it had about 706,000 residents according to the 2011 U.S. Census, leaving it with a shrinking tax base and huge debts.
The verdict is seen as a major victory for prosecutors, who have now racked up 35 convictions since 2008 from investigations aimed at purging Detroit’s cash-strapped government of graft and corruption. A previous trial for Ferguson resulted in a mistrial after a lone juror held out and deadlocked the jury.
Kilpatrick resigned in 2008 and pleaded guilty to charges that he lied on the witness stand in a civil lawsuit over the firing of a police officer unrelated to the current case.
He later served 14 months in prison for violating his probation for concealing assets to avoid paying restitution to the city of Detroit.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said in a statement that he was pleased the trial was over and ”we can finally put this negative chapter in Detroit’s history behind us.
“It is time for all of us to move forward with a renewed commitment to transparency and high ethical standards in our city government,” Bing said.