Smell the sludge

Jul 16, 2008 at 12:00 am

I've got to say, Detroit loves a good scandal. It seems like you're nobody in this town unless you're being questioned, a person of interest or indicted under the umbrella of some scandal or the other. You at least need to have been at a party where somebody who was being questioned had stopped by for a minute — or your cousin was there and told you all about it.

OK, it's really not that funny but, as we pile problem on top of problem, it's beginning to seem real. The latest tawdry tale comes from news that federal investigators are looking into events leading up to Detroit City Council's 5-4 vote for a $47 million-per-year sludge-hauling and -burning contract with the Houston-based Synagro firm last November.

Doesn't Synagro sounds like it should be the name of a Brazilian samba school at Carnival, with its dancers rhythmically undulating along with the waves of percolating drums as they toss small trinkets to the assembled crowds in the streets of Rio de Janeiro? Instead, it seems the Synagro we got featured vice president James Rosendall dancing his way through downtown Detroit tossing small amounts of cash to anyone wishing to take it — possibly some members of council, their aides, city departmental staff and others outside of government. Apparently Rosendall cooperated with the FBI, which made surveillance videos of many of these meetings.

And we're talking embarrassingly small amounts of cash, $2,000 here, and $1,000 there. Come on, Synagro won a $47 million contract. That should have called for some serious grease on the skids, but we do it differently in Detroit. This is as bad as the late councilwoman Kay Everett and the 17 pounds of sausage she is said to have demanded as part of a bribe; you can send us up the river for a handful of beads and a bag of potato chips.

I'm not saying that any of our elected officials actually took money in exchange for contract approval. That's what federal investigators seem hot to prove. But according to news reports, the feds are taking a pretty close look at four council members, including President Pro Tem Monica Conyers, Barbara-Rose Collins and Martha Reeves. Not to mention a former consultant to the mayor, Michael Tardif; the mayor's father, Bernard Kilpatrick; and some council aides — one of whom, former Kenneth Cockrel Jr. chief of staff John Clark, has already resigned.

That odor from this sludge deal has spread well beyond City Council. Others who have come under questioning or suspicion include former Synagro consultant and Detroit developer Rayford Jackson, and Detroit NAACP President and Jackson associate the Rev. Wendell Anthony, who lobbied for the Synagro deal. Former FOX2News anchor and apparent luxury car enthusiast Fanchon Stinger's association with Fox ended last week because of apparent conflict-of-interest issues involved from when her public relations company did work for Synagro.

While we're mentioning the "formers" involved here — and there may well be several more formers before this is all over — former Conyers chief of staff Sam Riddle was asked by the feds to wear a wire during conversations with Conyers. Riddle refused. The longtime area political consultant and go-to guy for media comments surmised correctly that he'd be finished in this town if he wore a wire. What politician would consult with a known snitch?

All of those names would be plenty for any scandal-plagued city, but we've got plenty more to be embarrassed about. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his former chief of staff Christine Beatty face numerous criminal charges stemming from the so-called text-message scandal. Several city lawyers face possible censure for their roles in that affair. The Detroit Police Department has been subject to federal oversight since 2003 as part of a consent decree aimed at reforming police use of force and treatment of prisoners. You can add to that list the woefully lame and fiscally irresponsible public schools system.

All these folks are our celebrities, a tight-knit and incestuous group. They see each other at work, belong to some of the same organizations, attend the same banquets and parties. Stinger and Jackson have been seen out together several times. Jackson is on the board of directors of the nonprofit Freedom Institute for Economic, Social Justice and Political Empowerment that Anthony founded. Although Kwame Kilpatrick isn't implicated in this, the feds have asked questions about his father and a former adviser. When a stink gets on one of them it gets rubbed onto the others mighty fast.

They make it easy to cast a jaded eye downtown and wonder if you should ever trust any of them. Even Kenneth Cockrel Jr., a man generally painted as honest, dedicated and hard-working, lost a bit of his sheen when his chief of staff was caught on video allegedly taking a punk-ass $2,000 bribe from Rosendall at the Atheneum Hotel. I don't know which would be worse: the City Council president on the take or his chief of staff freelancing and selling his own influence in the affair?

There may be a vein of corruption in every city government, but other places seem to function. The only glue holding things together around here seems to be lawyers. As a matter of fact, we should create an entire neighborhood to house the lawyers who seem to be flocking to the downtown area. Put it near the water treatment plant. And while they're at it, see if they can do something about the stink.

Councilwoman Monica Conyers, who knows how to keep her name in the news, seems to be a central character in the FBI probe of the Synagro deal. Last year she argued against the contract before — dare I say it — flip-flopping and supporting it.

It seems ironic that a corruption probe would encircle Conyers when just a couple of months ago she sat cozily with Mayor Kilpatrick on the set of his cable talk show and cited past council corruption to argue against the idea of electing City Council members by district. Hmmm ...

I called Conyers' office last week to ask her when this corruption took place and, for that matter, what kind of corruption was going on. She wasn't available. In fact, I don't think she's said a word, or been seen in public, since news of the investigation broke. Her staff members have told reporters that she is ill.

Just for the record though, I'd like to point out that it's been about 100 years since council was elected by district. And seeing that most well-functioning big cites elect their council by district, it may be worth giving it another try. If we had representatives for districts rather than an at-large system, we might very well have consistently elected African-Americans to the council before the mid-1960s.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson needs to learn from experience. Last week he caused a media storm when he claimed that Barack Obama talks down to black people (whatever that means) and that he would like to cut Obama's "nuts out." Jackson said this on Fox News when he didn't realize that the microphone he sat near was on. Gee whiz, Jesse, I'd think you knew better than to be talking all out of your head in insecure situations. Jackson's 1988 presidential bid was derailed when he called New York "Hymietown" around a group of people he thought wouldn't report the reference. Now it's happened again. Just button it up, man.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]