June 18, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Lawyer for city to file suit

Sedler says council erred in forfeiture proceedings, hopes to save taxpayers money.

General counsel Sharon McPhail with, from left, Godfrey Dillard, special counsel; John Johnson, corporation counsel; and attorney Robert Sedler. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)

DETROIT -- Calling the City Council's efforts to oust Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick doomed from the start, a lawyer hired by the city says he'll file suit today to save taxpayers money from hefty legal bills.

Wayne State University law professor Robert Sedler, who was retained last week by the Law Department, said the nine-member council erred by failing to muster a supermajority vote to kick-start forfeiture of office hearings set to start July 7. The council approved the measure and request that Gov. Jennifer Granholm remove Kilpatrick by identical 5-4 votes.

Sedler also contended the city charter allows the council to remove Kilpatrick only if he was convicted of a felony or doesn't live in the city.

Neither is true, and Sedler predicted that a judge ultimately would overturn any action by the council to remove Kilpatrick.

"Let's do this now and save taxpayers money," he said.

His comments came during a press conference Tuesday called by the Mayor's Office that included sharp criticism from Kilpatrick's general counsel, Sharon McPhail. She said the council is "piling on" and "politically motivated by two members who want to run for mayor" -- Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. and Councilman Kwame Kenyatta.

Not so, said Cockrel, who would temporarily become mayor if Kilpatrick is removed.

"We've got a mayor in office that lied under oath," Cockrel said. "It's about what's right and what's wrong. I think this is an attempt to distract from the truth."

Kilpatrick faces multiple felony counts claiming he perjured himself during a police whistle-blower trial last year and crafted an $8.4 million settlement to three former cops intended to keep secret text messages that contradicted his testimony. His former chief of staff, Christine Beatty, faces similar charges. The messages indicate a romantic relationship both denied under oath.

Sedler, who was hired because the Law Department is supposed to represent both the mayor and council, is planning to file suit in Wayne Circuit Court. Its prospects are unclear, said Peter Ellsworth, former legal counsel to Gov. William Milliken.

"It would be unusual for a court to enjoin a legislative body or administrative body from an action before they did it," he said.

Contracts for Sedler and his co-counsel, Detroit attorney Godfrey Dillard, still must be approved by council members whose efforts they oppose. Earlier Tuesday, Cockrel said Kilpatrick could have a hard time persuading members to approve the deals.

"That is going to be a very tough sell to bring to council," Cockrel said. "Somebody would have to make a very strong argument to me ... on why it's in the best interest of the city."

Typically, city employees are entitled to representation for actions taken during employment, but the mayor also has numerous private lawyers fighting several legal fronts. The council is using taxpayer dollars -- about $175,000 as of April -- to pay for their own attorney to oust Kilpatrick.

But Cockrel suggested the mayor's legal defense fund, the Detroit Justice Fund, should foot the bill.

McPhail said there would be no dispute if the council just followed the law and stopped trying to force the mayor out of office.

Marcus Reese, a spokesman for Kilpatrick's private legal team, called Cockrel's comments more "political posturing."

"(Kilpatrick) is well within his rights to retain legal counsel in these circumstances," Reese said.

The scandal began in January with the publication of text messages allegedly from Beatty's pager. As it enters its sixth month, Cockrel said the only beneficiaries are lawyers.

"This could all be ended if the mayor did the gracious thing" by resigning, Cockrel said.

You can reach David Josar at (313) 222-2073.

Attorney Robert Sedler says at a press conference Tuesday that he'll ... (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)
Cockrel (Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News)