Southeast Michigan’s “target rich environment” of U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade’s own description is delivering yet again — right on time.
Indictments this week of a dozen Detroit Public Schools principals, an assistant superintendent and a Franklin businessman for bribery and kickbacks come as the state Legislature is preparing to finalize a $715 million financial rescue for the troubled system.
Conventional wisdom assumes the detailed charges will undermine the DPS bailout in Lansing. Outraged lawmakers, namely outstate Republicans, will be tempted to use the corruption eruption to question whether taxpayers are poised to waste good money on an irredeemable institution.
That’s politics in an election year. Practically speaking, the scandal should have the opposite effect. Failure to craft a longer-term rescue for the ailing district risks saddling Michigan taxpayers with far larger liabilities should DPS run out of cash and collapse into federal court, bankruptcy or both.
Wherever lawmakers sought leverage to ensure the district’s books will be subject to oversight by the city’s Financial Review Commission in exchange for a return to local control, they just got it — no matter how much McQuade insists the charges are about the actions of 14 individuals, not a referendum on DPS or its string of state-appointed emergency managers.
McQuade’s bombshell is another in a long string of clarifying indictments that follows a now-familiar pattern. Public corruption roll-ups of malfeasance in Detroit City Hall and Wayne County government are proven precursors to positive change and financial accountability because they expose the self-dealing rot riddling the status quo.
We saw it in Kwame Kilpatrick’s City Hall, where fiscal mismanagement, pension abuse and rampant duplicity culminated in federal prison and bankruptcy. We saw in it Bob Ficano’s Wayne County, whose successor used a consent agreement with the state Treasury and the specter of Chapter 9 to balance the county’s books in little more than a year.
Now it’s the turn of DPS, whose downward spiral is rightly shared by a string of dysfunctional school boards and state-appointed emergency managers who talked a bigger game than they played. Only the most deluded DPS backers, and their Democratic friends in the Legislature, would figure a majority of lawmakers would agree to retire the district’s debt without strict oversight.
The results can be encouraging. Cash flows improve, and bond ratings rebound. Rampant cynicism gives way to cautious optimism; constituents see signs of change, newly elected leaders who take their jobs more seriously than their predecessors.
Convictions of Kilpatrick, the disgraced mayor, and his cronies empowered voters to change the people and geography of Detroit’s leadership. They spurred reform and restructuring, culminating in Chapter 9 bankruptcy for the city and a determination in the county to avoid it. And they put bad actors on notice: the feds are watching.
“We didn’t want our message to get overshadowed,” McQuade told NewsTalk 760-WJR’s Frank Beckmann on Wednesday. “It may be easy to take a bribe, but it’s easy to get caught.”
Especially by this U.S. attorney. McQuade’s law-and-order, take-no-BS tenure as federal prosecutor is a critical component to renewing the credibility of City Hall, to cleaning up governance of the surrounding county, to restoring confidence in a city school system struggling to balance its oversized district with diminishing demand.
By doing their job and getting results in court, McQuade and her team are answering affirmatively suspicions that for too long have been undermining the credibility of government here. It’s no accident that the feds’ campaign against public corruption is coinciding with renewed civic enthusiasm, business reinvestment and a bipartisan push to fix public education in Detroit.
It’s a cliche to say “the kids deserve better,” but they do. A marker of any society is how adults treat their children, how the people charged with educating the young do so — or don’t in an orgy of petty greed revealing true character.
McQuade’s continuing investigation of malfeasance in this corner of Michigan again demonstrates that a culture of corruption is a tie binding the city, its school district and surrounding Wayne County. Not the ranks of municipal employees or teachers, but leaders given to complaining about “lack of resources.”
Instead, resources earmarked for classrooms too often end up in pockets where they don’t belong. If this latest round of indictments encourages more calls to review the state’s emergency manager law, or to toughen oversight of the DPS transition to local control, so be it.
A culture of corruption is an impediment to change and should be dismantled. It needs to happen for the kids, for families and for a community that should demand better.
Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He’s on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.