EPISODE EIGHTEEN: UNITED STATES V. KWAME KILPATRICK
HEATHER CATALLO: This was one of the biggest stories to come along in a long time, and in Detroit that's not a small statement. We have big news all the time here. And this was huge.
JOHN: This is Heather Catallo. She covered Kwame Kilpatrick's federal corruption trial for WXYZ TV in Detroit.
ARCHIVAL CATALLO: ...absolutely fascinating to watch this process unfold after so many years of this investigation going on and if these charges are proven, the former mayor and his co-defendants could be going to prison for decades...
JOHN: Kwame and his associates were charged with extortion, bribery, and bid-rigging—for a total of 45 counts.
CATALLO: So it was just sort of this culmination of things that we'd all heard about, covered over the years, all coming together. And it was very powerful. You know, they basically said City Hall was for sale. These are the people that sold it.
JOHN: One of Kwame's co-defendants...was the guy caught on tape shaking down a major sludge contractor in our last episode...Kwame's father, Bernard. Aka Maestro.
ARCHIVAL: The feds allege Bernard took in more than $600,000 in cash gifts and private jet trips to exotic places and then failed to pay income taxes on most if not all of it.
ARCHIVAL BERNARD KILPATRICK: Bribes? How can they bribe me? I don’t work for the city! I’m a private businessman, a consultant.
JOHN: But the focus of the trial was Kwame Kilpatrick himself.
CATALLO: We've seen Kwame Kilpatrick in so many courtrooms for so many different things that it's just sort of this fact of life now. You know he's been to prison and he's had the restitution hearings and here we are again in court. But now we're in federal court. This is a whole different ball game. And it’s very uhm… heavy. You realize when you've got the full weight of the government coming against these defendants that this is very, very serious. This was the big daddy, this was RICO.
JOHN: Last episode, a federal investigation known as Operation Bombay Dreams uncovered a web of corruption in Detroit … and the former mayor was charged with running a criminal enterprise out of city hall.
Today, it's the United States v. Kwame Kilpatrick.
JOHN: I’m John White. Welcome to Crimetown.
MARK CHUTKOW: We prepared -- I prepared more for this trial than any other trial than I've ever had. There were 100 witnesses in the case. There was 700 exhibits and there was over 10,000 pages of trial transcript.
JOHN: This is Assistant US Attorney Mark Chutkow. You met him last episode, when he oversaw the federal investigation into Kwame Kilpatrick. Now, the investigation was over and it was time to go to court. September 21st, 2012, Kwame’s trial began.
CHUTKOW: Even an experienced prosecutor is going to have some nerves on the first day of a trial. We had been preparing for this for quite a while and we didn't even really know what to expect. We decided we were going to start small. We were going to talk about small fraud, in part because we knew that some of the jurors were going to give him the benefit of the doubt because of his public service. And so we wanted to try to start right away at a smaller level to show, this guy is up to no good.
JOHN: According to the prosecution, one of Kwame’s “smaller” frauds was stealing money from the Kilpatrick Civic Fund, a charity he set up to do neighborhood-improvement work.
CHUTKOW: But in fact, he had used over half a million dollars for his own personal purposes. To pay for things like yoga lessons that he and some of his bodyguards would have. He used the money too, uh, for an expensive vacation that he went with his family.
ARCHIVAL: In his second term as mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick spent more than $8600 here at the five star Lacosta resort. But the money wasn’t his. It was supposed to help some of you…
BOB BEECKMAN: He he called a CPA as a defense witness. He was an expert in 501c4s, which is what the Kilpatrick Civic Fund is.
JOHN: This is Bob Beeckman, the FBI agent you met last episode. One day, he was sitting in the courtroom when Kwame’s lawyer called an accountant to testify as an expert witness.
BEECKMAN: And so he's up there on the witness stand and he's being asked questions by Kilpatrick's lawyer. And the way that Kilpatrick tried to legitimize these expenses were, it either has to be to further the advancement of the fund for the stated purpose. The second thing that you could say to legitimize it was it was calculated to try to raise even more funds for the, for the charity, okay?
