DETROIT (Reuters) - It’s now up to a federal jury in Detroit to weigh five months of trial testimony from more than 80 witnesses to decide the fate of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, his father and a former city contractor in the biggest corruption probe to face the city in decades.
The nine women and three men on the jury were expected to begin deliberations on Tuesday in the trial of Kilpatrick, 42, his father Bernard Kilpatrick, 71, and mayoral pal and city contractor Bobby Ferguson, 44.
In the case before U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds, prosecutors have accused the three men of turning the mayor’s office into “Kilpatrick Incorporated,” extorting bribes from contractors who wanted to get or keep city contracts. Some contractors were forced to include Ferguson on jobs, even though he did little or no work, prosecutors said.
“The scale of corruption is breathtaking,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow said in his closing argument on Friday.
Kilpatrick steered $83 million in city contracts to Ferguson in exchange for kickbacks that enabled Kilpatrick to spend $840,000 more than his $160,000-a-year mayor’s salary would have allowed, prosecutors said.
The former mayor also is accused of using his nonprofit Kilpatrick Civic Fund for personal and political expenses.
The government said Kilpatrick’s father, a governmental consultant, used his son’s position to extort bribes from contractors.
Although the defendants didn’t testify at trial, their lawyers said they were victims of overzealous prosecutors, flimsy evidence, and witnesses who lied to get lenient treatment in their own corruption cases.
Witnesses in the trial included a top former mayoral aide, a mayoral fundraiser and a former contractor at the city’s convention center. Evidence included text messages, bank checks, federal wiretaps and surveillance video.
Kwame Kilpatrick’s lawyer, James Thomas, told jurors the witnesses were “bought and paid for” by the government and that Kilpatrick’s additional cash came from savings and gifts. Thomas said Kilpatrick never extorted anyone or forced anyone to hire Ferguson. Rather, he helped Ferguson because he knew Ferguson would hire Detroiters, Thomas said.
“Let Mr. Kilpatrick go home with his wife and kids,” Thomas said in his closing argument.
Lawyers for Ferguson and Bernard Kilpatrick said they were honest and hard-working. Bernard Kilpatrick’s lawyer said he was targeted because he is the former mayor’s father.
The defendants are charged with racketeering, conspiracy and extortion, which carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Kwame Kilpatrick also faces mail and wire fraud charges.
Kwame Kilpatrick and Ferguson are also charged with bribery, punishable by up to 10 years behind bars. And both Kilpatricks are accused of filing false tax returns.
The ongoing corruption probe has led to criminal charges against two dozen others, including former vendors and city officials such as the former head of the city’s water and sewer department, Victor Mercado, who pleaded guilty during the trial to one conspiracy count and faces up to 18 months in prison.
Legal expert Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former federal prosecutor, predicted that jurors would convict Kwame Kilpatrick and Ferguson on some charges, but might acquit Bernard Kilpatrick, who played a lesser role.
“They have to be happy with how their case has gone,” Henning said of the prosecution. “There were some bumps in the road with some of the witnesses, but that’s not surprising in a case like this.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit has a lot riding on the verdict after several high profile setbacks, including the acquittal in March of a militia group accused of plotting a violent anti-government revolt and a mistrial last June declared in a separate $12.9 million bid-rigging case against Ferguson.
Former Detroit Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, who teaches Detroit political history at Wayne State, said the pay-to-play culture under Kilpatrick damaged the city.
“It was literally a cancer on the core of the city,” Cockrel said. “I think the misuse of public funds for personal gain exacerbated an already deeply decayed financial infrastructure.”
Detroit’s population has plunged since the 1950s, leaving it with a shrinking tax base and huge debts. Governor Rick Snyder is considering a state-appointed emergency financial manager for Detroit, a step toward what could be the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Kilpatrick, a former state representative, was considered a rising star in the national Democratic Party when he was elected mayor in November 2001. His tenure turned out to be marked by accusations of cronyism, nepotism and lavish spending.
In 2008, he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying in a civil trial where he denied having an extramarital affair with his former chief of staff and conspiring with her to fire a deputy police chief. The deputy chief was investigating reports about a never-proven wild party at the mayoral mansion where Kilpatrick’s wife supposedly attacked a stripper.
Kilpatrick agreed to resign and pay $1 million restitution to the city and was jailed for 99 days.
In 2010, a Wayne County judge sentenced Kilpatrick to prison for a probation violation - concealing assets to avoid paying the ordered restitution while living a lavish lifestyle in a Dallas, Texas, suburb. He served 14 months.
Additional reporting by Maureen McDonald; Editing by David Bailey, Barbara Goldberg and Nick Zieminski