DETROIT • Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick repeatedly stuffed his bank account and paid off credit cards with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, the illegal fruit of a crooked politician who took bribes and left taxpayers "holding the short end of the stick," a prosecutor told jurors Friday at the start of a corruption trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow gave jurors a 40-minute preview of what they'll see and hear in the months ahead in a case that could send Kilpatrick to prison for more than 10 years.He described Kilpatrick as a young, enthusiastic state lawmaker of modest means who was elected mayor in 2001 and then set off on a sweeping scheme to enrich himself through extortion and bribes. Also on trial are his father, Bernard, and the ex-mayor's best friend, Bobby Ferguson.
Chutkow said Kilpatrick deposited more than $200,000 in cash in his bank account and paid his credit card bills with another $280,000 in cash. The prosecutor said more than $60,000 in cash was spent on custom-made suits.
"It didn't come from his payroll check. It did not come from a rich relative, and it didn't come from savvy investments," Chutkow told the jury.
"This was not politics as usual," the prosecutor added during another part of his opening. "This was extortion, bribery, fraud. ... They broke their oath to serve this city. It was the citizens of the city of Detroit who were left holding the short end of the stick."
Kilpatrick, who quit office in 2008 in an unrelated scandal and served 14 months in prison for a probation violation, is charged with racketeering conspiracy, extortion, bribery, fraud, false tax returns and tax evasion.
The government alleges that he rigged city contracts to put Ferguson's construction company in line for millions of dollars in work. The source of many public deals was the Detroit water department, which had more than $1 billion to spend on services. Its former chief, Victor Mercado, is a co-defendant in the case.
Kilpatrick, 42, also is accused of taking kickbacks from his campaign fundraiser and tapping a nonprofit fund "like a personal ATM" for vacations, summer camps for his kids, golf clubs and other perks not reported as income on his tax returns.
Sitting at the defense table, Kilpatrick reached out and shook Ferguson's hand as if to wish each other luck just moments before jurors walked into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds.
Defense attorney James Thomas emphasized Kilpatrick's innocence in his opening statement but didn't specifically address the large sums of money outlined by the government. He called the government's case a "scam."
"The government has charged a racketeering conspiracy and everything but the kitchen sink. ... You're going to learn about politics," Thomas said. "Politics is like making sausage. You know it's not pretty; it's messy. But once it's cooked, it tastes pretty good."
Defense lawyers didn't offer a point-by-point response to the government's remarks. They did, however, warn jurors to be skeptical of government witnesses, especially former Kilpatrick allies who have pleaded guilty to corruption and cooperated with prosecutors.
Bernard Kilpatrick, a longtime figure in Detroit politics, set up a consulting business after his son's election and told him that they needed to meet twice a month with Ferguson about city business, the government alleges.
"He did not act like an elder statesman. ... He encouraged his son's illegal partnership with Bobby Ferguson and he cut himself in on the action," Chutkow said.
There is no dispute that Ferguson had extraordinary access to City Hall, even possessing an ID card although he wasn't a city employee. But his attorney, Gerald Evelyn, said the government's case is "built on nothing, Jell-O."
Bernard Kilpatrick's lawyer, John Shea, said his client had a legitimate business helping people navigate the tricky shoals of local government.
"What he did was not illegal and not part of an overarching conspiracy," Shea told jurors.
The first trial witnesses will be called Monday.
This isn't Kwame Kilpatrick's first brush with the law. His 14-month prison term for a probation violation followed a 2008 conviction for lying from the witness stand about an extramarital affair, a relationship revealed in sexually explicit text messages. He now lives in Grand Prairie, Texas.