JOHN: Then, the prosecutor got up....and asked the CPA to review some of the more peculiar expenses.
BEECKMAN: So he puts up a lease on a Cadillac and he says would this be a legitimate expense. And the CPA says well, that could be allowable. And he throws up yoga lessons and their witness, their CPA, bursts out laughing and says, not even close. And everyone in the courtroom burst out laugh-- everyone except Kwame Kilpatrick. The jurors are laughing, the reporters in the gallery are laughing. It was absolutely ridiculous!
JOHN: Next, Assistant US Attorney Mark Chutkow moved on to the bigger allegations... like Kwame taking bribes for city contracts.
CHUTKOW: The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was where all the money could be found. It was the third largest Water and Sewerage Department in the United States. And the mayor and his buddies figured out this is where the money was to be had. And so that's where we took the trial next, was basically below the street level into the sewers.
JOHN: Chutkow told the jury about Bernard Kilpatrick's shakedown of an executive from a big sludge processing company...which the FBI had caught on a wire.
ARCHIVAL BERNARD: I got you to the table. I did that. And I’m out here in the cold with no money.
ARCHIVAL JIM ROSENDALL: You want a check or do you want cash?
JOHN: Smaller local contractors were shaken down as well.
ODELL JONES: From the age of six or seven, I was you know following my dad around to various work sites. And that's pretty much how it started for me.
JOHN: This is a Detroit businessman named Odell Jones. The interview you’re hearing is from an FBI training video.
JONES: At the peak we were in the 10 to 12 million dollar a year arena with 36 employees. I started looking at you know ways you know to expand our market share. And started looking at public work. And it's hard to even. It's hard to even describe this culture. It starts small. Someone comes to you and says you know the mayor is having a fundraiser you need to buy tickets. That's perhaps the most innocuous way that it could begin. But then you started being encouraged to partner you know with a friend of the mayor. And that's when the picture started to get kind of bleak. The friend of the mayor ... he would be at meetings where contracts were actually awarded by the city and you would be told prior to the meeting that if he did not want you to get a job you wouldn't get a job.
JOHN: Odell is referring to another contractor, a friend of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's and his co-defendant in the federal trial, a guy by the name of Bobby Ferguson.
ARCHIVAL: For Bobby Ferguson, courtrooms are nothing new. When he was a teenager, he was charged for beating a man in the head with a baseball bat outside of a sports bar. DUI and firearm charges litter his lengthy rap sheet. By the time he was only 35, Ferguson had been arrested 12 times.
JOHN: Bobby Ferguson had a checkered past. But with his friend running city hall, Ferguson rose to become one of Detroit's most successful minority contractors.
WIRETAP BOBBY FERGUSON: Hey POP! Give me, give me, I got some stuff in my hand...
JOHN: The FBI had caught him on a wiretap talking to the mayor’s father.
WIRETAP BOBBY FERGUSON: What you need? What you want, what you want, what are you telling me you need to do?
WIRETAP BERNARD: I really would like him run out of town, but basically...
CHUTKOW: And we explained how these guys together had rigged bids, how they had bullied contractors to partner with Ferguson and how basically they'd cut themselves in to a lot of the most expensive infrastructure projects in the city.
JOHN: It was this alleged conspiracy that allowed the the federal government to charge Kwame, his father Bernard, and his friend Bobby Ferguson with breaking a law originally designed to bring down the mafia. RICO... the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Prosecutors argued that Kwame was essentially running an organized crime ring out of the mayor's office. They called it the Kilpatrick Criminal Enterprise. And to prove it, Mark Chutkow and his team had a little help from an old foe of Kwame’s… text messages.
ARCHIVAL: Federal prosecutors unleashed a slew of text messages in the Kilpatrick corruption trial…
ARCHIVAL CATALLO: The texts covered everything from Kwame Kilpatrick and Bobby Ferguson discussing housing project deals to chatter about messing with city permits for other business owners. The feds are likely using the texts to try to show the defendants were conspiring together as part of their alleged criminal enterprise.
