Ex-Hip hop mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t on trial. He wasn’t in the gallery.
But his presence Tuesday was undeniable. His good buddy, contractor Bobby Ferguson, went on trial in downtown Detroit in a $12-million bid-rigging case involving a low-income housing project and allegations about money laundering and hidden safes flush with cash.
If it weren’t for Kwame, why else would the U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade have bothered to sit in on the opening statements? Why else would it generate intense press interest? Allegations against an ordinary businessman; who would pay that much attention?
Ferguson is no Bernie Madoff. He’s no Jeff Skilling, the CEO of Enron.
But he is FOK (Friend of Kwame), and in this town that’s big. Plus, it reminds us of the very shady, ugly dealings of the Kilpatrick administration and the lengthy FBI probe into city hall corruption.
His attorney, Gerald Evelyn, in opening statements, tried to portray Ferguson as an honest businessman, who paid all his taxes, tried to help set up others in business, only to have the feds smear him because of his ties to Kilpatrick.
Obviously, the prosecution disagreed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Judge delivered the opening statements for the government, accusing Ferguson of creating sham companies -- including one called Xcel Construction -- to rig the bidding process to make it look as if one of his companies was the lowest bidder for the work on the low-income housing project, Garden View Estates, that was being built on the old Herman Gardens public housing site on Detroit’s west side.
Judge said it came down to “fraud, deception and money.” He didn’t mention Kwame per se, but he accused Ferguson of scamming tax payers and pressuring the Kilpatrick administration to pay inflated invoices at the tail end of the administration.
Judge also also accused Ferguson of money laundering, and he flashed some eye-candy for the jurors. He showed photos on court monitors of Ferguson’s safes filled with lots and lots of cash.
One photo showed a hidden safe in Ferguson’s office in the Guardian building, flush with bundles of cash -- $261,000, according to the prosecutor. At a Southfield townhouse Ferguson used, the feds found $275,000 in cash and another $500,000 in cashiers checks in a lockbox behind the dryer. That's a whole lot of cash.
And then there was the guns. Ferguson is not supposed to have one. The law forbids a convicted felon of possessing one. He had been convicted of pistol whipping an employee (whatever happened to a verbal reprimand?)
So when the feds raided his office on Wyoming in Detroit, they found a semi-automatic gun in the safe and another in the desk drawer. The prosecutor claimed Ferguson tried to get someone to say it was their gun, not his.
Later on Tuesday, the Kwame-ties clearly emerged. The Detroit Free Press reported that a Housing and Urban Development official testified that Kilpatrick helped pave the way for Ferguson and his associates to land the contract for the project.
Ferguson is also accused of illegally dumping construction debris at the Herman Gardens housing site in the trial that's expected to last about six weeks.
On Tuesday, during opening statements, Ferugson’s attorney Evelyn, in a forceful voice, tried to paint his client as a very able contractor who joined the family business, Ferguson Enterprises, at age 17. He said Ferguson had worked on such projects a Comerica and Ford Field, and that one time, he employed 150 people, most of them Detroiters.
He insisted the businesses that bidded on the construction project in question were real.
“There was no scheme to defraud,” he insisted, adding that the “bids were completely legitimate.”
"They're hoping that you'll buy into sensationalism," Evelyn said . "Bobby Ferguson helped himself, helped others, and helped people like himself get started. Mr. Ferguson never hid a dime, never covered anything up, and paid his income taxes on every dime that he ever earned."
And he added: "There was no dirty money to be laundered in this situation."
Along with Ferguson, two other co-defendants are on trial: Michael Woodhouse of West Bloomfield Township, president of Xcel Construction, and Calvin Hall of Detroit, vice president of Xcel Construction.
Whatever happens, the feds will get another shot at Ferguson. He’s a defendant in another public corruption case with Kwame.
And at that time, Kwame’s presence will be really undeniable. He will be sitting right there.