Ending a seven-month political soap opera that consumed the city, Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick pleaded guilty Thursday to two felonies related to his affair with a top aide and resigned from office.
In an agreement with prosecutors, Kilpatrick, 38, pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice and will serve four months in jail. He also agreed to pay the city $1 million in restitution. He cannot hold public office during his five-year probation period, his law license will be revoked and he will give up his state pension.
When Kilpatrick will officially step down was unclear. His resignation letter, one sentence on his office stationery, said it was effective Sept. 18. But observers said the city charter required that any elected official convicted of a felony be removed from office immediately.
Kenneth Cockrel Jr., the City Council president and an 11-year veteran of the body, will become interim mayor. City officials were still weighing whether Cockrel -- the son of the late activist and councilman Ken Cockrel Sr. -- will fill the role until the next general city election in November 2009, or if a special election will be held.
“It is a very sad day for the city of Detroit, but I think we also have to recognize it’s also a day of hope and renewal,” Cockrel told reporters. “While our thoughts and prayers are with Mayor Kilpatrick and his family, we have to be ready to move forward with the business of the city.”
Kilpatrick’s downfall began last year, when he and former top aide Christine Beatty testified in a whistle-blower trial that they did not have a romantic relationship.
The Detroit Free Press later published excerpts from more than 14,000 text messages -- some racy, others romantic -- sent to and from Beatty’s city-provided pager. Kilpatrick sent one to Beatty in 2002 that read, “I’m madly in love with you.”
Both were married at the time. Beatty, who has since divorced, is charged with seven felonies.
Kilpatrick also submitted a no-contest plea Thursday in an assault case in a separate hearing. Those charges -- assaulting or obstructing an officer -- stem from an alleged incident July 24 in which an investigator tried to serve a subpoena to a friend of Kilpatrick’s who was to have testified in the perjury and obstruction of justice case.
On Thursday morning in court, Wayne County Circuit Judge David Groner asked if Kilpatrick understood that he was giving up the right to be tried as an innocent man.
“I gave that up a long time ago,” Kilpatrick replied.
Kilpatrick told reporters later that resigning was “the most difficult decision of my life,” and that “I take full responsibility for my actions, for the poor judgment they reflected.”
But he remained defiant: “Detroit, you done set me up for a comeback.”
The son of Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kilpatrick was the youngest mayor ever elected in Detroit. He won points early in his term for reorganizing the city’s Police Department and pushing for urban renewal in downtown Detroit.
But such gains were often overshadowed during Kilpatrick’s two terms by high-profile scandals and clashes with Detroit’s political insiders.
The news of his resignation dismayed some residents and relieved others. Union leaders, lawmakers from both parties and Michigan Atty. Gen. Mike Cox had called for Kilpatrick’s resignation for months. Others remained loyal to him over his steadfast cheerleading for the city. But other controversies loomed. A federal investigation continues into allegations of City Hall corruption and has focused on Kilpatrick’s father and members of the City Council. Minutes after Kilpatrick pleaded guilty, Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings -- who has been criticized for her role in firing the officers who later filed the whistle-blower case against the city -- suddenly announced her retirement.
“The key now for the city is reestablishing trust,” said Larry Dubin, a law professor who specializes in legal ethics at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
“Whoever fills the mayor’s seat needs to be able to reestablish trust between the city and the business community, the public, and even between all the members of the City Council -- where there’s a lot of bad blood in terms of their loyalty, or lack of it, to Mayor Kilpatrick,” he said.
Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, whom members of Detroit’s City Council had petitioned to remove Kilpatrick from office, was scheduled to start the second day of hearings into their request Thursday.
Now, Granholm said, the hearings were moot.
“It is very important for us as a state and as a city to turn this page together,” Granholm said in a statement. “There is much work to do.”
Kilpatrick’s sentencing hearing was set for Oct. 28.