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The Mayor Who Won't Go Away

So, the saga of Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit's former mayor, won't end. On Tuesday, a judge here found Kilpatrick guilty of violating key terms of his probation agreement, including failing to disclose and surrender tax refunds, money from political groups and gifts from some of Michigan's wealthiest figures. Rather than immediately closing one of the most draining chapters in this city's history, the judge, David Groner, scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 25.

Kilpatrick, of course, was once a rising star in American politics. In 2002, he became Detroit's youngest mayor, at age 31. His flashy suits, diamond-studded earrings and inaugural “club crawls” proclaimed his comfort with being the country's first “hip-hop mayor.” He was a visionary, charismatic leader who built relationships with Michigan's business establishment, helping extend many of the economic development projects launched by his predecessor. He sliced nearly 10,000 people from Detroit's bloated job rolls, and cut property taxes to keep what's left of this city's middle class. But Kilpatrick clearly believed he was above the law. That unfortunate view led to excessive behavior that overshadowed his professional success.

The turning point came in September 2007. That's when a judge awarded millions to Detroit police officers who charged they were essentially dismissed for investigating concerns about Kilpatrick and his bodyguards' efforts to hide his extramarital affairs. Kilpatrick repeatedly denied the claims. Months later, the Detroit Free Press published text messages proving Kilpatrick had lied under oath about a sexual relationship with his chief of staff, Christine Beatty.

Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to perjury and obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to six months in prison. Under the terms of his probation, Kilpatrick agreed to resign from office, surrender his law license, as well as public pensions and tax refunds to pay Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, restitution of nearly $1 million. Despite being given a nearly $100,000-plus sales job at a Dallas subsidiary of Detroit-based Compuware, Kilpatrick has claimed that, after living expenses are accounted for, his net monthly income was only $6 and thus, he cannot afford to meet the payment terms of the probation agreement.

Tuesday's hearing at a downtown Detroit courtroom began just after 2p.m. Kilpatrick entered the courtroom wearing a relatively muted black suit, and barely spoke. Then Groner, the judge, laid out the essential facts of the case: Kilpatrick failed to surrender to authorities more than $23,000 in federal, state and local income tax refunds. The former mayor even tapped one of his political funds to cover the nearly $15,000 bill to move his family from its temporary residence in Florida to suburban Dallas. He also failed to disclose that another committee related to his mayoral campaigns spent $11,600 on legal fees and political donations. In addition, he didn't fully disclose nearly $240,000 in gifts from some of Michigan's top business executives, including Peter Karmanos Jr., the chief executive of Compuware.

Groner said he scheduled the sentencing hearing for May 25, “so I can make an accurate decision.” Besides, he added, “What's the point of locking him up now?” Kilpatrick couldn't work, and would be unable to make payments. It's unclear how long a possible sentence for Kilpatrick could last, experts say. “It's as highly publicized a restitution case that has ever graced Michigan's courts,” Larry Dubin, a law professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy, says of the current Kilpatrick case.

The Kilpatrick saga continues to cast a shadow over this region: It regularly dominates local newspapers' front pages, and leads the evening television news. And there may be another chapter: Federal authorities are reportedly investigating allegations that Kilpatrick's father tried to sell access to the mayor's office. “We're just waiting for the other foot to drop,” Dubin says. Then, there's a key lingering question: Why has Compuware – a publicly traded company with a market cap of nearly $2 billion – taken the risk of employing a figure with such an obvious disregard for the law?

Kilpatrick's failures led to the election of Dave Bing, a 66-year-old suburban import whose professorial demeanor may be the best hope for restoring investors' confidence in Detroit. But the ultimate tragedy may be that an entire generation of potential leaders here will be forced to pay for Kilpatrick's sins.

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