Victor Mercado (Detroit News file photo)
Detroit — The former head of Detroit’s water department will serve eight months in a halfway house for his role in the Kwame Kilpatrick corruption scandal, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Moments before learning his fate, Victor Mercado pleaded with U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds to spare him from time behind bars, noting the federal corruption case has hurt his family and “destroyed my career.”
“This is the one experience that’s been life-altering,” Mercado, 62, told Edmunds. “I’m sorry for what I did and I apologize to this court and the city of Detroit.”
Mercado pleaded guilty Nov. 5, 2012, to a single count of conspiracy. He struck the deal six weeks into Kilpatrick‘s federal trial. Mercado faced up to five years in prison, but prosecutors said he deserved less time behind bars because he never pocketed bribes or money beyond his $240,000 salary.
On Wednesday, Mercado’s attorney, Martin Crandall, touted his client’s strong work ethic and pointed to text message evidence in the case that he says proved Mercado was “not in the loop.”
“He was here to clean up the water. That was his mission,” he said. “He wasn’t thinking of making an illegal buck.”
Crandall added that Mercado was “not in the circle of trust” along with other defendants, including Kilpatrick and contractor Bobby Ferguson.
“What is the most important distinction between Victor and all of them? He didn’t get a dime,” Crandall said. “Victor was unique because his mission was pure.”
Mercado admitted that in early 2007 he told a powerful contractor, Walbridge Aldinger, that Kilpatrick would appreciate the firm hiring Kilpatrick’s friend Ferguson on a water department project.
But prosecutors argued that Mercado should have been sentenced up to 18 months in federal prison for steering the multimillion dollar water and sewer contracts to Ferguson.
“Mercado’s focus in office shifted from serving the people of metropolitan Detroit to capitulating to Kilpatrick’s illegal directives and aiding his objectives of steering water contract work to Ferguson,” prosecutors wrote earlier this month.
In court Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Doeh said there’s no question that Mercado is educated and accomplished. But said he did “turn a blind eye.”
“When it came time to take action on behalf of the people Mr. Mercado did not,” Doeh told Edmunds.
The judge, who imposed a supervised release for Mercado of two years, agreed that by all accounts, he is a “good man” with no prior criminal history.
Edmunds said Mercado was manipulated and “disparaged” by Kilpatrick and Ferguson.
“He was played,” she said, noting she does not believe Mercado will re-offend or that he poses a danger to society. “I expect and I hope that Mr. Mercado will get through the next year or so and put this behind him.”
Edmunds stressed however that it was clear that Mercado went along with what the former mayor wanted.
“He didn’t step out,” she said. “He didn’t step back. He didn’t blow the whistle.”
Mercado declined to comment after the hearing. Crandall said he was “very unhappy” with the sentence. He called Edmunds “fair and equitable,” but insisted Mercado should have received probation.
Crandall has said the father of four, a once-powerful man, one of the highest-paid public employees in the state, now works as a clerk in a home-improvement store in Florida.
Mercado ensured Ferguson got a piece of the contracts by manipulating the bidding process, disqualifying rivals and directing winning bidders to hire Ferguson or risk losing the deals, prosecutors wrote. He also pressured contractors and city employees to pay Ferguson for substandard or improperly documented work.
“In short, Mercado served as an indispensable part of Kilpatrick and Ferguson’s illegal partnership,” prosecutors wrote.
Mercado was the second member of the so-called Kilpatrick Enterprise to plead guilty in the City Hall corruption case. Former Kilpatrick aide Derrick Miller pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing.
Mercado headed the Water and Sewerage Department from 2002 to 2008. He originally was accused of steering contracts to the mayor’s friend and co-defendant, Ferguson, lying during a federal investigation into one city contract, pocketing a $240,000 salary and hiring a private company to sweep his offices for listening devices, prosecutors allege.
Mercado’s lawyers have said he was not a member of Kilpatrick’s inner circle and was a victim of Kilpatrick’s criminal racket.
Mercado acted under duress and did not profit illegally from his job, Crandall wrote.
Mercado was working in a “difficult job” having to answer to the late-U.S. District Judge John Feikens, who had oversight of the department, and Kilpatrick, his lawyer wrote.
Mercado also had to cope with cozy relationships between construction contractors and city workers.
“City workers like Mercado found themselves in the unenviable position of needing to placate a corrupt mayor and his corrupt administration,” Crandall wrote.
Defense lawyers called Mercado a hard-working, self-made man, a son of Puerto Rican immigrants, who was raised in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.
Mercado built a worldwide reputation in the water and sewer industry before being recruited to lead Detroit’s utility.
“Mercado did not like Kilpatrick, or Ferguson, or the glad-handing attendant to politics in general,” Crandall wrote. “Mercado took the job because water system construction and maintenance was what he loved to do and because he was very good at it.”
Ultimately, Mercado succumbed to pressure from Kilpatrick to steer work to Ferguson and was victimized by the corrupt Detroit mayor, his lawyer argued.