Detroit Mayor Abuses City Credit Cards

Published July 1, 2005

Spa visits, stays in luxury hotel suites, an $850 steak dinner, and four nights of hotel room rentals for the 2002 Super Bowl in New Orleans are among more than $200,000 of expenses Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has charged to a city credit card since being elected in 2001.

Detroit Free Press reporters M.L. Elrick and Jim Schaefer broke the story about Kilpatrick’s use of the city MasterCard account in early May.

“The response from readers and people who visit our Website has been overwhelmingly positive” toward the story, Elrick said. “The ratio of those who thought the reporting was good and fair and good watchdog journalism outweighs those who thought it was a witch-hunt by probably 50 to 1.”

City Awash in Deficit

“The concern people have,” said Elrick, “is why did someone have to tell the mayor this is a problem? The other issue is that he wrote a check for nearly $9,000 the next day (after the story broke). Detroit’s auditor general thinks he owes more like $50,000. He bases that on the number of items on the credit card that don’t have receipts.”

Elrick noted Kilpatrick’s spending has taken place even as the city has eliminated thousands of jobs to close a budget deficit that still exists despite the cuts. The city is on the verge of receivership, facing a budget deficit estimated at about $300 million, according to Elrick.

Elrick said the Free Press routinely requests records from the mayor’s office, including expense reports and credit card records. After Kilpatrick took office, the records were no longer provided.

Waited Two Years for Records Last November the newspaper filed a lawsuit to obtain the records. In April, nearly two years after reporters asked for the records under the Freedom of Information Act, the city turned them over. However, some documents were missing, and portions of documents that were turned over were blacked out to keep reporters from seeing the information.

Joseph Harris, Detroit’s auditor general, then gave the Free Press a complete and unedited set of Kilpatrick’s city credit card records, enabling reporters to compare them to what they had received from Kilpatrick’s office.

Mayor Apologized to Public

At a news conference on May 16, Kilpatrick told reporters the city withheld the information because the charges were “either paid for or reimbursed to the city, or it’s being disputed.”

Kilpatrick then promised he would “write a check for everything that is in dispute with our credit card company. Everything. Every dollar.”

After the Free Press story broke, Kilpatrick began airing radio advertisements on Detroit radio stations to apologize for the spending.

Many of the expenses were later covered by the organizations that did the billing. Even so, the charged items show the mayor, his family, and associates often lived lavishly while out of town.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.