Public Corruption: Inside the Kwame Kilpatrick Case
The case of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who stole from citizens he vowed to serve.
Inside the Kwame Kilpatrick Case
When Kwame Kilpatrick became mayor of Detroit in 2002, he promised to revitalize the city. Instead, he shamelessly used his position to steal from the citizens he had vowed to serve.
“Criminal activity was a way of life for him, and he constantly used the power of his office to look for new opportunities to make money illegally,” said Special Agent Robert Beeckman, who investigated the mayor and his corrupt regime for eight years.
Last month, a federal judge sentenced Kilpatrick to a 28-year prison term for his role in a wide-ranging racketeering conspiracy that included extortion, bribery, and fraud. Thirty-two others have also been convicted of crimes in connection with the case, including Kilpatrick’s contractor friend Bobby Ferguson, who received a 21-year jail term.
During his six years as mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick “pervasively and systematically corrupted city government,” said a sentencing memorandum to the court prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan. “The citizens had the right to expect honesty, integrity, and responsibility when they elected Kilpatrick. What they got instead was widespread graft, extortion, and theft.”
The memorandum noted that Kilpatrick remains unrepentant: “Even now, after years of civil and criminal litigation, there is no evidence that Kilpatrick has accepted responsibility for his crimes in office, nor is there any sign of remorse or contrition.”
Michigan voters, however, have made themselves heard. They overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposal amending the state’s constitution to place a 20-year ban on public officials convicted of felonies alleging violations relating to corruption from holding an elected or appointed position with control over public assets or public policy.
Besides the 20-year ban, said Special Agent Robert Beeckman, “the city of Detroit has made a number of other significant changes that will make it more difficult for the next guy who considers violating the public trust.”
“Everyone here is so fed up with corruption,” he added. “Kilpatrick’s six-month trial really opened people’s eyes to exactly what this guy did and how devastating it was to the city.”
Kilpatrick and Ferguson established a “pay to play” system that made breaking the law standard operating procedure. Kilpatrick extorted city vendors, rigged bids, and took bribes. He used funds from non-profit civic organizations to line his pockets and those of his family. And he was unabashed about it.
“His crimes were not the result of a momentary lapse in judgment,” said a document prepared for the court by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan. “He systematically exploited his office to enrich himself, his friends, and his family.” For example, Kilpatrick and Ferguson obtained more than $500,000 from the state of Michigan and private donors for non-profit organizations they controlled. The organizations were supposed to help the community. Instead, the mayor spent large sums on himself for luxury vacations, spa treatments, and golf clubs.
The FBI opened a case on Kilpatrick in 2004, two years after he moved into the mayor’s mansion. “Initially, we had sources and a few cooperating defendants from other cases who revealed a pay to play scheme and that the mayor was behind it,” Beeckman said.
As the investigation unfolded, our agents—along with investigators from the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies—used court-ordered wiretaps and undercover operators to gather evidence. “Over the years, we employed every investigative technique we could,” Beeckman said.
A significant break in the case came when investigators discovered that Kilpatrick’s cell phone provider had kept an archive of all his text messages. “The messages were explicit,” Beeckman said. “He talked about bid rigging, bribes, and other criminal activity. He had no idea there would be a record of those messages.”
Investigators also followed the money, which left no doubt about Kilpatrick’s corruption. Before he became mayor, Kilpatrick’s paycheck from the state of Michigan was electronically deposited into his bank account, and he made regular withdrawals to pay bills and to get cash. After his election, he stopped making withdrawals and instead made only large cash deposits.
Kilpatrick’s bank records revealed more than $840,000 in unexplained expenditures above and beyond his salary as mayor—and none of that money was disclosed on his tax returns. “There were times,” Beeckman said, “when the mayor would hand one of the officers on his protective detail an envelope with cash and tell him to take it to the bank and pay his credit card bill.”
The beleaguered mayor pled guilty to two felony counts in 2008 and resigned his office. Two years later, he was indicted for mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion; in March 2013 he was found guilty of the wide-ranging racketeering conspiracy charges.
Why was Kilpatrick so brazen about his crimes? “He thought he was above the law,” Beeckman believes. “He thought he could do whatever he wanted and get away with it.”
That turned out not to be the case, thanks to the dedicated work of the investigators and prosecutors who ultimately brought Kilpatrick and his co-conspirators to justice.