CHUTKOW: We called the text messages, basically, a crime scene frozen in time. Something that you could grasp you could turn in any angle you wanted and you could see it for what it's worth. These were the words of the defendants. They weren’t our words.
JOHN: And one of the people discussed in those text messages...was a certain contractor just trying to win a job with the city. The businessman you heard from earlier...Odell Jones.
CHUTKOW: We had text messages between Bobby Ferguson and Kwame Kilpatrick laughing about the pathetic efforts of Odell Jones to try to get an audience with the mayor and his family and basically they just crushed him. And then they laughed at him. And we showed those text messages to the jury and we said these guys weren't there to promote minority business enterprises. These guys were there to promote themselves.
JOHN: When Odell Jones took the stand in the federal trial, the jury got a good look at the real cost of corruption in Detroit.
JONES: It became known to me, I understood, that to be favored you know, um, compensation was expected. I knew how to get the job. I couldn't bring myself to do it. I apologize. And then the backlash, the ramifications, the chatter becomes, This guy’s done. He's not going to do any more work. The thing that hits you first, the thing that hits you hardest is you start to witness or sense a level of despair among your employees. They begin to question, "Why others and not us?" I don't know if anyone understands this... but I loved my employees. So I put the good face on it. I tried to explain, "You just keep working at it until you get it right." I couldn't walk in and say, "I think we lost that job because I didn't agree to do something." I want to be honest with you, it’s so painful to think about this. This is, this is bad. It is, it’s bad. And so unnecessary.
ARCHIVAL CARMEN HARLAN: For months now, prosecutors have been trying to persuade a jury in the Kilpatrick trial how, they say, the former mayor, his father, and Bobby Ferguson got millions of dollars in shady deals...
JOHN: The city of Detroit was watching the trial of Kwame Kilpatrick, Bernard Kilpatrick, and Bobby Ferguson unfold on the news. But it wasn't clear if the mayor himself had taken bribes. For Assistant US Attorney Mark Chutkow, it was time to follow the money.
CHUTKOW: The cash that was going into Kilpatrick’s bank accounts. This was basically what we described as the smoking gun of the case. One thing that we saw that was quite striking to us is that over the course of this conspiracy, Bobby Ferguson's companies withdrew something to the tune of two point three million dollars in cash from their coffers. And you know companies do need petty cash from time to time but two point three million made absolutely no sense to us. So we were able to basically juxtapose all of this cash that was flowing out of Bobby Ferguson's accounts, with all of this cash that was flowing into Kwame Kilpatrick’s accounts. And then we would couple that with text messages between the two of them where they would have these furtive meetings, Hey, meet me at this park or come over here immediately just you and me, need to see you alone for 30 minutes. When you looked at it collectively with all of the money that was flowing into Kilpatrick's accounts and out of Ferguson's accounts led you to the strong inference that these guys were sharing money and they were sharing lots of it.
DREW NELLES: Did you witness Kwame taking bribes?
DEDAN MILTON: Never, and I'll be honest — never seen him take a bribe. Never. I wasn’t around if he took bribes.
JOHN: This is Dedan Milton, a former assistant of Kwame’s. He testified at the trial.
MILTON: He didn’t take --
JOHN: Did you see him take any cash?
MILTON: Him take cash? I’ll say from Bernard, yeah. He took cash from Bernard, and if we about and out at you know on vacations and stuff when I'm around Bobby and stuff, yeah he would give him money.
DREW: You're not really supposed to do that.
MILTON: What do you mean?
DREW: As an elected official. Right? You're not supposed to accept cash gifts. You're not supposed to accept gifts of any kind, really.
MILTON: No, from my understanding, when I say gave him money, it was like him and Bobby were good friends, so him and Bobby, they hung out and Bobby would -- let me rephrase that then, Bobby would give him money and you know his father would give him money, whatever the case may be, so when I say, "People give him money," he had money, but it wasn't coming from somebody else or it wasn't coming from the city coffers or it wasn't coming from the civic fund, it was coming from people he knew. I mean it wasn't like it was like "here, I'm giving you money because you know I'm doing stuff with the city.” It was because you know I know I'm well off I've been well off for a while, you know we going on this trip, here's some money for you, you know we spending money to you know do whatever we doing on the trips. So we didn't think of that as being out of the, out of the norm or anything.
