Day 1: Opening statements

Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers wrapped up opening statements Friday in the Kwame Kilpatrick corruption trial, teasing evidence that has been shrouded from public view during a years-long probe.  The feds have undercover video, wiretaps, a paper trail longer than a dozen Lincoln Navigators and text messages — some we’ve never seen.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow teased evidence during an opening speech that  portrayed Kilpatrick as the crooked prince of Motown and kingpin of a criminal enterprise that included his dad, his pal and a key appointee.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys countered the federal government’s case, saying it’s built on a foundation of  weak information and testimony from liars.

Check here for breaking news, key developments and scenes from federal court in downtown Detroit. Get comfortable. We’ll be here past Christmas.

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View our archived coverage of Day 1: Opening statements.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s attorney, Gerald Evelyn, center, is seen here in 2008 talking with with assistant Wayne County prosecutors, Robert Moran, right, and Lisa Lindsey, about plea agreements that included Kilpatrick’s resignation. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

The federal government’s case is built on a foundation of Jell-O, features weak information and testimony from liars, contractor Bobby Ferguson’s lawyer said Friday.

“The federal government has unequal power and pressured a number of people and you’ll see the results played out over the next several months,” defense lawyer Gerald Evelyn told jurors. “It caused them to lie, exaggerate and distort the truth.

“There never was a Kilpatrick Enterprise.”

Those lies, Evelyn said, are part of a voluminous amount of evidence compiled by the government, including more than 600,000 text messages and more than 100 witnesses.

“They have a lot of quantity,” Evelyn said, his voice rising. “They don’t have very much quality.”

Evelyn, who has chafed at depictions of Ferguson and Kwame Kilpatrick as friends, acknowledged the relationship Friday.

“The government is trying to criminalize that friendship. That gave him access. There is nothing illegal about that,” Evelyn said, punctuating his point by pounding the lectern.

Evelyn called Ferguson — who was convicted of pistol-whipping a man in 2005 and who is scheduled to be retried on bid-rigging charges later this year — an honest man.

“He’s a decent man,” Evelyn said. “He’s terrified.”

Update at 2:34 p.m.: Opening statements are finished. The trial resumes Monday at 9 a.m.

The final opening statement is expected around 1:30 p.m. from lawyer Gerald Evelyn, who is defending Detroit contractor Bobby Ferguson in the City Hall corruption case. While we’re waiting, here are a few lingering images from opening statements in the City Hall corruption trial Friday.

  1. Bernard Kilpatrick’s sphinx sweater. Kilpatrick was shown on an undercover FBI video shot by Synagro sludge-hauling businessman James Rosendall Jr. In the video, Kilpatrick is wearing a black sweater with what appeared to be a giant sphinx.
  2. Rosendall, again, shown in a surveillance photo carrying a box while walking with Bernard Kilpatrick. The box contained a bribe for Bernard Kilpatrick — a case of Cristal champagne, according to the feds.
  3. Kwame Kilpatrick’s lawyer James C. Thomas, referring to politics as a “tough business.”

“Politics is like making sausage. It’s not pretty. It’s messy,” Thomas told jurors. “But once cooked, it tastes pretty good.”

Bernard Kilpatrick was a skilled political consultant who did not trade on his son’s role as mayor of Detroit to pocket millions, his lawyer told jurors.

The racketeering case is all about a government that sees “corruption behind every bush” regarding Bernard Kilpatrick, defense attorney John Shea said Friday.

“There is nothing illegal about having discussions about business associates who happen to be friends of people in the administration,” Shea said. “What he got paid, he earned.”

What is illegal, Shea said, would be for Kwame Kilpatrick to tell contractors to pay Bernard Kilpatrick in return for city contracts.

“We call that bribery,” Shea told jurors.

Bernard Kilpatrick is charged with racketeering conspiracy, extortion and filing false tax returns. He faces up to 20 years in prison, if convicted.

Shea tried to discredit a key government witness, former Kwame Kilpatrick aide Marc Andre Cunningham.

“He was dirty to begin with,” Shea told jurors.

Cunningham is a fraternity brother of Kwame Kilpatrick’s. He pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in November 2010 stemming from a Detroit pension fund investment and is awaiting sentencing. He admitted to receiving  $300,000 in bribes and faces up to 37 months in prison.

Grosse Pointe Farms businessman Anthony Soave’s name has come up several times today.

Victor Mercado’s lawyer said Soave tried to ply the Detroit water boss with free use of his 100-foot yacht.

Mercado refused, a point defense lawyer Martin Crandall said illustrated the Detroit water boss’ objection to accepting bribes or gratuities.

