March 21, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Tackling a political Riddle: Has the outspoken adviser met his match in the FBI?

Tackling a political Riddle
Tackling a political Riddle: Sam Riddle is a political strategist who is most decidedly impolitic. He is prolifically profane and his name has appeared so often in recent headlines that it's beginning to read like a jingle: Riddle. Wiretap. Bribe.

DETROIT -- Sam Riddle is a political strategist who is most decidedly impolitic.

He is prolifically profane, once socked his employer in the mouth, and his name has appeared so often in recent headlines that it's beginning to read like a jingle: Riddle. Wiretap. Bribe.

Predictably, Riddle said, his phone has gone silent. It seems politicians have little appetite for a consultant who charges $250 an hour and is under a cloud of legal suspicion.

"The negative publicity has rendered me toxic," said Riddle, on his way one recent morning to the taping of a local political talk show.

These are tough days for Riddle, a fit, funny, unpredictable veteran of the Detroit political scene. A master of the racial card game, Riddle has worked for some of the biggest names in politics, including Ralph Nader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown. Despite his Technicolor personality, or perhaps because of it, Riddle's career has reached a tipping point, where even if he is not on the take, few are willing to take the chance.

And so Riddle -- who has not been charged with anything -- finds himself in the biggest campaign of his life. The one to keep himself from prison.

He found out last year that the feds, in a wide ranging bribery investigation of City Hall, had tapped his phone and poked through his bank accounts. Agents asked him to wear a wire, Riddle said, ostensibly to gather information on his occasional client Monica Conyers, the Detroit City Council president.

"I told them to go (expletive) themselves," Riddle said of that meeting. "Enough of the whisper campaign, if they're going to indict my black a-- then do it."

Then in late January, the vice president of Synagro Technologies, a subsidiary of a multinational corporation, who won a $47 million a year contract to handle Detroit's sludge waste, pleaded guilty to bribing city officials in order to get that contract. According to court documents, "City Council Person A" -- ostensibly Monica Conyers and "an aide to Council Member A" -- ostensibly Riddle, are targets of that investigation. Two days after the plea, a local strip club owner testified to a federal grand jury that Riddle tried to shake him down for $25,000 in exchange for a favorable vote from Conyers on a topless dancing permit.

Riddle denies all of it.

"They're saying that I took some chump a-- walk-around money," railed Riddle, 62, who had the car's heat set to senior citizen levels despite the woolen suit and crisply starched collar. "Sam Riddle don't take bribes. Sam Riddle has never taken bribes. And they can't prove that I took bribes because there is no mother (expletive) tape. That's why they wanted me to be some bull---- wire-wearing snitch. They want to take down Monica Conyers, but they've got nothing on her as far as her relationship goes with me."

Kerry McCafferty, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said, as a matter of policy, he could neither confirm nor deny any investigations involving Riddle.

If the feds do think they have incriminating phone recordings, Riddle said, federal agents simply misunderstand their meaning. "If they've been listening to my phone conversations, they've been listening to some heavy trash talking," he said.

"I talk a lot of s--- on the phone. It might run afoul of certain moral sensibilities, but I have not run afoul of the law."

Riddle is down, but Riddle is not out.

Conyers, the mercurial council president, confirmed that she has leaned heavily on Riddle in the past few weeks for her curious media strategy on the floundering Cobo Center regional revitalization plan.

"Cobo was my idea," Conyers said regarding her effort to kill the deal. "But is Sam advising me? Yes. Am I listening to his advice? Yes."

Conyers, who holed up and dodged the media after the Synagro scandal, has come out swinging over the Cobo scuttlebutt. She now calls the media racist. She complains about Lansing conspiracies. She claims she has been called a monkey but can't say by whom. She vows not to let the suburbs steal Cobo, one of Detroit's crown jewels.

Other council members have picked up on the theme. Barbara-Rose Collins said the Cobo takeover was a metaphor for the European conquest of the new world before leading a bizarre rendition of "Onward Christian Soldiers" in a special council session. Most recently, Councilwoman Martha Reeves attacked Jay Leno for doing a free concert in suburban Auburn Hills and not in the city of Detroit.

"If Conyers is taking advice from Riddle," said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, "then she's getting the wrong advice."

When you see Conyers on television, you are likely to see Riddle in the background. You hear Conyers on the radio, you are likely to hear Riddle's talking points. He has ignited a political prairie fire using a match of racial animus, and he is proud of his work.

"Cobo has become political CPR for a lot of those people on council," said Riddle. "Listening to the radio, Detroit agrees with her."

Oddly, Riddle said he is not being paid by Conyers. "She still owes me from the 2005 campaign" for City Council, he said. "But I love Monica. I've known her since she was skinny."

The son of a Flint autoworker, Riddle got his GED and served in the Army before attending college. Riddle cut his teeth in the campus black power movement. In 1972, wearing a large afro and dark sunglasses, Riddle shut down a Michigan State University basketball game for nearly an hour as he read a list of grievances. The crowd was unappreciative.

By the late '70s, Riddle had earned his law degree from Michigan, cut his afro and traded-in the dashiki for a business suit. He worked as a land man for a Montana oil company, until, in midflight, Riddle punched an executive in the face because, Riddle said, the executive called him the n-word. They put him off the plane in Billings.

Riddle has earned himself haters across the country. In Colorado, he represented the family of Isaiah Shoels, the black teenager who was murdered at Columbine. It was Riddle who wrote the speech read by Secretary of State Vikki Buckley -- a black Republican and a Riddle client -- welcoming the National Rifle Association to Denver a few weeks after the massacre.

"I must agree with Isaiah's father, Michael, who has stated that guns are not the issue," she read. "Hate is what pulls the trigger of violence." The gun crowd went wild. But so did the Columbine families. The state of Colorado investigated the validity of Riddle's consulting contract with Buckley. In the end, Riddle got paid.

Confrontation, said Riddle, is the key to his success. "You know the difference between a Riddle and a Mongo?" asked Riddle, referring to Adolph Mongo, another bull in Detroit political consulting scene. "I'll hit a mother (expletive) in the mouth. Mongo will talk about hitting a mother (expletive) in the mouth."

When told of this, Mongo could only laugh. "You don't have to hit a mother (expletive) in the mouth," said Mongo. "He's from another era. I don't need to hit anybody physically. I use words. And I been in the Marine Corps."

The inability to control himself, said Mongo, is the root of Riddle's current legal problems.

"You light a fire, and you're likely to get consumed in your own artistry," he said.

But Riddle fights on, saying he has nothing to fear because he has done nothing wrong. "The bottom line is my history and track record are clean and I stand by that."

And with that, he wished the FBI to have this message: "Love you. Law and order forever. A--holes."

You can reach Charlie LeDuff at (313) 222-2071 or charlie@detnews.com">charlie@detnews.com.

Riddle-isms

A look at some of the more colorful quotes from Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle, now the subject of an FBI investigation:
Detroit's relationship to state government: "Lansing's plantation."
Detroit's relationship with the suburbs: "Democracy does not stop at Eight Mile."
Detroit's political corruption: "Like the Third World, except there are no goats in the street."
Cooperating with the FBI: "You wear a wire in this town, you're done."
Detroit's decrepitude: "Until we move beyond the denial, we'll never fix it."
Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick: "Pimp in the night."

Sam Riddle, who finds himself under a cloud of negative publicity, prepares to be interviewed by television host Mildred Gaddis. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News
Sam Riddle, speaking at Click restaurant, says if the feds do think they ... (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)