The Work

September 5, 2008 6:35 PM

Disgraced Detroit Mayor's Legal Team On How The Endgame Unfolded

Posted by Zach Lowe

Dan Webb spoke by phone to Kwame Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick's wife Carlita several times Wednesday night and into early Thursday morning as Detroit's self-styled "hip-hop mayor" contemplated a plea deal that would ultimately cost him his job and his law license, force him to repay the city $1 million--and send him to jail for four months.

It would turn out to be Kilpatrick's last night in office.

Scandal had dogged the mayor since his decision last year to have the city pay $8.4 million in public funds to settle a whistleblower suit aimed at exposing his extramarital affair with a top aide. Now, on the brink of political ruin, Kilpatrick was torn over whether to capitulate to prosecutors or fight on.

"I agonize for him and his family," says Webb, a Winston & Strawn partner and one of the nation's pre-eminent trial lawyers whose previous clients have included Microsoft, Philip Morris and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan. "But only he could make that decision."

Kilpatrick's last call to Webb came later Thursday morning. He had decided to plead guilty to perjury and obstruction of justice and wanted Webb to fly to Detroit from Chicago to be on hand for the plea.

Until that last round of calls, Webb says he and Kilpatrick were determined to strike a deal that would spare the mayor jail time. But it became clear as talks continued that that wasn't possible. It also became clear that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm was bent on forcing Kilpatrick from office. She had started hearings to remove him this week over Webb's objections that the mayor deserved a chance to prove his innocence in court before losing his job.

In the end, it wasn't Webb who finalized Kilpatrick's plea deal, according to both him and Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Maria Miller, spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

That distinction went to three Michigan attorneys--Juan Mateo, Gerald Evelyn and Todd Flood--whom Kilpatrick had brought into the case just weeks ago.

"Negotiations began in earnest only when they came into the case," Miller says. "It is our perception (Webb) was not the lead negotiator."

Webb disagrees, saying the major terms of the plea deal had all been discussed before Mateo, Evelyn and Flood came on board. But he does credit the trio for "getting the best deal that could be obtained."

Webb says he met with Flood, Evelyn and Mateo over breakfast late last month to fill them in on the negotiations to that point. Before that, Webb and James Thomas, another Detroit attorney, had held extensive meetings with Worthy's office. (Thomas did not respond to messages seeking comment.)

The presence of so many lawyers on Kilpatrick's defense team earned them harsh criticism from Detroit's most famous attorney, Geoffrey Feiger (who in June was himself cleared of criminal charges stemming from allegedly illegal campaign contributions).

Fieger told the Detroit Free Press that Kilpatrick has "gotten terrible representation," and that "you can't run a criminal defense by committee." Had the team advised Kilpatrick to plead guilty earlier, Fieger claimed, the mayor could have avoided jail time altogether.

Webb and Flood both disputed that.

"The mayor was in control," Webb says. "And those lawyers -- forget about me -- those lawyers did a great job."

Flood adds: "Dan Webb is a phenomenal attorney. I enjoyed working with him." He declined further comment on the case.

Webb joined the case shortly before Kilpatrick was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in March. The mayor had traveled to New York to hold what Webb calls a "beauty contest" between high-level attorneys seeking the job. The two met at Webb's New York office and hit it off, with Kilpatrick deciding Webb would be his lead lawyer should the case go to trial. Thomas and other Detroit attorneys were to handle most of the day-to-day legal affairs.

"I liked him a lot," Webb says of his reaction upon meeting Kilpatrick. "He was charismatic and pragmatic. He knew it was going to be rough ride. He knew there was a groundswell building against him."

Webb says it was that groundswell that made this case different from similar ones he has taken on, including his representation of Ryan on corruption charges.

In Ryan's case, Webb says, press attention died down after the initial indictment and didn't blow up again until the trial began, Webb says. Not so with Kilpatrick.

Indeed, the press played a critical role in the case, with the Free Press publishing steamy text message exchanges between Kilpatrick and his former chief of staff Christine Beatty. The relationship between the two was at the heart of the scandal.

"There was more sustained press coverage than in any case I've ever had," Webb says. "Right or wrong, he was vilified every day, and some it was unjustified, in my view."

Kilpatrick certainly felt the press was against him. He once compared the media to a "lynching mob." Webb would not comment on whether he instructed Kilpatrick to keep such thoughts to himself.

"I'm not going to get into our private discussions," he says.

Even with the guilty plea on the books, Webb claims he had a winnable case had Kilpatrick gone to trial. He claims the questions attorneys asked Kilpatrick during the whistleblower suit were "vague" and "ambiguous" when it came to Kilpatrick's extramarital affair.

The Free-Press has an comprehensive summary of the entire case here.

Ultimately, Webb says, Kilpatrick and his family chose the certainty of a short sentence over the lengthy one that could have come from a conviction at trial.

"This," he says, "will allow his family to put the case behind them."

While that may be true, the plea does not necessarily close the book on all of Kilpatrick's legal problems. The Detroit News reported that federal investigators are probing of alleged Detroit City Hall corruption in which his father and "certain close associates" are under scrutiny.   


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