May 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

Behind ex-mayor, a 'maestro' father

Like his disgraced son, Bernard Kilpatrick lived large in Detroit

Bernard Kilpatrick sits behind his son during Kwame's sentencing in 2008. Their love of power has them under scrutiny by a grand jury investigating the Kilpatrick era in City Hall, former colleagues say. (The Detroit News)

Bernard Kilpatrick showed the way.

  He paved the path to power for his son, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Both were former college sports stars, taught school after graduation, gravitated to elected office and used political machines to rise in the ranks.

And both, former colleagues say, became intoxicated by power, a trait that has them under scrutiny by a grand jury investigating the Kilpatrick era in City Hall.

Their fates may be intertwined, but Bernard Kilpatrick's rise isn't as well known and contains a few surprises.

The man who vigorously defended his son -- even likening his critics to Nazis -- had paychecks garnished for child support by the courts. He's known by two nicknames: "Big Goofy" behind his back and "Killer" to his face. He embraced a black nationalist church that shunned materialism but became enamored of mob movies and referred to his son as "Michael Corleone" from "The Godfather."

"There's something deep down in him," said Larry Mongo, a businessman who has known Bernard Kilpatrick for nearly 30 years. "He wanted to be known as the top street guy.

"He wanted to be Don Corleone. It was the power. He was living vicariously through the mayor."

For more than a year, the FBI has been investigating whether contractors seeking city work while Kwame Kilpatrick was mayor were pressured to hire his father as a consultant. A grand jury meets weekly on the public corruption probe.

Mongo said the name of Bernard Kilpatrick's consulting firm, Maestro Associates, conjures images of a puppet master who capitalized on the office his son held from 2002-08. As soon as Kwame Kilpatrick was elected, his father's persona changed, and he began wearing furs, big hats and diamond Rolex watches, Mongo said.

"For the first time in his life, he was the boss," Mongo said. "Think about it. What is a maestro?"

And like his son, Bernard Kilpatrick, 69, has legions of supporters who say the media are trying to demonize him.

"I don't think Bernard is a criminal," said friend and businessman Harley Brown. "Maybe he didn't know how to go about it at that level with his son as mayor. In his mind he was doing the right thing."

Brown said Bernard Kilpatrick has a long history of supporting community causes, citing his support decades ago for a campaign to reopen Southwest Detroit Hospital, train minority doctors and give blacks better access to health care.

"We looked at Bernard as a big brother. He's always had our best interests at heart," Brown said. "He's always been at the front of the black community and creating jobs for African-Americans."

Bernard Kilpatrick has battled financial problems since his son left office, losing his East Jefferson riverfront condo to foreclosure this year and facing a suit over a $3,500 bill from a credit card.

He still lists the condo as his address, but has been living with his son in Southlake, Texas. He didn't return phone calls. Nor did his attorney Bobbie Edmonds or Mike Paul, a spokesman for his son, return calls.

College ball to black pride

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Bernard Kilpatrick is looked up to by most. And he used that height to his advantage in college.

Born in Detroit, the son of a postal worker, he drew fame at Ferris State, where he was an All-American basketball player two years in a row in the mid 1960s. The Northern High graduate led the Bulldogs in scoring and rebounding for three straight seasons. (He was elected to the school's athletic hall of fame in 2001.)

After graduating in 1967 with a degree in business education, Bernard Kilpatrick played two years with the Muskegon Panthers of the Midwest Pro League.

Hardcourt skills earned him the nickname "Killer," his son testified in a 2008 police whistle-blower trial. But the officers' attorney in that case, Michael Stefani, suggested the nickname referred to the elder Kilpatrick's skill with women. "Big Goofy" refers to his stature and demeanor, his colleagues say.

Bernard Kilpatrick met Carolyn Cheeks at Ferris. A year after he graduated, they were married in Detroit in a ceremony performed by the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr., who founded the Shrine of the Black Madonna, a black nationalist church on the city's west side.

The church and its political arm, the Black Slate, would play a major role in the young couple's political careers.

Ernest Johnson, a community activist and executive assistant in Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano's office, completed a 10-week intensive "ministerial training" at the church with Bernard Kilpatrick in the 1970s. The goal was to open more branches of the church in Detroit and across the country focused on farming and canning food for the poor.

"We were trying to free the world," Johnson said. "The church tended to reject individualism and materialism. Watches, clothes and cars in the church aren't impressive."

'The best of both parents'

Cheeks Kilpatrick headed the Black Slate when the group urged her to run in 1978 for state representative, according to an alumni interview with Ferris in 2007. Bernard Kilpatrick worked as a field organizer for the group and counselor at Career Works in Highland Park, and then ran successfully for Wayne County Commission in 1983.

It's not clear when Bernard Kilpatrick left the church. Cheeks Kilpatrick cited irreconcilable differences when she filed for divorce in 1981, 15 years before her election to Congress.

Cheeks Kilpatrick got custody of the children. Kwame was 11 at the time and his sister, Ayanna, was 9.

"Kwame inherited a legacy -- the best of both parents," Bernard Kilpatrick said in 2001.

A year after the divorce, Cheeks Kilpatrick petitioned the court, alleging Bernard Kilpatrick owed $4,222.50 in back child support. A judge ordered his pay garnisheed, first from Career Works, and then in 1987 the court did the same -- withholding $140 a week -- from his commission paycheck.