JOHN: So we asked Kwame about those cash gifts...
KWAME KILPATRICK: You do some stupid things and it may be on the line of being unethical. But it's not illegal. And if, if, if there was an unethical prison I should be there.
JOHN: Well what did you do with -- that was unethical?
KWAME: Well you know to just accept a watch, you know, not from a contractor, or to have a party for your birthday and you say, let me have cash gifts preferred. That’s not illegal, it’s just crazy. I had my wedding reception. And I did the same thing. We said cash gifts preferred. I had my 30th birthday party, cash gifts preferred over all these things. And so it wasn't like this new thing, oh he’s mayor and -- no. I was doing that when I was crazy and 25, crazy and 30, crazy when I graduated from law school. Same thing and then crazy of course from my thirty sixth birthday. The difference is you get 10,000 at one and at another one you get 70 thousand. And so it is a difference. Now, is that illegal? Absolutely not. It definitely -- you shouldn't do it because of how it looks.
JOHN: But Assistant US Attorney Mark Chutkow sees things... differently.
CHUTKOW: Well, well that's a convenient excuse and they actually tried that at trial and that didn't really hold any water for the the jury at all. I mean, we looked at his, just his banking activity, we looked at the amount of money that he legitimately had coming into his bank versus how much money flowed out of it.
JOHN: Remember, in our last episode, the feds had discovered that Kwame had hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexplained deposits in his bank accounts.
CHUTKOW: There was a differential of $840,000. I mean, close to a million dollars had flowed out more than he could legitimately show. I would be shocked to hear that he was able to gather $840,000 from birthday parties and from other sorts of galas that he may have hosted. I know he's a popular guy, but I'm sorry he wasn't that popular.
JOHN: And with that, the prosecution rested their case. After 6 months of trial, Kwame’s fate was put in the hands of the jury.
ARCHIVAL DEVIN SCILLIAN: The jury in the Kwame Kilpatrick federal corruption trial began their deliberations today. Experts are saying it could take a couple of weeks for a verdict to come in…
JOHN: The city of Detroit anxiously awaited the verdict.
ARCHIVAL: Go to jail, go directly to jail! God bless you, don’t bend down for the soap!
ARCHIVAL: We are praying for Kwame Kilpatrick and we’re thanking him for the good.
JOHN: After three weeks, Assistant US Attorney Mark Chutkow got word that the jury had reached a verdict.
CHUTKOW: We immediately ran over to the courthouse. And I think that the news media heard about it as soon as we had because the place was packed by the time we got there.
ARCHIVAL REPORTER 1: ...I tell you I talked to one of the attorneys just moments ago actually, and the butterflies are in the stomach no matter which way it goes...
CHUTKOW: You could tell there was some tension in the room. There was just kind of quiet murmurings amongst the people in the gallery. As I recall Mr. Kilpatrick and Bobby Ferguson were kind of smiling and murmuring to each other and joking around. We were quite stoic, we did not talk with each other. We just sat down quietly and waited for the verdict. And so I mean I guess what crossed our minds is, do they know something that we don't?
ARCHIVAL: But we are about to -- and now she is asking the defendants to rise. All right, they’re going to read the verdict now, this is it.
CHUTKOW: Then the judge comes into the room, we all rise. And at that point she calls in the jury and they file into the room. They were all looking pretty serious. They were looking straight down at their shoes as they gathered. They did not really want to make eye contact with anybody.
ANCHOR 3: Alright, count one, racketeering conspiracy, Kwame Kilpatrick: Guilty.
ANCHOR 2: Guilty, mmm!
ANCHOR 1: Follow it on your screen with us. Guilty of racketeering. The biggest of the charges.
