Detroit Mayor May Not Survive Scandal

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick sits in court during an emergency bond appeal hearing in front of Judge Thomas Jackson at the Wayne County Third Circuit Court, August 8, 2008 in Detroit.
AP Photo/Bryan Mitchell
Kwame Kilpatrick has been a master salesman, bargaining to bring improvements to Detroit and to prove to skeptics that the struggling city is worth the investment. But now the two-term mayor could be forced to negotiate a more personal deal, one that exchanges a dimming political future for his freedom.

Experts say Kilpatrick has little choice but to work out a plea in two criminal cases before Michigan's governor has the potential of forcing him from office. A formal removal hearing is scheduled to start Sept. 3.

"What prosecutors oftentimes want is an admission on the part of the public official and resignation," said Matthew Orwig, a Texas lawyer and former U.S. prosecutor. "It's a significant bargaining chip that he has. If he's already removed from office, then that certainly could have a possible impact on the plea negotiations."

Meanwhile, his former chief of staff - with whom Kilpatrick was having an affair - could give a deposition in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit the same day as his removal hearing is set to get underway.

Attorneys for Christine Beatty and two newspapers have agreed for her to be questioned Sept. 3. She will be asked about her role in the settlement of a lawsuit between Detroit and fired police officers.

The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News sued to get information about that settlement.

If his resignation is being dangled before prosecutors, Kilpatrick could lose that carrot if Gov. Jennifer Granholm rules that he authorized an $8.4 million police whistle-blowers' settlement to purposely conceal steamy text messages with Beatty. Granholm also will decide if her fellow Democrat concealed the link between those messages and the settlement from the City Council, which approved the deal.

In addition to the criminal charges, Kilpatrick is being sued by his former attorney who is claiming he's owed about $80,000 in fees stemming from his work after the mayor's text-message scandal surfaced.

William Moffitt of Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday filed the lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court. Moffitt was hired by Kilpatrick in February and replaced before Kilpatrick was charged with perjury in March.

Mayoral spokesman Marcus Reese told the Detroit Free Press it's unfortunate Moffitt decided to air an administrative issue in public.

The Detroit News reports Kilpatrick paid Moffitt a $20,000 retainer in February. The scandal surfaced in January.

Kilpatrick faces eight felony counts in the perjury case and two felony counts in a separate assault case.

Mayoral spokesman Marcus Reese has said "talks are ongoing" between prosecutors and Kilpatrick's defense team. Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County prosecutor's office, said this week the office would not comment on any plea negotiations.

Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor, said it's likely such talks are occurring and that they involve Kilpatrick's resignation.

"If he wants to leave the criminal cases, he is going to need to do it before the removal is resolved," Henning said. "Or you take your chances by going through the removal proceedings. You fight that fight and see what happens."

Kilpatrick faces 10 felony counts in separate perjury and assault cases in Wayne County Circuit Court.

In the first case, the 38-year-old Kilpatrick and ex-top aide Christine Beatty are charged with perjury, conspiracy, misconduct and obstruction of justice. They are accused of lying during the 2007 whistle-blowers' trial about having an extramarital tryst and their roles in the firing of a deputy police chief.

Text messages from Beatty's city-issued pager contradicted their testimony, leading Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to file charges against the two in March.

The other charges stem from allegations that the mayor shoved one prosecutor's investigator into another in July as they were attempting to serve a subpoena in the perjury case to a Kilpatrick friend.

The criminal charges and Kilpatrick's embarrassing one-night jail stay earlier this month for violating bond conditions have all but wiped out his past successes in bringing some clout to Detroit.

He was the biggest cheerleader when Detroit landed Major League Baseball's 2005 All-Star Game and the 2006 NFL Super Bowl. His ability to work with business leaders drew praise during an overhaul of the city's riverfront and downtown development.

Now, his future depends on the strength of the cases against him, said Steve Dettelbach, a Cleveland defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

"There are public officials who survive these trials and continue in office," he said. "There also are public officials who fight their cases, get convicted and serve more time in jail than they would have if they had pleaded guilty or resigned."

Under the city charter, Kilpatrick would be immediately expelled from office if convicted of a felony. The charges he faces carry sentences from two to 15 years.

It is not clear whether Kilpatrick has any recourse for appeal if Granholm boots him from office.

"The governor is the sole tribunal in removal proceedings, with no right of appeal or review afforded the accused," Granholm wrote in her order for the hearing. "If the governor acts within the law, the governor's decision is final."

But Wayne State law professor Robert Sedler said the rules being followed by Granholm as she considers Kilpatrick's removal could give him room to appeal to circuit court if he loses.

Sedler believes the statute allows appeal if the charge does not constitute official misconduct, the mayor does not receive a full and fair hearing, and there is not sufficient evidence that "a reasonable governor could find official misconduct."

Lansing attorney Peter Ellsworth said a 1963 provision in the state constitution gives courts jurisdiction to review such rulings by a governor.

"But I don't believe the question about an appeal has ever been raised," Ellsworth said.