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Texts, Lies and the Mayor of Detroit

5 minute read
Steven Gray

It’s been an unusual season of political sex scandals, but Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s is particularly lurid: there are allegations of parties featuring strippers at the mayoral mansion and explicit text messages between Kilpatrick and his alleged mistress who was, until recently, his chief of staff. But Kilpatrick seems to be taking his cues more from Senators Larry Craig and David Vitter than from New York governor Eliot Spitzer: he isn’t going down without a big fight. Already, the Wayne County, Mich., prosecutor has suggested that Detroit city lawyers are rebuffing her efforts to obtain key evidence in the case, and that some documents may have been destroyed. Kilpatrick’s lawyer, meanwhile, has suggested the prosecutors’ case hinges on “vague, indefinite and ambiguous” questions that hardly resulted in enough evidence to warrant the charges.

In a Monday morning press conference, Wayne County’s top prosecutor, Kym L. Worthy, charged Kilpatrick with eight felonies, including perjury, obstruction of justice and misconduct for the text messages he allegedly traded with his paramour, Christine Beatty. (Beatty was also charged with seven felonies, including perjury.) Worthy also said several other individuals may be charged in connection with the case. The charismatic Kilpatrick, 37, who was happy to be known as the nation’s first “hip-hop mayor,” today dismissed Worthy’s investigation as “flawed” and indicated he has no plans to resign, even after Detroit’s city council passed a resolution urging him to do so last week. Kilpatrick and Beatty surrendered to Wayne County authorities Monday afternoon for booking. If found guilty of the perjury charges, he could face a maximum of 15 years in prison.

The charges stem from allegations that Kilpatrick and Beatty, also 37, lied under oath about their intimate relationship during last year’s lawsuit involving two former Detroit police officers. Those cops had sued the city, claiming they were fired for investigating reports of misconduct by two of the mayor’s former bodyguards. In September, a jury awarded the two officers more than $6.5 million in a settlement that eventually became $8.4 million in a deal apparently brokered in secret by Kilpatrick’s attorneys to keep the text messages between the mayor and Beatty confidential, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Then, in January, the Detroit Free Press published excerpts from text messages that appeared to support allegations that Kilpatrick and Beatty had lied under oath about their conducting an affair. Beatty swiftly resigned. Kilpatrick and his wife, Carlita, appeared on local television holding hands, apologized and pleaded for privacy as they sorted through the matter. All along, Kilpatrick had loudly pledged that he would never give up the mayorship. Today, his lawyer, Dan Webb, said, “If this mayor is required to resign from public office before that jury trial, it means he’s going to be punished prematurely before he gets his day in court.”

Yet it’s hard to imagine how Kilpatrick can lead one of America’s largest cities, even if he is exonerated of the charges, as he says he expects to be. “This is just a big mess,” says John M. Strate, director of the graduate program in public administration at Wayne State University. There are many unresolved questions and issues. For instance, Kilpatrick will stand trial in a courtroom in Wayne County, which includes Detroit. That means he will likely face a racially diverse jury that’s unlikely to be as sympathetic to his indiscretions as jurors selected from predominantly black Detroit.

If Kilpatrick resigns or is found guilty of the charges before his term expires next year, he will be succeeded by Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr., 42, the well-regarded president of Detroit’s city council who is, like the mayor, a scion of a powerful Michigan political family. In an interview with TIME Monday, Cockrel said that as long as Kilpatrick remains in office with the charges pending, “it will have an impact on how we’re viewed around the world, by people who’ll think twice about doing business in our city.” Cockrel voted in favor of the city council resolution seeking Kilpatrick’s resignation. Asked today if he plans to run for mayor next year, Cockrel said, “I haven’t ruled it out.”

Last September, in an interview with TIME, Kilpatrick pledged to run for reelection in 2009. If he is exonerated, it’s possible Kilpatrick could make a political comeback, as he did in 2005, following allegations of misconduct ranging from club crawling to charging the city for the lease of his wife’s Lincoln Navigator. At that time, Kilpatrick dismissed many of his earlier indiscretions as “boneheaded,” and attributable to his relative youth. But he and his lawyers have displayed what many call arrogance in the face of the current charges. The prosecutor’s team tried to contact Kilpatrick’s attorneys to inform them of the pending charges, but the mayor’s lawyers apparently ignored the calls. Kilpatrick has also tried to dismiss the charges as racially motivated. But prosecutor Worthy is also African American. Can the mayor come back from this kind of adversity? “Everyone predicted he’d lose the last election. But this time,” says Strate, the Wayne State political analyst, “he’s gone too far. I don’t think he stands a chance.”

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