ANCHOR: Count two, extortion, Kwame Kilpatrick, guilty, count three, extortion, They should be guilty If it’s consistent. It looks like it is. Guilty for Kwame Kilpatrick.
HEATHER: And you know count one, RICO, guilty. Count two, guilty, count three, guilty, count four, guilty...
JOHN: Reporter Heather Catallo was outside the courthouse the day the verdict came in.
CATALLO: Count five, guilty. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.
ARCHIVAL: And count 18 we’re beginning a bunch of mail fraud and wire fraud charges, kwame kilpatrick guilty on 18, 19 mail fraud, kwame kilpatrick guilty, 20 kwame kilpatrick guilty...
CATALLO: And by the end of it, 24 counts guilty for Kwame Kilpatrick. And I remember just standing there with the rain pelting my face and just being like, wow, this is this is it. And it was just this moment of, we've covered this guy for so long. We've all lived this roller coaster with him as he's gone to prison, gotten out of prison, gone back. You know, this just this stranglehold he had on Detroit for so long. And now he's done. It's done. It was emotional. I mean there were times as a reporter when I hated Kwame Kilpatrick. He was so mean to us. He was so mean and it hurt my heart what he did to Detroit. Because I love my hometown. I do. And we we have a hard time. We have had it hard and I feel like he set us back. You know, I think he had so much promise and it was so exciting to have this young, cool, hip mayor, and we were going to, like, do great things and we're having a comeback and then we did not have a comeback and we got worse. And I just feel like he just put us through the ringer. And I had compassion at the same time for him and for his kids. I mean I'm a mom, I felt bad for his kids. And I remember seeing his face when he came out the door and as much as I hated that man at times, I was like, Oh my God. This guy's going away for a really long time. I just felt bad for his kids. That being said, I think the jury made the right decision.
JOHN: Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison. His friend Bobby Ferguson, the contractor...got 21 years. As for his father Bernard, the consultant...the jury was deadlocked on the biggest charges. So he only got 15 months.
ARCHIVAL CATALLO: Only one tax charge of guilty for Bernard Kilpatrick which honestly is not that surprising considering the way some of the evidence came in. There was definitely some question about the level of Bernard Kilpatrick’s involvement with certain things...
JOHN: A stunned Kwame Kilpatrick was led out of the courtroom.
ARCHIVAL REPORTER: When it came down, sir, you had sort of a disbelief reaction. Your thoughts?
ARCHIVAL KWAME: Uh, scuse me.
ARCHIVAL CHARLIE LEDUFF: What do you say to your kids, Kwame? Or the rest of the kids? What do you say to all those taxpayers who spent all that money? The babies? Millions of dollars in a city that’s broke? Are you sorry? How about just that one? Are you sorry? Kwame? Mr. Kilpatrick? Are you sorry?
JOHN: So I'm trying to figure out where you are with the case now. Do you do you maintain your innocence? Are you innocent?
KWAME: Um, I was charged with RICO conspiracy. I'm absolutely innocent of that. And the feds know that. I made stupid decisions. I made ignorant decisions. I was arrogant and prideful and a lot of ways. And that's what I want people to understand. But I stand on the fact that those things that I was charged with in that courtroom, I am not guilty of.
JOHN: You know, I want to be able to ask you questions about the case and about specifics of the case, if that’s OK with you, I thought you know that’s kind of where we were headed.
KWAME: It’s actually not okay. It’s not okay, John, I can’t do that.
KWAME: Well, first of all I believe that there’s been a tremendous amount of confusion about what the case is about and what it’s not. And ALL. A-L-L. All of the information you have is either from the prosecutors, or it’s from some news media reporters. And so also, akin to that, I’m writing an appeal. And unraveling the information that’s been out there for years [THIS CALL IS FROM A FEDERAL PRISON] the false information, and the [laughs] good that recording came on, the information that put me in prison for 28 years. And so what I’m not doing, is compromising my freedom for you to have a quote unquote good interview. Or a quote unquote thorough interview.
JOHN: Well, no, I wouldn’t want you to jeopardize your freedom either.
