Commentary: Early Warnings About Kwame Kilpatrick

Dec 20, 2010

We are living in interesting times. Yesterday, the Detroit Lions won their second game in a row, and their first game on the road since what seems like soon after the Civil War.

This is being treated in some quarters as a miracle. However, I think it is directly attributable to actor Jeff Daniels. Last Friday, on the special call-in show Michigan Radio held to collect ideas about how to make our state a better place, the actor suggested we root for the Lions, which made me think he was perhaps auditioning for the role of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Well, we better celebrate while we can. Tomorrow, we get the official U.S. census figures. They are not likely to mean good news for Michigan. We may lose another congressman, maybe even two.

But maybe that will take our minds off the continuing sordid adventures of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

As all the world knows by now, he and a number of associates was hit with massive, multi-count federal indictments last week, most of them related to alleged corruption while he was mayor.

There is, however, something buried in the indictments that indicates we might not have had to go through most of this, if someone had been paying attention.

Flash back ten years, when Kilpatrick was a rising legislative star, only thirty but already minority floor leader. He managed to get the state to appropriate eight hundred thousand dollars for two non-profits he said would help children and senior citizens.

According to the indictment, most of this money disappeared into the pockets of Kilpatrick, his wife Carlita, and their friend Bobby Ferguson, best known for later pistol-whipping an employee.

Little or none got to the children or the seniors. However, the good news is that the state didn't lose all that money, only half. That's because they only gave him half of it to start.

To get the rest of the money, Kilpatrick was required to file periodic reports with Lansing as to how the money was spent.

Not surprisingly, he never did. Don Gilmer, who became state budget director the next year, told the Gongwer News Service last week that he had been suspicious. Soon after he became budget director, staffers told him they were getting no reports whatsoever into how the money was being used. Gilmer says he went directly to Kilpatrick.

He told him he needed a report on how the money was being spent. The state never got one, so Gilmer sensibly never released the second half of the grants. He said last week this staff thought much of the money was improperly going to Carlita Kilpatrick.

But here is what nobody's asking: Why, then, didn't someone order an investigation? Why didn't Gilmer ask the Speaker of the House, or the attorney general's office to look into this?

At least he might have tipped off a reporter. But no, everyone just dropped the ball, or figured it was somebody else's responsibility.

But if someone had investigated then, we might have been spared the later scandal, the spectacle, and saved millions of dollars and a chunk of Detroit's reputation. There's a moral to this story:

Little problems have a way of becoming huge if not dealt with early on. Maybe someday, we'll figure that out.