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Stir It Up

How corrupt is Detroit?

City has image as one of the most crooked. Numbers tell different story.

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Last week the federal government announced that it would stop sending a $50 million annual grant to the Detroit Human Services Department due to nepotism, reckless spending and corruption. In another case, the U.S. Justice Department records allege that contractor and Kwame Kilpatrick pal Bobby Ferguson obtained $58.5 million through extortion and other illegal means as part of the alleged "Kilpatrick Enterprise." Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has recently formed a special multi-agency task force in its Detroit office, declaring a war on public corruption.

"The city of Detroit has been hit hard by public corruption crimes. The individuals who commit these crimes are driven by greed and have no regret for their selfish actions," said IRS-CID Special Agent in Charge Erick Martinez during a March 1 press conference announcing formation of the task force.

That sounds appropriate. When you look at the investigation into dealings at Wayne County under Executive Robert Ficano, the Mayor Kilpatrick et al. indictments, former City Council member Monica Conyers cooling it in the cooler for taking bribes, it would seem this is about as corrupt an area as you can get. Google "Detroit" and "corruption" and you'll find such choice phrases as "notoriously shady U.S. city," "reign of corruption" and (from Wikipedia) a "reputation as one of the most corrupt cities in America."

But is it?

"I don't think this area is extraordinary in comparison to other parts of the country," says Peter Henning, professor of law at Wayne State University and co-author of the tome The Prosecution and Defense of Public Corruption. "There is public corruption in all parts of the country. I don't think we're special in that regard, or that it is more rampant here."

Henning's observation is borne out by a recent study on government corruption from researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago. The study, titled "Chicago and Illinois, Leading the Pack in Corruption," listed the 15 most corrupt federal judicial districts during the period from 1976 to 2010, and, surprise, Detroit is nowhere to be found on the list. As the paper's title — and the taint of the phrase "Chicago-style politics" — imply, Chicago takes the cake when it comes to federal convictions of public officials. 

The Illinois-Northern (Chicago) district leads the pack with 1,531 convictions over the 35-year period. Just in case you think our recent history would move us up the list, consider that Chicago had 46 convictions in 2010 alone and 364 for the period from 2001 to 2010. The Michigan-Eastern (Detroit) District totaled 131 convictions over the same period of time. Illinois had four governors convicted since 1973 — remember Rod Blagojevich who tried to sell Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat? Now there is plenty of corruption around here that doesn't show up on the list. For instance, Kilpatrick's conviction and jail time were at the state level and were the result of perjury; his trial on the federal charges hasn't yet begun. We probably won't see the final decision on that until sometime in 2014, Henning estimates. Former City Councilmember Kay Everett (who was allegedly bribed with 17 pounds of sausage among other things) passed away from kidney disease shortly after the feds indicted her on 28 counts punishable by up to 347 years in prison. If nothing else Everett's was a timely exit.

And John Clark, former aide to Councilman Ken Cockrel charged with accepting $3,000 in bribes, doesn't show up because his conviction was in 2011. But in a way Clark is more like the face of public corruption in the United States than Kilpatrick. That's because the vast majority of corruption convictions are against low-level public servants. Take Chicago, for example. They've had their corrupt governors, but you don't rack up 364 convictions in a decade just by taking governors down. Chicago has 50 aldermen (city council members) and there have been nearly 150 of them since 1976.

"More than 30 of them have been convicted of federal corruption charges," says Dick Simpson, lead writer on the University of Illinois-Chicago study. "This varies by year; some years are big on convictions; that's why you look at them over time. Most cities that are corrupt have a history of machine politics; that generally breeds the most corruption — trading votes for favors, jobs for precinct work and campaign contributions for later considerations. Politics based on patronage, where that tradition exists, there is almost always corruption. You're not yet on a scale like Chicago, where there is three or four times as much corruption according to federal convictions."

Partly, it's a matter of scale. In the 2010 census Detroit's 717,777 population is less than one-third that of Chicago's 2,695,598. And Detroit is a distant 18th place behind New York City's 8.1 million population. But a number of cities smaller than Detroit made the top 15, including the judicial districts that contain Newark, Cleveland, the District of Columbia and New Orleans.

Of course, we do have our history of corruption. The recently released documentary film DEFORCE focuses on corruption as a key problem in the city's downfall. Among the exhibits: Chief of Police William Hart, convicted in 1992 of embezzling $2.6 million in undercover funds, and Charles Beckham, former city water and sewerage director, who was convicted in 1984 of taking a bribe for a sludge-handling contract. Beckham is widely considered to have taken the fall for Mayor Coleman Young (investigated five times by the feds, yet was never indicted). Former mayors Richard Reading, 1938-39, was convicted for taking bribes, and Louis Miriani, 1957-61, for failing to report $261,000 in income.

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