09 March 2008

Kwame Kilpatrick: More Mess from Messages

When the Michigan Supreme Court decided to uphold the decision to release text messages that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff placed on city owned pagers, I knew this was going to get nasty. I just didn't know how nasty this would get for the mayor or the city. And I'm afraid that the entry below from today's Detroit Free Press may just be the beginning.

A close friend of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick won millions of dollars in city contracts while secretly consulting with the mayor's top aide, according to records and text messages obtained by the Free Press.

The text messages, from 2002 and 2003, show that Kilpatrick and Christine Beatty, his chief of staff at the time, provided their friend Bobby Ferguson inside information on potential projects, discussed whether he would be in or out of certain jobs and helped Ferguson get paid promptly when he urgently needed a check from the city.

Ferguson and firms he partnered with have collected at least $45 million in contracts since Kilpatrick took office in 2002. In at least one instance, the mayor was directly involved in discussions about Ferguson's bid strategy.

"Awarding contracts to supporters and friends is problematic," said Peter Henning, a Wayne State University professor and ex-federal prosecutor. "If there's benefit being derived from it, then that's a classic case of public corruption."

Ferguson said he got the contracts on merit. "I work hard for everything I do," he said Friday after reviewing text messages. "Nobody's never given me anything." In a statement released Saturday night, Ferguson called the Free Press report a "fishing expedition grounded purely on circumstantial anecdotes and unrelated half-truths that attempt to connect purely unrelated issues for purposes that do not involve the truth or the facts."

Kilpatrick's spokeswoman, who was also shown text messages involving Ferguson on Friday, did not provide a response from the mayor. Beatty's legal advisors said she did nothing improper.

George Jackson, the city's top development officer, said Saturday he was not aware of any political interference with contract decisions made by the city's various development agencies. "This is a completely public and transparent process," he said.

Since Kilpatrick took office in 2002, Ferguson's business dealings with the city have broadened. He took a key role in an agency leading the downtown redevelopment effort. His companies -- which have generally received solid marks for their work and have been among the lowest bidders on projects -- have been involved in some of Detroit's signature developments, including Comerica Park, Ford Field, renovations at Cobo Center and the Book-Cadillac Hotel restoration downtown.

Text messages from Beatty's city-issued pager show that Ferguson communicated directly and repeatedly with her about pending projects. The Free Press did not find any other vendor with such access to Beatty in her text message records. But Beatty's attorney, Jeffrey Morganroth, said Beatty spoke with other contractors face-to-face or on the phone. "It just so happened that Mr. Ferguson, in addition to having phone conversations and in-person meetings, had her text pager and would text her from time to time."

One exchange, on April 16, 2003, took place after a board meeting of the Downtown Development Authority, the agency charged with reinvigorating the city's core business district. Beatty and Ferguson both served on the board.

Beatty sent this message to the mayor about an unspecified vendor: "So," she wrote, "he's a front?"
"No question," Kilpatrick responded.
Beatty then wrote: "Who put all of these black folks in the deal?"

It's unclear who they were talking about, or what contract was discussed. But the term "front" is typically used to describe the illegal practice of a having a minority group bid on a contract set aside for minority-owned firms when the actual group seeking the contract is not minority owned.

Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, a civic watchdog group in Chicago, said the conversation about the front is troubling. "When the word 'front' is used in context of minority contracts, that's a huge, huge red flag," Stewart said. "There is no bigger red flag."

Beatty then messaged the mayor about a deal under discussion and asked, "Why not Bobby in this?"
"Bobby," Kilpatrick responded, "wanted to strategically lose a major bid. He will be on this one at bid time."

Apparently the mayor wasn't just screwing Christine Beatty, but every contractor who was bidding on a Detroit project and wasn't part of his inner circle. Check here for more on this story from the Free Press. And let's pray that mayor Kilpatrick's people are right and things aren't as they appear, because right now things appear pretty bleak.