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Opening arguments near in trial of former Detroit mayor

By Jim Schaefer and Tresa Baldas, Detroit Free Press –

DETROIT — In a matter of days, when the jury is finally seated, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick will stride into federal court to face “the biggest monster in my life.”

After more than a decade of investigation, scores of subpoenas, wiretaps, surveillance video, text messages and meetings with informants, the U.S. government will take Kilpatrick to trial as the leader of what it has dubbed “the Kilpatrick Enterprise” — one prosecutors describe as a corrupt group that conspired to enrich themselves, their families and friends by rigging city contracts and extorting donations to three nonprofit outfits.

Opening statements in the racketeering, extortion and bribery case could get under way as soon as later this week.

If federal prosecutors secure convictions of the former mayor and his three co-defendants, they will have improved upon their growing list of successes: 17 people already have pleaded guilty to local municipal corruption in the case.

Kilpatrick, by far, would be their biggest victory.

Or — if it goes the other way — their biggest loss.

Kilpatrick boldly predicted he will be exonerated in a recent visit to his hometown. “Victory will be unbelievable,” he said.

Perhaps that explains why Kilpatrick has been upbeat, even smiling, in recent public appearances — even though the charges he faces now are far more serious than anything he confronted in the locally prosecuted text message scandal that drove him from office in 2008.

Altogether, Kilpatrick, his father Bernard Kilpatrick, his longtime contractor friend Bobby Ferguson, and his former water department director Victor Mercado face 36 counts that could land them in prison for up to 30 years each. The fifth man accused of being part of the conspiracy, Derrick Miller, has pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his friend Kwame Kilpatrick.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s lawyer James Thomas has long argued his client is innocent and believes the truth is on his side. Being happy is just part of Kilpatrick’s nature, Thomas said.

“That’s just the type of guy he is. He’s positive. He’s upbeat. And he’s not intimidated,” Thomas said outside the courthouse during jury selection last week.

Since returning to Detroit for jury selection from his home in Texas, Kilpatrick has often smiled in the courtroom, even laughing sometimes at the comments made by prospective jurors. His attire, as always, includes crisp suits and sharp ties. On Friday, he wore blue suede shoes.

Though he has called this trial the biggest challenge of his life and his “monster,” Kilpatrick appeared puzzled when reporters recently questioned his positive vibe.

His response: Why not be upbeat? Defeat requires no preparation.

“I have never really thought that far, in terms of being found guilty,” he told members of the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists on Aug. 16. “If you lose, you lost. … I’m preparing to overcome. I’m preparing for the struggle. … I’m preparing for what’s next. Because I know that the victory will be unbelievable.”

The indictment against the men charges that they used the Detroit mayor’s office as a crime syndicate, shaking down businesspeople and political contributors for millions of dollars.

Federal investigators say the scheme worked like this: Kilpatrick and his co-defendants pressured city contractors by forcing them to hire Ferguson as a partner in their business contracts with the city. Ferguson obtained tens of millions of dollars this way and then shared it with the other members of the enterprise, the indictment says.

Among the extortion plots and crooked deals alleged in the indictment:

—A $50 million sewer lining contract was held up until Ferguson was guaranteed work on the deal.

—A $10 million sewer repair contract was canceled because a contractor refused Ferguson a cut.

—An east-side water main contract was rigged so Ferguson would win it.

—Kwame Kilpatrick killed a plan in 2002 to add a House of Blues restaurant at Ford Field because the company that proposed it refused to hire his father as its minority partner. Kilpatrick had pledged $10 million in city funds, but changed his mind when the company wouldn’t hire Bernard Kilpatrick.

—Ferguson used his relationship with Kwame Kilpatrick to pressure a company into giving him 40 percent of a contract to renovate the Detroit police headquarters in 2006. The company offered 30 percent. Ferguson declined, and the company bowed out of the deal.

—Bernard Kilpatrick tried to pressure a construction company to hire his client — it’s unclear in the indictment who the client was — to remove construction debris from the Book Cadillac hotel in 2008. When the company refused, Bernard Kilpatrick told Ferguson he would “drop a rock on (a representative of the company’s) head when I find him.”

All four defendants have denied those allegations.

Federal prosecutors intend to show that Kwame Kilpatrick made huge cash deposits to his bank accounts and similar cash payments to his credit cards — failing to declare the money on his income taxes.

According to the indictment, Ferguson delivered large cash payments to Kilpatrick at various times during his years in office.

Along the way, contractors tried to appease Kilpatrick to win city business — flying him around the country, wining and dining him, the indictment charges.

The enterprise also is charged with tampering with and intimidating witnesses, committing perjury and obstructing justice in state and federal proceedings. In one instance, first reported in the Detroit Free Press in 2002, Kilpatrick’s police bodyguards were said to have pressured a fellow officer to dismiss illegal dumping tickets against Ferguson.

Ferguson showed up at trial with some of Kilpatrick’s bodyguards, according to court records, and pulled the ticketing officer out in the hallway for a chat. The officer, “fearing for the safety of his family,” had the charges dismissed, per court records.

To argue their case, federal prosecutors are expected to use text messages, undercover video recordings, phone taps and the testimony of several close associates who took guilty pleas in exchange for possible leniency.

The most noteworthy in that group is Miller, who grew up with Kilpatrick and worked for him in public office, including as his right-hand man in the mayor’s office.

Miller is expected to testify that he once delivered $10,000 to the former mayor in a restaurant bathroom in 2007.

Defense lawyers will attack the believability and motivations of all witnesses such as Miller, arguing they could be lying to lobby for lesser sentences in their own cases.

That’s one reason the case against Kilpatrick and his co-defendants is no sure thing. Experts have said a four-month trial — as this one is expected to be — runs the risk of overwhelming jurors.

And federal prosecutors earlier this summer failed to persuade a jury to convict Ferguson in a separate bid-rigging trial. That case ended in a mistrial due to a holdout juror. Multiple jurors told the Free Press that the panel voted 10-1 to convict Ferguson on eight counts.

Prosecutors will retry the case next August.

It’s probably too much to call that a victory for Ferguson, but it unquestionably adds confidence to the defendants in the current trial.

That may be enough to explain the smile on Kwame Kilpatrick’s face.

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