Lawyer: Ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick Didn’t Turn Down Deal to Settle Racketeering Case

By Tresa Baldas

Detroit Free Press

A lawyer for ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick says his client never rejected an offer by the federal government to settle his racketeering conspiracy case.

"I rejected nothing. There's nothing to reject," attorney James Thomas told the Free Press today, adding any kind of informal offer also would be out of the question. "I wouldn't consider a verbal offer ... We're preparing for trial and that's all there is to it."

He was disputing a published report that said Kilpatrick rejected an offer from the federal government to plead guilty to various charges and serve 15 years in prison.

Thomas adamantly denied discussing any settlement deals with the government on his client's behalf, saying, "We haven't discussed settlement. We're not settling ... And there have been no negotiations." He added, "I didn't seek an offer. And I have not had any negotiations." Kilpatrick is scheduled to go on trial in September on charges that he, his father, his longtime pal Bobby Ferguson and ex-water boss Victor Mercado ran a criminal enterprise through the mayor's office to enrich themselves. A fifth defendant, longtime Kilpatrick friend and former aide Derrick Miller, pleaded guilty and has agreed to testify against Kilpatrick at trial.

So has Emma Bell, a one-time fund-raiser for Kilpatrick who pleaded guilty in October to income tax evasion, admitting she received more than $500,000 from various Kilpatrick fund-raisers and never reported it. She faces up to 18 months in prison, but federal prosecutors have agreed to cut her prison time in half - depending on her cooperation in the Kilpatrick case.

Kilpatrick, 41, faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment on a possible deal. So did the FBI. Public corruption expert Wes Porter, a former federal prosecutor and senior trial attorney with the Department of Justice, said he believes the government has long tried to pressure Kilpatrick into cutting a plea deal. Despite the cooperating defendants in the case, he said, Kilpatrick isn't biting. "That doesn't mean that they have some great trial defense up their sleeves. That may just mean that they have a client who can't wrap his head around spending years in prison," said Porter, now a San Francisco law professor at Golden Gate University School of Law. Porter also noted a 15-year federal prison sentence for public corruption "is sort of on the high end of what I would expect." For example, Porter noted, former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich received a 14-year prison sentence in December for trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat. Another ex-Illinois governor, George Ryan, is serving a 6 ½ -year prison term for corruption. If the government is offering Kilpatrick a 15-year deal, Porter said, that would imply it has a strong case. "They're not going to give it away. They're not in the mindset that they need to do something exceptional here before trial," Porter said. "It is not a discount." On the flipside, defense attorney Michael Rataj said if Kilpatrick is turning down a 15-year deal, the odds could be in his favor. "It says to me that he thinks that he can win the case," Rataj said. "Now whether that's true or not, I don't know. I've had people reject deals, and we've won." Most recently, Rataj represented Tina Stone, one of the defendants in the Hutaree terror trial acquitted last month of all charges. Rataj noted fighting the government doesn't always work. He's had clients turn down deals then lose at trial. "It cuts both ways," Rataj said. Joshua Marquis, who serves on the National District Attorneys Association Board of Directors and has been a prosecutor for more than 25 years, said plea deals before trial are not only standard procedure - they're urged by judges. "Some judges are really aggressive and will call the parties in and want to know what has been done to resolve the case ... the courts expect both parties to be willing to at least look at a resolution," said Marquis, a former special federal prosecutor and current vice-chair of the American Bar Association's criminal justice section. Plea offers, however, don't always go over well with the defense, Marquis noted. "Many times the defense doesn't like it, and says 'that's a ridiculous offer.' But courts generally expect the parties to make an attempt to resolve the case," Marquis said. "The reality is that trials are exceedingly rare." Meanwhile, Ferguson, a contractor who secured tens of millions of dollars worth of contracts while Kilpatrick was mayor, goes on trial next month in a separate, alleged bid-rigging scheme. Ferguson is charged with rigging bids to win a nearly $12-million contract for a low-income housing project. In that case, Ferguson was offered a plea deal, but turned it down on April 18 at a final pretrial conference before U.S. District Judge David Lawson. The trial is scheduled to start May 8. If convicted, Ferguson faces up to 20 years in prison.

Ferguson's lawyer Gerald Evelyn declined comment.