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Bringing Sunshine to City Hall

As printed in Liberty Magazine, December 2008 Edition

Vince Vasquez, Senior Policy Analyst

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

After wreaking havoc on residents, and leading a scandal-plagued administration for more than than five years, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick resigned from office in September. The charismatic 38-year-old son of a Congresswoman, who led a life more akin to a Hollywood celebrity than a Midwestern city official, had attempted to cover-up an affair with his chief of staff by firing the deputy chief of police investigating into alleged illicit activity at the Mayor's Office. But what had began as a shielding from a private marital infidelity (both were married to other people at the time) exploded into an abuse of taxpayers and the public trust.

Kilpatrick spent more than $8.3 million in taxpayer funds to cover up the personally-motivated firing in a whistle-blower lawsuit by the deputy police chief and another police officer, while alleging under oath there was no affair taking place. This settlement would have been kept secret had a local newspaper not submitted a public records act request to discover the legal financial agreement. Once evidence of the affair and the settlement became public knowledge, Kilpatrick was charged with perjuring himself, following a long list of notorious behavior in office, including spending more than $210,000 in government credit card on personal luxury goods and services, and using taxpayer funds to lease a Lincoln Navigator SUV for his family while in office.

Now, after having faced ten felony counts, Kilpatrick pled guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, and no contest to assaulting a police officer which had attempted to serve a subpoena on the mayor's friend. Kilpatrick now faces up to four years in prison, five years on probation, and paying restitution in the amount of $1 million.

Though Detroit's City Hall soap opera may be over for now, Kilpatrick's raucous time in office brings perspective to the importance of watchdog laws in local government. Michigan's state constitution decrees that all government financial records are public, which opened up the details of the whistle-blower settlement to the public. Certainly, Kilpatrick is not the only elected leader in Detroit to be embroiled in controversy, nor is he the only mayor in America to have crossed the law in office. A quick search finds that in just the last five years, seven mayors of the fifteen largest cities in the United States have been implicated in financial or ethical scandals.But stronger open government laws can protect citizens from self-indulgent politicians who would thrash taxpayers to secure their own personal future. Making all financial transactions and inter-governmental communications public would be a start in the right direction. Unless cities seek to invite Kwame antics into their council chambers, they should demand greater citizen oversight of those they empower to protect the public interest.