Ben Schmitt, Joe Swickard, Jim Schaefer, David Ashenfelter, Tammy Stables Battaglia, M.L. Elrick and Zachary Gorchow, Detroit Free Press, June 26, 2009
Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Monica Conyers pleaded guilty this morning to conspiring to commit bribery and is free on personal bond.
U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn said, “The defendant now stands convicted.”
The one count of conspiring to commit bribery is punishable by up to five years in prison.
No sentencing date has been set.
In court, Conyers’ combative demeanor was gone, replaced by soft-spoken resignation as the judge and his staff several times asked her to speak up.
Conyers, the wife of powerful Democratic congressman U.S. Rep. John Conyers, appeared before Cohn to answer charges in connection with the wide-ranging probe of wrongdoing at Detroit city hall.
She has long been under suspicion in the Synagro Technologies bribery probe, not least because she had been a vocal opponent of the contract before suddenly switching her sentiments. She became the deciding voice in the city council’s 5-4 vote to approve the sludge-hauling deal in November 2007.
“This is not the beginning and it is certainly not the end, folks,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Andy Arena said at a news conference this morning.
Arena said the message to corrupt public officials is, “We’re coming after you.”
U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg, a Detroit resident, said the city corruption probe continues, but this is the end of his office’s investigation “of Synagro-related conduct.”
It remains unclear if federal investigators are still considering Synagro charges against Sam Riddle, the ex-Conyers aide, who court documents suggest was with Conyers when she received at least one of the bribes.
The Free Press previously reported that Riddle is also under investigation for possible corruption in Southfield. In that instance, authorities are looking into whether a pawn shop in that city used undue influence to win quicker approval to move its store to another part of Southfield.
Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, who testified before the grand jury in the case, hailed the clearing of other members.
Berg said the plea deal does not require Conyers to cooperate in the ongoing investigation of city corruption.
The federal plea document released today cites two instances in late 2007, in the days surrounding the approval of the now-infamous Synagro Technologies sludge-hauling contract, when Conyers accepted cash bribes from a Synagro consultant.
The document does not cite the specific amount of the bribes, but previous court documents have said that Conyers, identified by the feds as Council Member A, took at least two bribes of $3,000 each, among other bribes.
In both cases cited in the court documents today, Conyers was handed the cash in an envelope by a individual representing Rayford Jackson, a Detroit businessman doing work for Synagro who pleaded guilty to bribery earlier this month.
On one of those two occasions, Conyers was accompanied by an aide. Previous court documents indirectly identified former Conyers aide and political consultant Sam Riddle as having participated in the bribery scheme.
Rayford Jackson’s brother Lennie is believed to be the courier who met with Conyers.
The charge reads: Monica Ann Conyers beginning on a date unknown and continuing until or about December 2007, did knowingly and voluntarily conspire and agree with an aide and others to corruptly solicit and demand for the benefit of herself and others and to accept and agree to accept things of value from persons while an agent of the City of Detroit, an entity that received more than $10,000 in federal funding during the calendar year of 2007, with intent that Conyers would be influenced and rewarded in connection with any business transaction or series of transactions of a value of $5,000 or more with the City of Detroit.
Overt acts: On Nov. 20, 2007, at approximately 3:15 p.m., Conyers met with an individual sent by Rayford Jackson in the parking lot at Butzel Family Center and received an envelope containing cash. On Dec. 4, 2007, at approximately 2:30 p.m., an individual sent by Rayford Jackson met Conyers and her aide in a McDonald’s parking lot in Detroit at which time the individual delivered an envelope containing cash.
The two bribes, among others, admittedly accepted by Conyers–one on Nov. 20, 2007, the date of the council vote, and a second on Dec. 4, 2007.
The charging document reads: “The payments were made and received as part of an agreement and understanding between defendant and Rayford Jackson . . . to influence defendant to support the Synagro contract.”
She has been at the center of FBI questioning for months about the city’s sludge disposal contract with Synagro Technologies and her activities as a member of the city pension board.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Conyers could face 31 to 60 months in prison, depending on how much money the judge believes was involved in the scheme. Conyers’ lawyer and federal prosecutors disagree about the amount of money she received.
After pleading guilty, Conyers left the courtroom through a back door and got into a public elevator on the Fort Street side of the federal courthouse.
Conyers declined to comment on her plea, then refused to allow the doors to close until a Free Press reporter got out of the elevator, which was going up. She stepped out of the elevator and flagged a court employee to have the reporter removed.
“Can someone get her out of here?” Conyers asked after declining to comment on her plea.
Conyers’ husband, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, was not available for comment this morning. His office released the following statement:
“This has been a trying time for the Conyers family. With hope and prayer, they will make it through this as a family. Public officials must expect to be held to the highest ethical and legal standards. With this in mind, Mr. Conyers wants to work towards helping his family and the city recover from this serious matter.”
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union–which bitterly opposed the Synagro deal–welcomed Conyers’ plea.
“She sold her vote to privatize part of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department’s core operations, and eliminate over a hundred city worker jobs,” AFSCME Local 207 President John Riehl said in a news release today.
“We would hope that all those that violated the rights of the citizens and city workers in the Synagro case will be charged forthwith, including the top levels of the Synagro Corporation,” Riehl wrote. “All guilty public and private officials must resign and be jailed.”
[Editor’s Note: An earlier story on this bribery scandal that details other possible financial misdoings can be read here.]