A former Detroit mayor was sent to prison for nearly three decades Thursday, offering little remorse for the widespread corruption under his watch but acknowledging he let down the financially troubled city during a critical period before it landed in bankruptcy.
Prosecutors argued that Kwame Kilpatrick's “corrupt administration exacerbated the crisis” that Detroit now finds itself in. A judge agreed with the government's recommendation that 28 years in prison was appropriate for rigging contracts, taking bribes and putting his own price on public business.
It is one of the toughest penalties doled out for public corruption in recent U.S. history and seals a dramatic fall for Kilpatrick, who was elected mayor in 2001 at age 31 and is the son of a former senior member of Congress.
While Detroit's finances were eroding, he was getting bags of cash from city contractors, kickbacks hidden in the bra of his political fundraiser and private cross-country travel from businessmen, according to trial evidence.
Kilpatrick, 43, said he was sorry if he let down his hometown but denied ever stealing from the citizens of Detroit.
“I'm ready to go so the city can move on,” Kilpatrick said, speaking softly with a few pages of notes before U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds ordered the sentence.
“The people here are suffering, they're hurting. A great deal of that hurt I accept responsibility for,” he said.
In March, he was convicted of racketeering conspiracy, fraud, extortion and tax crimes. The government called it the “Kilpatrick enterprise,” a yearslong scheme to shake down contractors and reward allies. He was doomed by his own text messages, which revealed efforts to fix deals for a pal, Bobby Ferguson, an excavator.
Prosecutors said $73 million of Ferguson's $127 million in revenue from city work came through extortion. The government alleged that he in turn shared cash with Kilpatrick.
Agents who pored over bank accounts and credit cards said Kilpatrick spent $840,000 beyond his salary during his time as mayor, from 2002 to fall 2008. Defense attorneys tried to portray the money as generous gifts from political supporters who opened their wallets for birthdays or holidays.
“It is difficult to quantify the total cost of the devastating corruption instigated by Kilpatrick. … But one thing was certain: It was the citizens of Detroit who suffered when they turned over their hard-earned tax dollars but failed to receive the best services,” the judge said.
Kilpatrick was convicted in March, just days before Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder sent an emergency manager to Detroit to take control of city operations. The city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July, overloaded with at least $18 billion in long-term debt.
Edmunds said Kilpatrick can't be blamed for the bankruptcy — he's been out of office for five years — but “corruption has its own cost.”
“We're demanding transparency and accountability in our government. We expect it,” the judge said. “If there has been corruption in the past, there will be corruption no more. We're done. It's over.”
Kilpatrick covered much ground in his 30 minutes of remarks to the judge. He said he hated being mayor after just six months because the job was so difficult. He lamented that his three sons now will grow up without their father, a problem in black families, and said his scandals “killed” the political career of his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat who lost re-election in 2010.
The former mayor didn't specifically address his crimes, though he said he respected the jury's verdict. An appeal is certain. He said his family wasn't in the courtroom gallery because he didn't want to make them uncomfortable under the media glare.
“I want the city to heal. I want it to prosper. I want the city to be great again,” he told the judge. “I want the city to have the same feeling it had in 2006, when the Super Bowl was here.”
The sentence was a victory for prosecutors, who had recommended Kilpatrick serve at least 28 years in prison. Defense attorneys argued for no more than 15.
The punishment matches the 28-year sentence given to former Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Commissioner James Dimora in 2012. In Illinois, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison for trying to peddle President Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat for personal gain.
Outside court, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said Kilpatrick seemed to be contrite but not enough. </p>
“At the end of the day, he did not accept responsibility for stealing from the people of Detroit,” said McQuade, who noted that public contracts ended up costing more money because the fix was in for Kilpatrick's buddy Ferguson.
Kilpatrick also tapped a nonprofit fund, which was created to help distressed Detroit residents, to pay for yoga, camps for his kids, golf clubs and travel, according to evidence.
Kilpatrick quit office in 2008 in a different scandal. Sexually explicit text messages revealed that he had lied during a trial to cover up an affair with his top aide, Christine Beatty, and to hide the reasons for demoting or firing police officers who suspected wrongdoing at city hall.
After more than three hours in court Thursday, Kilpatrick stood up and stretched by twisting his waist. He looked for friendly faces in the gallery, placed his hands behind his back for handcuffs and was escorted away. He hopes to be assigned to a federal prison near family members living in North Texas.