Cost of corruption 

Tackling the taboo topic: Graft must end in Detroit

Detroit has a lot of problems, the biggest of which is that the city doesn't have nearly enough jobs or money. There's a lot else wrong too. But the city has one huge problem it badly needs to address, the very mention of which is widely regarded as taboo, especially from a white, middle-aged suburban dweller like me. But it needs to be said anyway.

Detroit is riddled with a culture of corruption.

I'm not talking about Mayor Dave Bing, who seems to be as honest as they come. And I am not talking about the mythical welfare queens, or some junkie who grabs a purse.

I am talking instead about so-called public servants; people with good elected or public service jobs who think this gives them some kind of entitlement to steal. Last week, for example, Mayor Bing fired Yvonne Anthony, director of the Department of Health and Wellness Promotion. Once allegations surfaced of misspending at the department, she began muttering about quitting, and the mayor prudently fired her and had her escorted from the building. Yes, nobody has charged her with anything. And it could be that she was only thinking about resigning to take care of her maiden aunt.

But I doubt it. Less than a week before that, the mayor suspended Shenetta Coleman, a Kwame Kilpatrick appointee who served as director of the Human Services Department. This came after the Detroit Free Press (hey, even the devil deserves praise for good works) revealed that the department spent more than $200,000 on fancy furniture last year, money that should have been spent helping a few of Detroit's thousands of desperately poor people.

Mayor Bing was so outraged he said he plans to recommend that Coleman and a number of her staffers get fired after the city finishes its investigation into what is assumed to be vast mismanagement of federal grant money.

Let's assume for a moment that the legal system works as it should, separates the guilty from the innocent and provides proper punishment for the bad guys. Regardless of that, the real question is: What were they thinking?

Why do so many Detroit officials, including the Monica Conyerses, Alonzo Bateses and, yes, Kwame Kilpatricks think selfish and corrupt behavior is OK?

Now I know that somebody is reading this and thinking, "Here's more thinly veiled racism from another phony white liberal in the suburbs." Some may say that even though some of these people were crooks, white folks outside Detroit have no right and no business criticizing them.

To all of which I say, bullshit. There have been many other cities and states that have had a culture of corruption, most notably perhaps Illinois, which has had three governors go to jail since the 1970s, plus Rod Blagojevich, who may wind up there yet. They also had a secretary of state named Paul Powell, who dropped dead in 1970, and whose house was found packed with vast sums of cash from a scam so effective that to this day, nobody is sure quite how he did it.

Every one of those criminals was white.

Yet in Detroit they are black, just like the vast majority of people. What's worse is that corrupt public officials in Detroit are primarily stealing from poor black people who can desperately not afford to lose the little they have.

Some sociologists have attributed this behavior to overcompensating for a legacy of slavery and repression. Well, even if true, nobody should accept that as an excuse. Unless, that is, you admire overcompensators like Lonnie Bates.

While on the school board, Lonnie was caught taking lavish trips at taxpayer expense to conferences in other countries, and then going to the beach. When asked how he could justify this, he said he thought it was inspiring for poor kids to see that one of their own could be a big man. Later, after being elected to City Council, he was convicted of putting nonexistent "ghost" employees on the city payroll, and was trundled off to prison.

All this might have been appallingly amusing if Detroit were flush with cash, but it is broke, and full of hungry children. Kilpatrick directly robbed the poor of the city of millions, thanks to his illegal attempt to cover up his tawdry sex life. How much more he cost Detroit indirectly because of his antics is impossible to measure. Yet there are those who admire that creature, now in a cell waiting for the feds to spend more taxpayers' money on further prosecution.

Detroit needs an attitude adjustment. Stealing from poor people is not heroic or classy. Taking money meant to feed people and buying fancy furniture for your office isn't striking back at the man. It is low-class, scumbag behavior.

Parasites like these may manage to do what generations of white racists failed to do: cost poor black Detroiters their rights. Every Kwame, every Lonnie, every Shenetta Coleman and Yvonne Anthony makes giving all power to an Emergency Financial Manager that much more certain and easy to do.

Don't like the thought of having an emergency manager for schools? Well, don't elect a school board president who can't really read or write, but who can and does masturbate in front of the superintendent. Demand accountability.

Kwame Kilpatrick had amply demonstrated he was unfit to be mayor by 2005. Yet Detroiters re-elected him over the decent, hard-working and grown-up Freman Hendrix.

Those who love this city need to develop a culture of swiftly condemning any stealing from the public purse, or any behavior guaranteed to put the city in a bad light.

Being responsible and grown-up is occasionally a good thing. Sadly, Detroit has had a run of public officials in recent years who behave as if the public exists mainly to provide them with sex, loot and a playground for both.

Detroiters can reject these clowns, angrily and utterly. Or they can look forward to being governed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

There's still a chance to make a choice.

Meanwhile, back at the bridge:
Last week, I had a long conversation with Roy Norton, a high-ranking Canadian diplomat who recently became consul general in Detroit. He is primarily responsible for trade and immigration issues between Canada and Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. He made it clear in elegant and diplomatic language how essential a new bridge over the Detroit River is for our prosperity — and, also, how false are the claims made by Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun and his latest mouthpiece, toe-suckin' Dick Morris.

Worst-case scenario, what are the risks to Michigan if the new bridge is built? "Nothing. Not a penny," said Norton.

I had intended to tell you more about what he said, but instead I want to share a letter from a truck driver who crosses the bridge daily: "Mr. Moroun is notorious in the trucking world as a cheap, penny-pinching owner who only wants to build his empire and wealth while paying wages far below industry standards and for busting unions ... it is hard for me to believe his bridge is still standing. The lanes were built for ... trailers common in 1929, but (trucks) are nowadays much wider ... imagine trying to squeeze a modern rig through the curves on those bridge approach ramps — not easy ...


Amen to that. Now, let's hope that a majority of the Legislature isn't too stupid or too corrupt to do the right thing.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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