Two years after the divorce, Bernard Kilpatrick had another child, Diarra Kilpatrick, from a brief relationship. He broke up with the mother a few months before the child was born, court records indicate.

"There's an image out there of my dad and brother (Kwame) that's so foreign to me," said Diarra Kilpatrick, an actress and playwright who grew up in Detroit and remains close to Kwame and Ayanna Kilpatrick.

'A way to help Detroit'

On the County Commission, Bernard Kilpatrick was a part of a majority, including fellow commissioner Arthur Blackwell II, that battled then-County Executive Edward McNamara over his budget and legislative agenda.

The relationship changed in 1989, when McNamara took Bernard Kilpatrick to lunch at Opus One. McNamara, who was known to hire rivals, offered Kilpatrick a $90,000-a-year job heading the county health and human services department.

Bernard Kilpatrick later told The Detroit News he took the job in part because of the pay increase, but he knew it would end his chances at higher office.

"A lot of people ... were mad about that," Blackwell said. "They saw McNamara as the enemy.

"(Bernard) thought that was a way to help Detroit."

Blackwell said he questioned the move, but in those days, switching sides in politics didn't end friendships.

"We got a lot more stuff done," said Blackwell, who went on to manage Kwame Kilpatrick's mayoral campaign and now faces felony corruption charges during his time as the former Highland Park emergency financial manager.

While working for McNamara, Kilpatrick became involved in the political campaigns of many powerbrokers, including Blackwell's 1993 mayoral bid, Michael Duggan's 2000 election as Wayne County prosecutor, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's 2002 campaign and his son's mayoral bid in 2001.

Bernard Kilpatrick was a prominent part of the African American Men's Organization, a club of influential black businessmen that was founded in part by casino mogul Don Barden. Kilpatrick took over for Barden as chairman in 2003, according to state records.

Son rises to Detroit mayor

Bernard Kilpatrick left McNamara's office shortly after Kwame Kilpatrick took office and formed the consulting group Maestro Associates LLC, which has included many city and county contractors as clients.

Mongo said he and others in the group later felt betrayed by the elder Kilpatrick once his son got elected. Bernard Kilpatrick won the group's support for his son's mayoral campaign in part by evoking his battle with former Mayor Dennis Archer over Mongo's plan to develop the riverfront Uniroyal site.

Bernard Kilpatrick promised his son would back developers like Mongo, he said. But Kwame Kilpatrick later gave the project to retired Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis. The project has stalled since.

Text messages released by prosecutors in 2008 showed Bernard Kilpatrick frequently discussed contracts with his son, finagled favors and gave advice about city business. Bernard used the handle "Ziz," his name at the Shrine of the Black Madonna.

"I am going to deal with this one time ... go 'head Michael Corleone," he texted to his son on May 16, 2003.

Some time later, FBI agents began investigating whether Bernard Kilpatrick leveraged his son's position for his benefit.

They tapped his home and cell phones for many months. In court documents, he's accused of receiving at least $25,000 from James Rosendall, a former vice president for Synagro Technologies Inc., for facilitating a $1.2 billion sludge-hauling contract in 2007. Rosendall pleaded guilty to bribery last year and was sentenced to 11 months in prison.

Allegations denied

Bernard Kilpatrick denied the Synagro allegations last year in an interview with WXYZ-TV (Channel 7).

"First they demonize my son, so by the time he got to trial, he was guilty," he said, referring to Kwame Kilpatrick's guilty pleas to obstruction of justice, jailing and resignation in 2008.

"They're trying to do the same thing to me now. ... How can they bribe me? I don't work for the city. I'm a private businessman, a consultant."

Bernard Kilpatrick's consulting firm had business with companies whose leaders recently pleaded guilty to federal felonies.

He vacationed with Cobo Center contractor Karl Kado, who cooperated with federal prosecutors, admitted paying bribes for contracts and was sentenced in March to three months' probation. Another client was Jon Rutherford, a Highland Park homeless shelter operator who pleaded guilty in December to felony tax evasion in a separate investigation. He has yet to be sentenced.

Ten people have pleaded guilty to felonies in connection with the probe and a spinoff investigation in Southfield, including two longtime friends and top aides to Kwame Kilpatrick -- Kandia Milton and his brother DeDan.Brown, his longtime friend, said he hopes the "truth will come out." He said Bernard Kilpatrick may have received bad legal advice from city attorneys on how to keep his consulting business separate from his son's job running the city.

"We haven't heard from Bernard," Brown said. "There's just been one side of the story and that's it.

"I love Bernard and his son. It's just unfortunate that things turned for the worse."

cmacdonald@detnews.com">cmacdonald@detnews.com (313) 222-2396 Detroit News Staff Writer Paul Egan contributed.

Bernard Kilpatrick faces the media outside a courtroom in the Frank Murphy ... (The Detroit News)
From left, Ayanna, Kwame and Bernard Kilpatrick in 2005. Ayanna and Kwame ... (The Detroit News)
Bernard Kilpatrick was an All-American for the Ferris State Bulldogs in ... (Ferris State University)
Diarra Kilpatrick is a playwright and actress. (The Detroit News)