It's bone-chillingly cold in Detroit, and the big auto show is going on, but all anyone can talk about is the scandal consuming Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick--the one a local TV station calls "Sex, Lies and Texting." Once known as America's first hip-hop mayor, Kilpatrick, 37, had notably toned down his living-large lifestyle in his second term as the mayor of Motown. But this week, his partying past caught up with him. The Detroit Free Press published text messages between Kilpatrick (who is married with children) and his chief of staff, Christine Beatty (divorced with children), that seem to confirm what both have denied under oath: that they had an illicit affair. "I've been dreaming all day about having you all to myself for three days," Kilpatrick texted Beatty on his city-issued pager in 2002, according to the Free-Press findings. "Relaxing, laughing, talking, sleeping and making love."
Politics and sex scandals go together like peanut butter and jelly. Just ask Larry Craig and Bill Clinton. But what makes this one extraordinary are the lengths to which the forbidden lovers went to cover up their trysts. Back in April 2002, only four months into Kilpatrick's first term, rumors emerged of a wild party involving a stripper at the mayoral mansion. Around the same time, one of the mayor's bodyguards, Harold Nelthrope, reported that the mayor's personal police posse was running amuck, crashing cars and racking up overtime. Deputy Police Chief Gary Brown launched an investigation, which could have uncovered the clandestine couple. But two weeks into his investigation, Brown was fired. A month later, Brown and Nelthrope filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Kilpatrick and the city, which finally came to trial last summer. Kilpatrick and Beatty insisted under oath there was no affair and that they hadn't fired Brown. Even without the text messages that appear to maker liars out of them now, the jury found against Kilpatrick and the city. The case ended up being settled for $9 million of Detroit taxpayers' dollars--or, as the Free Press figured it, the equivalent of 126 police officers' salaries.
Now, Kilpatrick and Beatty could face perjury charges--a 15-year offense. The county prosecutor, Kym Worthy, announced Friday she is launching an investigation, which is expected to include how the Free Press obtained the text messages the city failed to turn over during the trial last summer. Worthy is promising to be "fair, impartial and thorough. We will not be rushed by anyone or anything."
Predictably, there is outrage all over Detroit and calls for the mayor's head. "He's an embarrassment and now it's proven he's a habitual liar," city union boss John Riehl, told NEWSWEEK. Riehl, who represents 900 Detroit workers in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is having them picket city hall on Wednesday to demand that Kilpatrick resign. "He's put Detroit's national image in the gutter."
You might think this down-on-it-wheels city of nearly 1 million people didn't have that far to fall, given the economic wreckage left by its sputtering signature industry. But after nearly losing his re-election bid in 2005, the mayor seemed to be maturing. The strapping former collegiate football player toned down the bling (he took out his big diamond stud earring) and subdued the swagger. He started to gain some traction in his efforts to clean up the city and attract new business. Super Bowl XL went off without a hitch two years ago, and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert recently announced plans to move the headquarters of his company, Quicken Loans, to downtown Detroit. "This does not in any way alter Quick Loans or its sister companies from proceeding full speed ahead with our plans to build a headquarters in downtown Detroit," Gilbert said in a statement. "Our commitment is long term, and transcends any short-term event or challenge."
Still, if Kilpatrick is forced to resign, all business bets are off. Efforts could stall to upgrade and expand Cobo Hall, home to the annual Detroit Auto Show, which pumps a half billion much-needed dollars into the local economy. Already, the threadbare convention center is losing business to other auto shows in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Porsche, for example, skipped the Detroit show this year for the first time in 20 years. "If he leaves, I would hope we don't reverse the progress that's been made," says economist David Sowerby of Loomis Sayles, who just appeared with Kilpatrick at a press conference on Cobo Hall. "He was as gregarious and engaging as ever, but that was last week."
What does Kilpatrick have to say for himself? Not much. He's been in seclusion since the news broke, skipping out on an important U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington. First, he and his family fled to their Florida vacation home (where a news photographer caught him giving his wife a conspicuous kiss). After the media flushed him out down there, he returned to Detroit, but hasn't emerged to face the legion of lenses outside his front door. His press office is declining all interview requests, including NEWSWEEK's, and sticking with a statement he issued Wednesday night: "These five- and six-year-old text messages reflect a very difficult period in my personal life. It is profoundly embarrassing to have these extremely private messages now displayed in such a public manner. My wife and I worked our way through these intensely personal issues years ago."
Beatty also is in hiding, but she did send out her pastor to speak for her on local TV. "She's absolutely devastated by what she's been involved in," the Rev. Ronald L. Griffin told WXYZ-TV. "She's not making any excuses. She is devastated and ashamed."
What's next for the mayor? "At the appropriate time, we'll let you know," said his deputy press secretary, James Canning. (In a sad irony, the mayor's chief press secretary is in rehab after pleading guilty last month to bashing his wife's head through a window in a drunken rage. Kilpatrick stuck by him, refusing to fire or demote him.)
The mayor's attempt to spin his dalliance and denial as a long-ago love affair he now regrets does not appear to be gaining him much sympathy. Inspired by another chief executive caught lying about an affair, The Detroit News ran a political cartoon Friday showing Kilpatrick at a podium, pointing his finger self-righteously and saying: "I did not have text with that woman!"
What's most amazing about the texts, though, is that they reveal just how brazenly the mayor conducted his dangerous liaison. During a visit to Washington in 2002 for the Congressional Black Caucus's legislative conference (Kilpatrick's mother is Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who represents Michigan's 13th District in the U.S. House), the mayor and his chief of staff shared a bedroom at his D.C. hotel while his bodyguards stood watch. "They were right outside the door," Kilpatrick texted Beatty the next day. "They had to have heard everything." Beatty responded: "So we are officially busted! LOL." (Text language for "laugh out loud.") To which Kilpatrick reassured her: "LOL LOL! Damn that. Never busted. Busted is what you see! LOL." Nope, busted is what you read. And no one is LOLing now.