Bobby Ferguson quotes from the Bible in U.S. District Court prior to sentencing by Judge Nancy Edmunds. (Illustration by Ray Stanczak / The Detroit News)
Detroit— Contractor Bobby Ferguson was the “muscle and the money” behind former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s long-running scheme to turn City Hall into cash, a U.S. federal judge said Friday as she sentenced him to 21 years in prison.
Ferguson’s lengthy sentence was seven years shorter than the one given to Kilpatrick a day earlier but remains among the longest ever handed down in a public corruption case.
For Ferguson, the hearing began with a huddled prayer with his defense team and ended with a reading from a gilded Bible. But despite his claim he was a new man dedicated to God, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds punished the contractor she said had worked with Kilpatrick to steal millions.
“Bobby Ferguson was the catalyst, at the center of an unprecedented and historic extortion scheme,” Edmunds said. He got a lesser sentence in part because he was convicted of fewer crimes and was not a public official.
Ferguson, 44, could be released after 17 years and five months, when he’ll be 61.
Visibly thinner than he was during the trial, Ferguson appeared calm during the proceeding. His wife, Marilyn, who recently filed for divorce, attended the hearing along with other family members.
In his remarks before his sentencing, Ferguson never apologized but talked about his faith and his disappointment — in a system that is putting so many young African-American men in prison.
The closest he came to outright contrition: “I’ve lived a good life, maybe not to the fullest or not to someone’s expectations,” he said.
And despite an acknowledgment by Edmunds that Ferguson’s company did actually do much of the tens of millions of dollars in work it got over the years, the judge said it doesn’t dismiss the heavy-handed tactics he employed with the former mayor’s help.
She detailed his crimes — taking state grant money to renovate his office, trying to get others to lie to a grand jury, threatening other contractors over lucrative city work — as she defended her stiff sentence for a “ruthless” man who schemed with Kilpatrick to get money. Together, their behavior “completely undermined trust in government,” the judge said.
In March, jurors found the contractor guilty of nine crimes, including racketeering, extortion and bribery — all part of a pay-to-play scheme with Kilpatrick during the mayor’s six-year tenure in office. The details of the pair’s actions were laid out over the course of a six-month trial in federal court.
On hearing his fate, Ferguson breathed heavily and stared at the judge with an open mouth. He hunched over the defense table as prosecutors discussed which of his possessions will be forfeited. His legal team has 14 days to appeal the sentence.
Defense attorney Gerald Evelyn, who lauded Ferguson as a kind man who employed hundreds and helped many others, said afterward he had wished for a shorter sentence.
“One thing that never gets reported — Bobby Ferguson just didn’t drop out of the sky,” defense attorney Mike Rataj said. “He dug Comerica Park, he dug Ford Field and this was all before Mr. Kilpatrick became mayor. He provided jobs that contributed to the economy.”
After Ferguson was sentenced, Rataj declined further comment.
Others have supported Ferguson during his wait for sentencing. The Rev. Marvin L. Winans, pastor of Perfecting Church in Detroit, wrote to Edmunds this week on the contractor’s behalf, hoping for leniency for Ferguson.
But prosecutors disagreed and assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta pointed out Ferguson’s violent past: a pistol-whipping conviction and a shooting incident in which he targeted others.
“While Ferguson relied on Kilpatrick to back up his threats, Ferguson drove the extortion machine,” prosecutors wrote. “With ruthless abandon, he bullied local businessmen and women, threatening to cancel their contracts and promising to visit financial harm upon them if they did not accede to his demands.”