The feds are right: disgraced Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick didn’t cause Detroit to go bankrupt, but his cynical corruption and self-dealing bred apathy and accelerated the city’s downward spiral to financial collapse.
Kilpatrick will spend the next 28 years in a federal prison, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds ruled Thursday, capping years of scandal and a mountain of evidence that confirmed the worst suspicions of the former mayor’s criminal predilections.
“I beat down the spirit, the energy and the vibrancy of what was going on in the city,” Kilpatrick told the court before his sentence was delivered. “It was pride and ego that took over. We’ve been stuck in this town for a long time dealing with me. I’m ready to go so the city can move on. I apologize.”
A necessary mea culpa? Yes. But it will never be sufficient for a city carrying the added burdens of the legacy, outrages and outsized costs of the Kilpatrick era. There are huge legal bills and dilapidated schools, meager services and financial mismanagement, political turmoil and population flight, weak cash flow and $18 billion in debt — all of it culminating in lost opportunity and a historic bankruptcy that promises to reshape Detroit in ways still too difficult to discern.
This day is a long time coming for Detroit, a city Kilpatrick professed to love even as he, his friends and some of his family conspired to profit at the expense of taxpayers. Detroit grew poorer as Hizzoner and his crew grew richer by running a sprawling enterprise that fleeced contractors, manipulated bids, abused expense accounts, muscled critics and exacerbated the city’s dire financial predicament.
He pushed and got a risky deal to borrow nearly $1.5 billion in an effort to meet obligations to the city’s two pension funds. The move, one of the most important reasons Detroit now is mired in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, essentially turbo-charged a spate of corruption and bad investments likely to impact city pensioners for years to come.
His administration routinely failed to file financial reports with the state; its last budget surplus was booked in 2004, just two years into Kilpatrick’s six-year run atop City Hall. His team failed to slow Detroit’s cash burn; he issued debt to meet operating expenses and try to balance budgets; he proposed selling Detroit’s stake in the tunnel to Windsor to raise cash.
With an assist from former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, he spurned $200 million from philanthropist Bob Thompson to build charter schools in Detroit. He institutionalized cronyism in city government; did nothing to improve the city’s financial management systems; failed to upgrade its antiquated payroll processes, one of many fixes being addressed by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.
Through it all, the court found, Kilpatrick directed a criminal enterprise engaged in extortion, bribery, fraud and racketeering. He used his so-called “civic fund” to finance personal getaways, spa treatments, yoga session and summer camp for his kids. The network, in operation during this entire run as mayor, inflated the cost of city business and pressured contractors.
In asking the court for leniency, one of Kilpatrick’s lawyers touted accomplishments during his administration. Detroit began development of the RiverWalk and the rehab of what became the award-winning Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. The city hosted Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and Super Bowl XL, an admitted high point of Kilpatrick’s tenure that he extolled before Judge Edmunds today.
But those are things he was elected to do, the judge said before delivering sentence. The truth is murkier, as it usually is with Kilpatrick. His leadership on those high-profile efforts often proved to be double-edged and self-interested, unmistakable clues to a deeply flawed, dishonest character co-existing with a brilliant command of detail and raw political talent.
He’d change course as often as he’d move the city forward. He’d frustrate business leaders impressed with his skills, but much less so with the ability of his team to deliver. He’d use events, like the trip I accompanied to Houston in preparation for Detroit’s Super Bowl, to skip meetings for face time with rappers or to have a private breakfast with his wife, Carlita, while VIPs from back home cooled their heels in a hotel lobby.
The anecdotes are as abundant as the facts. What passed for Kilpatrick’s leadership accelerated Detroit’s slide into bankruptcy. The exodus from the city’s neighborhoods quickened. Its public schools worsened. The integrity of the city’s political process and its financial acumen became sick jokes besetting the city, its residents and those charged with engineering a restructuring.
Kilpatrick’s sentencing — and looming sentences for his pal, Bobby Ferguson, and his father, Bernard Kilpatrick — represent a catharsis for Detroit. Their convictions are a crucial victory for competence, cooperation and accountability over a cancerous political culture that prizes power, control and self-enrichment.
That’s huge. It’s also a necessary pre-condition to the financial, operational and political restart embedded in the city’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy workout and the promise of a new mayor and new City Council come the first of next year. The Kilpatrick era is over, finally.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.