“It’s not in his DNA,” Crandall told jurors.

According to court records, Soave told federal agents about bribes he paid other officials to win city contracts worth millions. Soave’s lawyer says he was extorted.

Soave told agents he donated $125,000 to the mayor’s charity, the Kilpatrick Civic Fund, helped Kilpatrick’s mistress and chief of staff Christine Beatty get a sweetheart deal on a Land Rover and paid down her bad credit, Crandall claimed in an earlier filing.

Soave is identified as owner of Soave Enterprises and majority owner of a firm identified by prosecutors as “Company I,” or Inland Waters.

Soave also provided private jet flights, gave Kwame Kilpatrick $10,000 worth of courtside Detroit Pistons tickets in 2002, gave the mayor access to his private boat, took him on two New York City shopping trips, and gave the mayor’s father Bernard Kilpatrick a $6,000 watch, according to the filing.

The list goes on, according to the filing: Soave paid for a Christmas stay at the Ritz hotel in Naples, Fla., plus $3,000 for a personal trainer and paid for gifts for the mayor’s family, including a woman’s purse and shoes.

Crandall is still delivering his opening statement. It’s been colorful, and confused.

He referenced the flick “Meet the Parents,” to emphasize Mercado was not inside Kilpatrick’s “Circle of Trust.”

He also twice confused the late newsman Walter Cronkite with the late radio raconteur Paul Harvey as owner of the catch phrase “the rest of the story.”

More details are coming out about Kwame Kilpatrick’s groomsman, who allegedly delivered $90,000 in payoffs from Bobby Ferguson to the mayor.

Kilpatrick wrote about Mahlon Clift in his autobiography last year.

“Mahlon Clift, my friend from Chicago, a few days later, and he was flipping through my little book of phone numbers. I kept them all in one place and, while browsing, he saw Carlita’s number.“Man, you ain’t called this girl yet?” he said. “Man, call her!” Like I said, I wasn’t trying to be with a good girl. I was out having fun, so it began to feel like denying the inevitable when, days later, Mahlon and I ended up at a Burger King drive-through where Carlita worked. We ordered a couple of meal deals, but she gave us a whole bunch of Whoppers. Again, Mahlon started pushing me to call her. I finally made the call in my junior year.”

Victor Mercado was an outsider, not an integral member of the Kilpatrick Enterprise and his life was ruined by the federal government, his lawyer told jurors Friday.

Attorney Martin Crandall launched his defense emphasizing Mercado’s outsider status and suggested the former Detroit water boss is collateral damage of the government’s investigation.

“Victor never got a dime, not a penny,” Crandall said. “Victor Mercado is not guilty.”

He called the racketeering charge a nuclear bomb that damaged Mercado’s career, reducing him from being a $240,000-a-year utility boss to running to working as a clerk in a hardware store.

He countered the government’s allegation that Mercado participated in the racketeering scheme in order t o pocket a salary that was higher than that of the Detroit mayor and Michigan governor.

The salary was in line with utility directors nationwide, Crandall said.

“He did get that salary but he made it before he got here and after he left,” Crandall said. “Because he was talented. Because he was good.”

Prosecutors identified the mysterious “Courier A” who allegedly delivered $90,000 in cash from contractor Bobby Ferguson to Kwame Kilpatrick in Detroit and Texas.

That man is Mahlon Clift, a friend of the former mayor’s who was a groomsman in Kilpatrick’s wedding to Carlita Kilpatrick.

Kilpatrick wrote about him in his autobiography.

Up next, Victor Mercado’s lawyer Martin Crandall.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s defense lawyer James C. Thomas called politics a messy, tough business but denied his client turned City Hall into a criminal racket.

Speaking for almost 20 minutes, Thomas derided the government’s key witnesses Friday. Kilpatrick’s fundraiser, Emma Bell, is an addicted gambler, the mayor’s friend and aide Derrick Miller is a greedy underling, the lawyer said.
Another key witness, former Cobo Center contractor Karl Kado, is cooperating with the government even though he is suffering from dementia, Thomas said.

“(Prosecutors) are asking you to buy what they are selling,” Thomas told jurors. “The scam is what the government’s going to perpetrate on you.”
Thomas said the former mayor was honest but involved in a messy business.
“Politics is like making sausage. It’s not pretty. It’s messy,” Thomas told jurors. “But once cooked, it tastes pretty good.

The judge called a brief break before jurors hear more opening statements from defense lawyers.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department played a key role in the racketeering conspiracy, a federal prosecutor said during opening statements.

“Bobby Ferguson and Kwame Kilpatrick figured out the water department was the deepest pocket in the city,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow told jurors.

