DETROIT (Reuters) - Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and official misconduct on Monday stemming from a sex scandal and the prominent Democrat’s handling of an $8.4 million settlement of a whistle-blower lawsuit against the city.
The controversy surrounding the black politician once seen as a rising star in his party has deadlocked city government and become a distraction to the Democratic Party as it struggles with the issue of how to handle Michigan delegates still being contested by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The eight-count criminal indictment announced by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy included two counts of obstruction of justice and four counts of perjury. The perjury charges each carry a prison term of 15 years.
“The justice system was severely mocked and public trust was trampled on,” said Worthy in a scolding rebuke of the embattled mayor.
Worthy said lawyers for the city of Detroit had attempted to thwart her two-month investigation and said some evidence had sought by prosecutors had gone missing or been destroyed.
Kilpatrick’s former chief of staff, Christine Beatty, was also indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Kilpatrick, 37, vowed to remain in office and fight the charges in a short statement he read to reporters without taking questions. He was expected to be arraigned as soon as Monday and to be released without posting bond.
“I’m deeply disappointed in the prosecutor’s decision,” said Kilpatrick, who earlier compared his critics to a “lynch mob” and said he had been subjected to racial epithets since the scandal broke. “This has been a flawed process from the very beginning.”
The criminal charges stem from text messages between Kilpatrick and Beatty dating back to 2002 that first disclosed in January by the Detroit Free Press.
The text messages appeared to show Kilpatrick and Beatty lied under oath when they testified in a police whistle-blower lawsuit last year that they had not had a sexual relationship or discussed the firing of a police official.
Kilpatrick agreed to settle that lawsuit at a cost of more than $9 million to the city after learning that the lawyer for the police officers suing had copies of the text messages he had exchanged with Beatty.
Lawyers for Kilpatrick and the plaintiffs then arranged to keep the messages confidential, a detail not disclosed to the City Council when the settlement was approved.
The announcement was the latest sex-related scandal to hit a top U.S. politician. Last week Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of New York following a report that he was being investigated for patronizing a prostitution ring.
Detroit’s City Council has urged Kilpatrick to resign and vowed to continue its own probe of the scandal.
“Certainly this is a huge distraction and it appears that it’s going to be a long and bumpy ride for the city,” said Detroit City Council President Ken Cockrel.
Monica Conyers, the only City Council member to dissent from the vote last week calling on Kilpatrick to resign, said after the indictment that the mayor should now step aside.
Kilpatrick would lose his job if he is convicted of a felony. Michigan’s Gov. Jennifer Granholm, also a Democrat, could also step in to remove Kilpatrick although she has so far resisted calls to intervene.
Worthy said others could also face charges in an ongoing investigation she said now included more than 40,000 pages of documents as evidence, including text messages.
The scandal has distracted Michigan Democrats as they try to find a way to make their delegates count in the race between Clinton and Obama for the party’s presidential nomination.
Granholm, a prominent Clinton supporter, supported a now-scuttled plan to rerun Michigan’s contested Democratic primary. State lawmakers representing Detroit who back Obama were key to scuttling that proposal last week.
Kilpatrick’s high-profile lawyer, Dan Webb, said he would ask a judge to keep the text messages out of evidence at a trial, arguing they were released improperly. He said he was confident Kilpatrick would be cleared of wrongdoing.
“This man, my client, the mayor is entitled to his day in court,” Webb said.
Civic and business leaders credit Kilpatrick with steps to revive the downtown area in his six years in office, although some have also expressed concern the current scandal could set back the struggling city’s efforts to rebuild.
Detroit ranks as the 11th most populous U.S. city after an exodus over the past four decades that cut its population by almost half. It has been battered in recent years by the slump in the U.S auto industry, an increase in unemployment and high rates of home foreclosure and crime.
Editing by David Wiessler