Kilpatrick pal Ferguson freed from prison on compassionate grounds

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A federal judge Thursday freed contractor Bobby Ferguson from federal prison on compassionate grounds after he served only eight years of a 21-year sentence for helping former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick turn City Hall into a criminal enterprise.

The move by U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds shortens one of the longest sentences for public corruption in U.S. history and alters punishment for participating in a racketeering conspiracy that helped push Detroit to the brink of bankruptcy.

The order sends him home three months after Kilpatrick's conviction was commuted by President Donald Trump. Ferguson, 52, will still be required to pay $6,284,000 restitution to the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department.

Photo of Bobby Ferguson and lawyer Michael Rataj, right, leaving federal courthouse in Detroit on January 3, 2013.

Defense lawyers said Trump created a sentencing disparity in January by commuting Kilpatrick's 28-year prison sentence for racketeering conspiracy. Ferguson's 21-year sentence was not commuted, and he remained incarcerated in a low-security federal prison in eastern Ohio.

"Not only has defendant served a slightly longer term of imprisonment than a more culpable co-defendant, but his motion comes during an unprecedented global pandemic and defendant has an increased vulnerability to the virus," Edmunds wrote.

Prosecutors argued Ferguson is a "tyrant" and said he should spend the next 10 years behind bars for teaming with Kilpatrick to extort businessmen and corrupt city government.

“We are extremely grateful to the judge for making this decision, and Bobby Ferguson and his family want to express their gratitude to Judge Edmunds,” Ferguson lawyer Gerald Evelyn told The Detroit News.

Evelyn worked on securing Ferguson’s freedom with lawyers Michael Rataj and Robert Higbee.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment. Former U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who resigned in January, criticized Ferguson.

“President Trump’s unjustified commutation of Kilpatrick’s sentence set the ball in motion for this premature release," Schneider wrote in a text message to The News. "Just like Kwame Kilpatrick, Ferguson is an unapologetic criminal, and he should stay in prison for his appalling crimes against the people of Detroit.” 

Ferguson is the most high-profile inmate from Metro Detroit freed during an unprecedented attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the nation's prison system. In this region, federal judges have granted compassionate release to more than 100 prisoners since early 2020.

“The judge’s opinion is both legally and morally correct,” veteran Detroit defense lawyer Steve Fishman said Thursday. “No thinking person could believe that it would be fair to require Mr. Ferguson to serve twice as much time as Mr. Kilpatrick, which is precisely what would have occurred had the judge not granted his motion.”

Ferguson was convicted of nine charges, including racketeering conspiracy, bribery and extortion in March 2013 after a six-month trial featuring testimony about how he extorted tens of millions of dollars in city contracts and received at least $73 million.

Ferguson was the "muscle and the money" behind Kilpatrick's long-running scheme to turn City Hall into cash, Edmunds said before sentencing him to prison in October 2013. 

Ferguson’s full sentence did not end until March 2034, but with credit for good conduct, his projected release date was January 2031.

The judge cited Ferguson’s health problems, including hypertension, high cholesterol and reduced lung capacity due to bullet wounds from an attempted carjacking, as extraordinary and compelling reasons to free Ferguson.

Edmunds, who was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, also cited the disparity of a less culpable person spending more time in prison than Kilpatrick.

“The nature and circumstances of the underlying offenses remain serious, even devastating,” the judge wrote. “Public corruption corrodes the foundation of our democracy, and the environment of intimidation and extortion in Detroit created by Mr. Kilpatrick and defendant undermined the foundation and hope for the success of many businesses, including those which were minority-owned.”

She also credited Ferguson for a discipline-free tenure in prison that is in sharp contrast to his earlier life.

The public does not need to be protected from Ferguson, who now will be able to start paying restitution, the judge wrote.

She said Kilpatrick’s commutation “undermines the balance the court attempted to achieve at sentencing.”

“(Ferguson) was not an elected official and took no oath to serve the people of any constituency,” she wrote. “He was a single-minded crony of the mayor’s, whose only apparent goal was to enrich himself at others’ expense. He achieved that goal through threats and intimidation, primarily focused on the business expectations of his targets. But he was not the driver of the bus; that was Mr. Kilpatrick, where the power resided."

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.

Twitter: @robertsnellnews