The department had a $1 billion budget for outside services, which Kilpatrick and his pal Ferguson targeted for themselves, the prosecutor said.

Kilpatrick had special powers to approve contracts without oversight or scrutiny, Chutkow said.

Kilpatrick held a $50 million contract to fix aging sewers until businessman Tony Soave dumped another businessman, the prosecutor said.

Soave was CEO of a company called Inland Waters, which is referred to in the indictment as “Company I.”

Chutkow referenced another company, Lakeshore Engineering Services, which initially rebuffed overtures from Ferguson to be cut in on a city deal. Lakeshore is referred to as “Company L” in the indictment.

After losing the job, the firm’s executives agreed to bring in Ferguson, Chutkow told jurors.

“They would not cross the king again, as they called Ferguson,” Chutkow said.

Kwame Kilpatrick and his co-defendants got rich by stealing public money away from Detroit residents, a federal prosecutor said Friday during opening statements in the high-profile corruption trial.

Kilpatrick was transformed from an average public servant to a high-rolling mayor living a luxury lifestyle bankrolled by taxpayer dollars, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow said.

He read from text messages seized by investigators and exchanged among Kilpatrick and his co-defendants.

“Let’s get us some money. No deal without me. It’s my time to get paid.”

Kilpatrick sat impassively while the prosecutor spoke.

“They made themselves rich by taking public money for themselves and away from the city Kwame Kilpatrick took an oath to serve,” Chutkow told jurors.

Kilpatrick pocketed more than $540,000 during his tenure as mayor “over and above his salary,” Chutkow said.

“Where did this money come from?” Chutkow asked jurors. “Not from his payroll check. Not from a rich relative. Or savvy investments.”

The cash came from contractor and friend Bobby Ferguson, Chutkow said.

“You will learn another man rose to power and fortune in lockstep with the new mayor,” the prosecutor told jurors. “Bobby Ferguson called himself the mayor’s soldier. He called him boss. He was Kwame Kilpatrick’s secret business partner. Kwame Kilpatrick made him rich.”

Court officials cobbled together a massive L-shaped defense table to accommodate 11 defense attorneys — including seven who are being paid by taxpayers. The table runs the length of U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds‘ blue-carpeted courtroom. There are so many defense lawyers that they are seated on both sides of the table.

Here’s the seating chart: Kilpatrick lawyer James C. Thomas, Kwame Kilpatrick, Bobby Ferguson defense lawyer Gerald Evelyn, Bobby Ferguson, Ferguson lawyer Michael Rataj, Ferguson lawyer Susan Van Dusen, Bernard Kilpatrick lawyer John Shea, Bernard Kilpatrick, Victor Mercado’s lawyer Martin Crandall, Victor Mercado and his other attorney, John Minock. Attorneys on the other side of the table include Kwame Kilpatrick’s attorneys Harold Gurewitz and Michael Naughton.

We’re still minutes away from opening statements.

We’re minutes away from opening statements. Kilpatrick is seated at the defense table, wearing a bow tie and glasses. U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds just took the bench and is discussing housekeeping issues with the 14 federal prosecutors and defense lawyers seated in her 8th floor courtroom. The 18-member jury just entered the courtroom.

Lawyers for the government and each of the four defendants are expected to deliver opening statements, which should wrap up today.

Just received a dispatch from my colleague Christine Ferretti, who is stationed outside federal court:

At 8:28 a.m., Kwame Kilpatrick, dressed in a navy blue suit, walked down Fort Street with his defense team. He smiled, nodded said “good morning” to reporters and camera crews as he approached the courthouse. Officers nearby told the media “that’s enough” and ordered the throng to back off.

The 8th floor courtroom is starting to fill up. Just spotted one of the lead prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bullotta, entering the courtroom with a special agent from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We’re about 15 minutes away from opening statements…

We’re less than an hour away from opening statements in the Kwame Kilpatrick corruption trial and, so far, no sign of the defendants. Court watchers are wondering if Kilpatrick’s wife and relatives — including y’all’s mom — will make their first appearance in U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds’ courtroom.

Court officials tell The News that there are no seats in the courtroom reserved for Kilpatrick’s family — except for his dad and co-defendant Bernard Kilpatrick, who’s got his own seat at the defense table.

Media-interest wise, Kilpatrick is no “Underwear Bomber,” given the scarcity of satellite TV trucks along Lafayette and Fort Street.

During Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s trial late last year, the parking lots surrounding federal court in downtown Detroit were filled with TV trucks and correspondents from London and beyond.

Robert Snell
Robert Snell is the Detroit News federal courts reporter. He can be reached at rsnell@detnews.com or (313) 222-2028.