By Joel Thurtell
In previous posts (see my blog category JC & Me), I wrote about how the Detroit Free Press clamped down on my reporting on ways U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit abused his congressional staffers by making them work on his and other political campaigns on federally-paid time, in apparent violation of ethical and legal restrictions on office-based politicking.
When I proposed to an editor a couple years ago that the paper re-open the Free Press Conyers investigation, his response was that “everyone does it,” meaning every U.S. rep and Senator does what Conyers reportedly did — make congressional staffers do campaign work, including travel to distant cities sometimes for protracted stays — while being paid supposedly for doing work to help constituents.
“Everybody does it,” I guess means in even broader terms, everybody is violating ethical guidelines and committing fraud, therefore the Free Press won’t write about it.
Somehow, that ethical pronouncement didn’t apply to Detroit’s soon-to-be ex-mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick.
Maybe if Kwame was a congressman with federal clout he could have bucked the perjury case, maybe even bulldozed the newspaper into suppressing the story and re-assigning the reporters to a suburban, aka “Siberia,” beat.
No such luck for Kwame.
“Everybody does it” is an apt term for describing the state of suppressed governmental lawsuit settlements throughout Metro Detroit.
If the Free Press had wanted to do some REAL Pulitzer-grade work, they could have conducted an exhaustive analysis of ALL suppressed settlements in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.
Believe me, there have been lots of them over the years. Why, I actually have Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s John Hancock on a letter she sent me, back when she was Wayne County corporation counsel for then County Exec Ed McNamara, granting my request to look at the county’s suppressed settlements back in the early 1990s. My Free Press editors weren’t interested in that story.
A few years later, by chance, I got a tip that Oakland County and Waterford Township had a federal judge suppress their settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit for somewhere in the neighborhood of a million smackers. I found the terms of the settlement in the open court file and wrote a story about it. I got calls from outraged lawyers saying I had not right to publish that information because it had been sealed.
Baloney, I said. Under the state Constitution, all financial information must be open to public scrutiny during normal business hours and, amazingly, under the state Penal Code, a public official who refuses to turn over public records can be charged with a misdemeanor.
That Oakland case, settling a lawsuit by heirs of a man who died of an overdose of pepper spray by police officers, made me curious. I’d head about similar suits in Wayne County — costly burdens on taxpayers that might incite citizen outrage if published.
So I proposed to my editor that I research all suppressed settlement cases in Metro Detroit. I wrote letters to every governmental entity in the Tri-County area. On my way to vacation, i asked my editor to have a copy aide stuff the envelopes. A week later, on my return, I found the stack of letters. No envelopes. The editor, it turned out, had lost interest in the story.
That happened six or eight years ago.
Betcha Kwame Kilpatrick wishes he was a congressman.
Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com