DETROIT — A former Detroit mayor was sent to federal prison for 28 years Thursday, after showing little remorse for the widespread corruption under his watch but acknowledging he let down the troubled city during a critical period before it landed in bankruptcy.
Prosecutors said Kwame Kilpatrick’s “corrupt administration exacerbated the crisis” that Detroit now finds itself in. A judge agreed with the government’s recommendation that 28 years in prison was appropriate for rigging contracts, taking bribes and putting his own price on public business.
It is one of the toughest penalties doled out for public corruption in recent U.S. history and seals a dramatic fall for Kilpatrick, who was elected mayor in 2001 at age 31 and is the son of a former senior member of Congress.
While Detroit’s finances were eroding, he was getting bags of cash from city contractors, kickbacks hidden in the bra of his political fundraiser and private cross-country travel from businessmen, according to trial evidence.
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Kilpatrick, 43, said he was sorry if he let down his hometown but denied stealing from the citizens of Detroit.
“I’m ready to go so the city can move on,” Kilpatrick said, speaking softly with a few pages of notes before U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds ordered the sentence.
“The people here are suffering, they’re hurting. A great deal of that hurt I accept responsibility for,” he said.
In March, he was convicted of racketeering conspiracy, fraud, extortion and tax crimes. The government called it the “Kilpatrick enterprise,” a yearslong scheme to shake down contractors and reward allies. He was doomed by his own texts, which revealed efforts to fix deals for a pal, Bobby Ferguson, an excavator.
Prosecutors said $73 million of Ferguson’s $127 million in revenue from city work came through extortion. The government alleged that he in turn shared cash with Kilpatrick.
Agents who pored over bank accounts and credit cards said Kilpatrick spent $840,000 beyond his salary during his time as mayor, from 2002 to fall 2008. Defense attorneys tried to portray the money as generous gifts from political supporters.
“It is difficult to quantify the total cost of the devastating corruption instigated by Kilpatrick. … But one thing was certain: It was the citizens of Detroit who suffered when they turned over their hard-earned tax dollars but failed to receive the best services,” the judge said.
He was convicted in March, days before Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder sent an emergency manager to Detroit to take control of city operations. The city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July, overloaded with at least $18 billion in long-term debt.
Edmunds said the seriousness of Kilpatrick’s crimes are compounded by the involvement of city officials and others. Thirty-four other people have been convicted in connection with the public-corruption case.
She said Kilpatrick can’t be blamed for the bankruptcy — he’s been out of office for five years — but “corruption has its own cost.”
In his remarks to the judge, Kilpatrick lamented that his three sons will grow up without their father and said his scandals “killed” the political career of his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat who lost re-election in 2010.
The former mayor didn’t specifically address his crimes, though he said he respected the jury’s verdict. An appeal is certain.
The sentence was a victory for prosecutors. Defense attorneys argued for no more than 15 years in prison.
Kilpatrick also increased the city’s debt obligations to fill budget gaps while he was in office. A $1.44 billion borrowing deal he brokered in 2005 to restructure the city’s pension liabilities, though applauded by many at the time, added to the city’s estimated $18 billion in long-term liabilities.
In 2008, amid a different scandal, Kilpatrick resigned after he lied under oath during a police whistle-blower lawsuit and approved an $8.4 million settlement to try to cover it up. After pleading guilty to charges of obstruction of justice, he served four months in jail and was ordered to pay $1 million to the city.
He was soon behind bars again for hiding assets from the court and telling a judge he could afford to pay only $6 a month in restitution.
Material from The New York Times and Detroit Free Press is included in this report.