December 17, 2010 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman

Berman: Kilpatrick's fall not tragic, result of long, arrogant con

A Kilpatrick supporter defends the former mayor on Jan. 30, 2008, outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in Detroit. Many have said the fall of the young, charismatic leader was a tragedy, but corruption allegedly dates back to 1999. (Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News)

In the past, I've used the word "tragedy" to describe the fall of Kwame Kilpatrick.

Let me take that back.

The Kilpatrick story isn't a tragedy about a talented young man who took a wrong turn. His isn't a sob story in any conceivable way.

It was a con. A criminal enterprise that, if half of what the government says can be proved, is audacious in its sweep and arrogance and blithe immorality.

Allegations of bags of money. Chartered jets provided by companies with city dealings. Trips to Las Vegas and Bermuda.

Bags of money.

"In or about the Summer of 2008, (Bobby) Ferguson went to Courier A's room…and gave him a bag containing $90,000 in cash with instructions to hold the money for Kwame Kilpatrick," the indictment alleges.

If the government's lengthy indictment tells the true tale, then Kilpatrick was corrupt from the early years of his "public service" as a state legislator. To Kilpatrick, who would later invoke God and racism and every other histrionic defense he could, governing wasn't a trust. It was more like a personal piggybank, with cash provided for "no services rendered."

You didn't have to provide services to get paid if you were in the Kilpatrick clique. You needed only to be close enough to the mayor that Company A or B or Y would understand the necessity of paying to play.

The details are shocking even to the Kilpatrick-weary, because they date back so far. The patterns of abuse began in Lansing, before anyone might reasonably imagine the young legislator even running for mayor.

Beginning "in or about 1999," the government alleges, Kilpatrick, buddy Bobby Ferguson and father Bernard established and used funds "for impermissible expenses." That involved allegedly applying for government grants to help "children" and then converting the grants mostly to administrative "expenses," with few services rendered.

Over 10 years, the money withdrawn here and there for personal use added up nicely. The government pegs it at $650,000. Add in the value of plane fare and other perks and the figure rises closer to $1 million.

Corruption wasn't a late-blooming weed in the mayoral administration. It was the seed corn.

For years, the popular media spin was that Kilpatrick's saga was somehow tragic, a promising young man whose career went awry.

As a columnist, I helped develop that story line: The young, charismatic mayor, stumbling but basically earnest and well-meaning, who later became the charismatic mayor, brought down by lust and arrogance.

But the government's charges describe a young man whose corruption was deeply rooted: A guy who — despite his law school training — didn't recognize traditional ethical boundaries.

For a few years, he charmed his way into the hearts and wallets of many of the city's shrewdest civic leaders. He apparently inveigled others into a criminal web of payments.

Unethical and illegal behaviors are alleged back to 1999. The tragedy is Detroit's. Here it is 2010 and the cost is still steep, even if the services rendered were few.

lberman@detnews.com(313) 222-2032