October 22, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Travels with Charlie

Just like dad, Blackwell lives with controversy

Art Blackwell, former emergency financial manager of Highland Park, has pleaded not guilty to embezzlement charges. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Highland Park -- Arthur Blackwell II, the former emergency financial manager of Highland Park, stood accused of embezzlement this month in a courtroom in a building that bears his father's name: the Robert B. Blackwell Municipal Building.

It was a symbolic moment -- the nadir, perhaps, of Blackwell's power; a political name synonymous with the smoke-filled backrooms of Highland Park and Detroit.

His late father -- known as "Big Bob" -- was Michigan's first elected black mayor and an icon in Highland Park, a postage-stamp-size city of 14,000 wholly contained within the borders of Detroit. His portrait still hangs prominently in the drab foyer above that of the city's current mayor, Hubert Yopp.

Perpetually penniless and abandoned by both Ford and Chrysler, the city was on the brink of bankruptcy four years ago when Blackwell's son, Arthur, was handpicked by Gov. Jennifer Granholm to clean it up.

The results have been mixed. The police force has been reconstituted, but the city is so rough, even the Nation of Islam closed its mosque. The books are balanced, but it took a $30 million bond sale to do it. The street lights are half-off or half-on, depending on how one views it. But there was no toilet paper in the courthouse the morning he was accused of writing $264,000 in checks to himself out of the city's meager bank account.

Arthur stood ramrod straight that morning in a blue-striped suit, a blue-striped tie and polished shoes, as the judge read the litany of felony charges.

"How do you plead?" asked Chief Judge Brigette Officer, an old friend.

"Not guilty," his lawyer answered.

The chief of police, another friend of Blackwell's, stood to the side of the courtroom near the jury box, his eyes welling with tears.

"This is not a humiliating moment," Blackwell said later under the portrait of his father.

"It's kind of like a dream. Surreal. It was kind of warm for me to come into a place named after my dad rather than a place that was cold and I didn't know."

Highland Park was once known as "the city of trees." And in the case of the Blackwells, one should remember that the apple never falls far.

Robert Blackwell was a man of large appetites. Weighing nearly 300 pounds, Big Bob served four terms as mayor between the '60s and '80s. He preferred sharp ties and sharkskin suits and famously hosted poker parties in the old City Hall while conducting city business in a strip bar called the Tender Trap next door.

A man with a complexion as light as Walt Disney's, Blackwell moved blacks into prominent positions in a city that until he took over in 1968 had all but locked them out.

Predictably, Blackwell made enemies, and he twice survived a recall vote. His travel expenses were the stuff of legend. Even U.S. Rep. John Conyers accused him of embezzling millions of dollars in federal housing money.

Nothing ever stuck.

Son is controversial

His son Art, 56, is also a large and engaging man. He, too, appreciates lavish cars, dresses in a lambskin overcoat and is a political powerbroker wholly separate from his father and yet inextricably linked to him.

Arthur Blackwell was tacitly endorsed by Coleman A. Young for mayor of Detroit in 1993, but lost to Dennis Archer in a rout. He has served on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, the Port Authority and insinuated himself as a shareholder and dealmaker in the Greektown Casino.

Most famously, he was the chief strategist and political rabbi to disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Like his father, Blackwell's career has been streaked in controversy. In the early '90s, he ran up more than $27,000 in travel expenses during his time at the Port Authority. He was accused of using leftover campaign funds to put a deck on his home. He collected a $42,000 salary as an appointee to the Fire Department, but rarely showed for the job.

Like his father, however, those accusations failed to topple him from the power set.

But this time, Blackwell finds himself fighting not only for his career, but also for his freedom.

"There is no gray area; Art Blackwell is a crook," said Robert Davis, the 29-year-old Highland Park school board member who brought the checks to the attention of Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor. "He took what he wasn't entitled to. Things won't get better until people like Blackwell go to prison."

$1 salary disputed

In April, the state fired Blackwell on claims he wrongly paid himself $264,000 from the Highland Park treasury. Blackwell had publicly agreed in 2005 to a salary of $1 a year to be paid by the state in his role as the city's emergency financial manager. But there is a dispute over whether it was supposed to be for the first year only, as he maintains, or for the length of his term.

Eventually, a state financial board did increase his salary in 2008 to $11,000 a month. Blackwell believes he was entitled to back pay dating to 2006, and so the city began to cut him checks that also carried his signature.

"The dollar was supposed to be for the first year only," said Blackwell, while giving a driving tour of Highland Park. He did not drive his restored '55 Cadillac, but rather a cream-colored van, the inside of which was so badly stained one wondered whether he was moonlighting as a body collector for the county morgue. "The governor agreed to that. I have it on tape. I mean, who in their right mind is going to work for $1 a year for five years?"

He went on: "I don't want to put this on my relationship with Kwame Kilpatrick because that's too easy. But yes, yes, there is a lot of political intrigue here. I am an old-school politician who believes there should be black people at the table. Some people don't like that."

There have been improvements in Highland Park, the state's poorest city, under Blackwell. Granholm glowingly acknowledged as much last year in a city brochure. Highland Park is running a $3 million surplus, she wrote. New townhouses are being built. The police, once housed in a trailer, have a new station on Woodward Avenue. The pension system is funded for the first time in 50 years. The community center got a $1 million face-lift and the library is scheduled to reopen.

But as Blackwell has learned, felony charges tend to lose you friends.

"Mr. Blackwell signed a contract for which he agreed to work for $1 a year indefinitely," said Liz Boyd, the governor's spokeswoman. "The governor after a year said she believed Mr. Blackwell should receive a salary; however, that's up to the loan board consistent with state law. It's now a matter before the courts."

Blackwell's lawyer, Ben Gonek, said that Granholm will have to say it herself in court at a preliminary hearing scheduled for Nov. 17. "I would expect the prosecutor to subpoena the governor," said Gonek. "If necessary, we will."

'People love you'

Gonek does not come cheap, and by all accounts Blackwell needs money. Despite cashing out the majority of his shares in the Greektown Casino five years ago for $10 million, Blackwell has been hit with state tax liens in excess of $100,000. He was also sued by Ford Motor Co. for the return of four luxury cars and lost a Detroit property two years ago to foreclosure.

Blackwell stood before the Detroit City Council earlier this week, asking it to scuttle the Greektown bankruptcy reorganization that would bring the cash-starved city $15 million because it would render worthless his remaining $5 million in options.

"This is just about equity and fairness," he said.

Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson agreed, calling it "unacceptable and disrespectful."

Blackwell is like that. He has friends everywhere.

Back in Highland Park, in the halls of his father's building, a well-wisher put it best. "You'll be all right. You're like a saint here. People love you."

Travels with Charlie charlie@detnews.com">charlie@detnews.com (313) 222-2071

Art Blackwell stands in front of the old Highland Park City Hall, where ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)