KWAME: And John I know what you want, and I know what you’re saying.
JOHN: But I haven’t been able to say it. What I’m saying is --
JOHN: Well, there have been many who feel as though you would serve yourself well by admitting to something. That you’re -- some guilt. Are you saying you’re innocent of all the charges that have been weighed against you?
KWAME: John, you’ve asked me this question three times.
JOHN: I know but I want to be clear about it because I’m -- it seems it seems far fetched.
KWAME: John --
JOHN: From the evidence that I see, Kwame -- I know -- but you’ve been - every time I ask you a question, Kwame, about this you seem to not want to answer it.
KWAME: No. This is the first time, that’s a lie from you, with an L, John. Every time you’ve ask me a question about this I’ve answered it. Listen we’ve talked about my personal life.
KWAME: We’ve talked about my children. We’ve talked about Christine. We’ve even talked about the courtroom. We’ve talked about innocence and guilt before. But you now want me to have an in-depth conversation about the specifics related to me and my case while I’m fighting my case based on the foundational information that you have from the government and from the convictions of guilt. If I’m filing something about getting out of prison to reconnect to my life, you don’t give a damn about that.
JOHN: Oh no. That’s not true, Kwame
KWAME: Is that what you’re saying John?
JOHN: That is -- I have never said that. I hope you see -- I do hope you see freedom.
KWAME: -- but because you want this so bad.
JOHN: No it’s --
KWAME: I know it’s not true.
JOHN: I didn’t realize there was a line being drawn. You know what I mean, so it puts me at a --
KWAME: A line being drawn at my innocence — John, John. When you come to prison, come on in here. Stay for about a year and then let’s have this conversation. I’m sure you’ll have a different perspective. This is an area that I can not discuss because it’s neither wise nor helpful nor expedient nor positive in any way in moving me towards truth and being set free. That’s all that that I’m saying. [beeping]
KWAME: Yeah, I’m still here.
JOHN: Oh, OK. It sounds like we're going to run out of time, Kwame. I mean I hope this is not the last time we talk. I mean, we'll be wrapping up the show. You know, whatever you’d want to say about the city of Detroit --
KWAME: I love Detroit.
JOHN: You know, where you’re at today -- [beep beep] -- you know
JOHN: Oh, man. Let’s go, fucking...
JOHN: Next week, on the final episode of Crimetown Season 2...with Kwame Kilpatrick in prison, Detroit tries to move on.
JOHN: Crimetown is Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier. This season is made in partnership with Gimlet Media and Spotify.
This episode was produced by Soraya Shockley, Rob Szypko, Samantha Lee, and me, John White.
The senior producer is Drew Nelles.
Editing by Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling.
Fact-checking by Jennifer Blackman.
This episode was mixed, sound-designed, and scored by Kenny Kusiak.
Original music this season composed by Homer Steinweiss.
We recorded some original music at Rustbelt Studios in Detroit in partnership with Detroit Sound Conservancy. Special thanks to Carleton Gholz and Maurice “Pirahnahead” Herd.
Additional music by John Kusiak, Kenny Kusiak, and Jon Ivans. Additional mixing by Bobby Lord.
Our theme song is “Politicians In My Eyes” by Death.
Our credit music this week is “This is My Home, This is Detroit” performed by the Blue Pigs, courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society.
Archival research by Brennan Rees.
Some of the audio in this episode appears courtesy of Tim and Tobias Smith, and their film KMK: A Documentary of Kwame Kilpatrick. Check it out.
Additional archival material courtesy of WXYZ.
Show art and design by James Cabrera and Elise Harven.
Thanks to the Detroit Free Press, Peter Bhatia, Jim Schaefer, Mary Schroeder, Melanie Maxwell, Max White, Randy Lundquist, Brendan Roney, Larry Mongo, Allie Delyanis and everyone who shared their stories with us. Detroit’s an amazing place, and we’re honored to tell a small part of its story.
Alex Blumberg is the podfather. We’re praying for you, Alex. And we’re thanking you for the good.