By Steve Neavling
DETROIT (Reuters) - A U.S. judge sentenced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to 28 years in prison for corruption on Thursday, one of the longest such sentences ever handed to a major U.S. politician, in a case that further battered the reputation of a beleaguered and insolvent city.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds granted the 28-year term sought by prosecutors, who claimed Kilpatrick's racketeering, bribery and extortion worsened the city's financial crisis as part of a conspiracy that spent millions of taxpayer dollars.
The sentence was intended to send a message that corruption would not be tolerated and "that way of business is over," Edmunds said.
"He chose to waste his talents on personal aggrandizement and enrichment," the judge added.
Kilpatrick, 43, was a rising star in the Democratic Party after his election as mayor in 2001, and he held the office of mayor from 2002 to 2008 before his spectacular fall from grace.
Kilpatrick extorted bribes from contractors who wanted to get or keep Detroit city contracts, according to prosecutors, who accused him of steering $127 million in contracts to his friend and business partner, Bobby Ferguson, at least $73 million of which came from extortion and bid-rigging.
Kilpatrick, in custody since his conviction in March, rested his chin on his palm and closed his eyes after Edmunds pronounced the sentence. Once known as the youthful "hip-hop mayor," he would be 71 years old upon his release from prison if he serves his full term.
The judge said Kilpatrick had never expressed remorse until making an apologetic statement in Thursday's hearing, when he admitted that "I really messed up" and that he was "extremely remorseful."
Wearing his beige prison uniform, he said he hoped his sentencing would help Detroit, once a symbol of American industrial might but now the largest city ever to file for bankruptcy protection. He said it pained him to see Detroit in bankruptcy court, unable to provide basic services to its people.
"I'm ready to go, so the city can move on," Kilpatrick said.
The verdicts were seen as capping the biggest public corruption probe in Detroit in decades and a major victory for prosecutors. At least 18 city officials and 16 other individuals who did business with the city were convicted of corruption offenses from Kilpatrick's tenure as mayor.
Ferguson and Kilpatrick's father, Bernard Kilpatrick, also were convicted in March after a six-month trial that included testimony from a former aide and a former city contractor. Ferguson's sentencing, previously set for Thursday afternoon, was rescheduled for Friday.
Prosecutors said Kilpatrick had unexplained expenditures that were $840,000 over his mayoral salary, suggesting, they said, that he received personal benefits from the corrupt enterprise. They are seeking $9.6 million in restitution and forfeitures from Kilpatrick and Ferguson, based on the estimated minimum profit Ferguson realized from extortion and steered contracts.
Kilpatrick was not the main culprit behind Detroit's filing for bankruptcy - a long process in which many officials took on more debt while the city's tax base shrank - but Kilpatrick's "corrupt administration exacerbated the crisis," prosecutors said.
This sentence matches the most severe handed down since the guidelines were changed in 2004 "to reflect the grave consequences of corruption on communities," according to court filings from federal prosecutors in Detroit. Kilpatrick's attorneys had asked for a sentence of no more than 15 years.
Mark Ciavarella, a former Pennsylvania juvenile judge convicted of accepting payment to send juveniles to a for-profit detention facility, was sentenced to 28 years in 2011, and Jimmy Dimora, a former county commissioner in Ohio, was sentenced to 28 years in 2012 after bribery and racketeering convictions.
Several lawyers with expertise in corruption cases said they could not think of a case in recent memory that ended in a longer sentence. However, prosecution for public corruption is relatively recent in American history with the advent of modern law enforcement in the 20th Century.
Kilpatrick's sentence was twice that of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year sentence for attempting to sell the appointment of the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated when Barack Obama became president.
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been charged with 21 counts of corruption but he has not gone to trial yet.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow told Edmunds the Kilpatrick case was "one of the most significant cases of public corruption" in U.S. history.
In their pre-sentence memorandum, prosecutors said Detroit needed resolute leadership, but "instead it got a mayor looking to cash in on his office through graft, extortion and self-dealing."
Kilpatrick's attorneys argued that prosecutors overestimated the cost to the city and a government reference to Detroit's bankruptcy filing in its pre-sentence report oversimplified more than five decades of complex problems.
Detroit, which is under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, filed for bankruptcy protection in July. The city has lost more than half of its population since the 1950s, leaving it with a shrinking tax base and huge debts.
Kilpatrick has asked that he serve his sentence at a federal prison in Texas so he can be close to family who moved to the state after his resignation as mayor. Kilpatrick's family members did not attend Thursday's sentencing.
Kilpatrick was a Michigan state representative when he was elected mayor. He resigned as mayor in 2008 and pleaded guilty to lying under oath to hide an extramarital affair. He was sentenced to a jail term and then later served 14 months in prison for a probation violation when a judge found he had concealed assets to avoid paying restitution to Detroit.
(Additional reporting by David Ingram; Writing by David Bailey and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Ken Wills)