The corruptive influences within the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) over the last several decades raise doubts that the city should remain in control of the operation. Despite being under a federal consent decree since 1977, the DWSD’s reputation as a dumping ground for patronage jobs, contract padding and sleaze is legendary.
Mismanagement, incompetence, cronyism and corruption within the DWSD came into sharp focus in the 1980s, under then-Mayor Coleman Young. His friend, Darralyn Bowers was convicted and served time for paying $16,000 in bribes to obtain the now infamous multi-million dollar Vista sludge-hauling contract. Young was named an unindicted co-conspirator. The DWSD director at the time, Charles Beckham, who later served in the administrations of Ken Cockrel and Dave Bing, served 21 months of a three years sentence for collecting bribes and extortion in that scandal. In subsequent years, dozens of former DWSD officials received contracts with the department, including Beckham following his release from prison.
DSWD’s questionable practices, including favoritism, continued into the 90s under former Mayor Dennis Archer. Although Archer himself was never implicated in wrongdoing, accusations ran rampant that DWSD awarded millions in no-bid contracts, failed to collect from deadbeat customers and was guilty of gross mismanagement. Some contracts were awarded on the basis of favoritism rather than qualifications. These charges were accompanied by claims of unjustified rate increases, overpayment by suburban customers as well as demands for wider regional representation on the DWSD board.
The latest scandal renews concern that Detroit officials may be incapable of preventing corruption from polluting the operation. It began with a city council-approved $47 million sludge hauler’s contract awarded to Synagro Technologies Inc. to handle the city’s processed sewage. That probe spawned an extensive federal investigation in which James R. Rosendall, a Synagro executive was charged with recruiting third parties to bribe public officials to get that contract. Rosendall pled guilty and was sentenced to 11 months.
Rayford Jackson, hired by Synagro, received a maximum five-year prison for arranging more than $6,000 in bribes for Councilwoman Monica Conyers in exchange for her vote on the sludge-hauling contract. Conyers received more than three years in prison. Political consultant Sam Riddle, Conyer’s former aide, received a 37-month prison sentence.
Now comes the 38-count federal indictment against former Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick and two top aides, accused of rigging DWSD contracts, extorting contractors and raking in bribes in the millions. Snared in the sweep is former director Victor Mercado who was charged with extortion and obstruction of justice. Kwame Kilpatrick’s father, Bernard, is charged with collecting kickbacks. Contractor, Bobby Ferguson, is alleged to have received “tens of millions of dollars” for work he either did not perform or was awarded through extortion. Derrick Miller, a Kilpatrick friend and his former top aide, is accused of accepting bribes.
Since the 1970s, every mayor, Mayor Dave Bing excluded, has had management or legal issues with the department. We can only speculate why DWSD is the poster child for Detroit corruption. It may be that inherent in the DWSD structure are all the elements of a perpetuating self-corrupting entity. Whether the water department’s besmirched reputation could be made whole under a restructured regional authority is conjecture.
What about the current board members? Are they complicit or incompetent? Removing them might be a first step to reforming the contracting process with the goal of making sure that corruption and the DWSD cease to be synonymous.