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Conyers’ wife focus of bribery probe

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 18, 2009

DETROIT | Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, the wife of House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., has been ensnared in a federal bribery investigation and is discussing a possible plea deal, The Washington Times has learned.

A federal law enforcement source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the news media, confirmed media reports in Detroit that Mrs. Conyers was the person identified in court records as "Council Member A."

Court papers say the council member accepted bribes from a consultant in connection with a City Council vote to approve a $1.2 billion sludge hauling contract.

The consultant, Rayford W. Jackson, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a city official in connection with #the con#tract to Houston-based Synagro Technologies Inc.

In addition, federal authorities are talking to Sam Riddle Jr., a former aide of Mrs. Conyers, about his role in the matter, the law enforcement official said.

Mr. Riddle was not available Wednesday for comment, but his Detroit-based attorney, David Steingold, said he could "confirm that no plea offer had been made to my client at this time."

When pressed, Mr. Steingold said he would not make any further statements about Mr. Riddle's involvement in the ongoing investigation, noting that "it is a sensitive time in these negotiations and I do not want to damage my client." He did not elaborate.

Mrs. Conyers' attorneys and federal prosecutors have been discussing a plea deal, The Times was told. Details of the negotiations, first reported by the Detroit News and Free Press, were not available Wednesday evening.

Special Agent Sandra Berchtold of the FBI's Detroit field office declined Wednesday to comment on the reports.

With a media firestorm swirling around her, Mrs. Conyers appeared at a City Council meeting Wednesday to discuss regulating local strip clubs but did not take questions about the federal case.

On Tuesday, she urged supporters during a televised appearance to pray for her, saying she was "a child of God."

"If you aren't praying for me then you are just part of the problem," she said.

The voice mail of Mrs. Conyers' attorney Steven Fishman declared bluntly that he would have no comment.

"If you are a member of the media calling about the Monica Conyers case, I have an acute case of laryngitis, lasting for a long time," the answering-machine message said Wednesday night.

Mr. Conyers, who has represented Detroit in Congress since 1964 and is chairman of one of Congress' most influential committees, declined to comment Wednesday through his office in Washington.

Mrs. Conyers initially opposed the Synagro deal, saying the contract should have gone to a local firm, but she later switched positions and cast the deciding vote in a 5-4 tally in 2007. The city and Synagro eventually pulled out of the deal.

In the indictment against Jackson filed in May, federal authorities said the consultant sent a courier Oct. 4, 2007, to a restaurant parking lot to deliver an envelope containing a bribe payment of an unspecific amount to "Council Member A." Another payment was picked up at a McDonald's parking lot.

A month later, after Mrs. Conyers had voted in favor of the Synagro contract, Jackson again dispatched a courier to meet the council member and deliver a second envelope containing a $3,000 bribe payment, the indictment said. A third payment was delivered in December 2007, prosecutors said.

"The payment was made to Council Member A in exchange for Council Member A's vote in favor of the Synagro contract," prosecutors said in the court papers.

Jackson, who pleaded guilty to a federal bribery conspiracy charge on Monday, admitted to federal investigators in his plea before U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn that he had offered money to elected officials including "Council Member A," though he did not name Mrs. Conyers or anyone else as that person.

"I conspired with others to provide money to elected officials in exchange for favorable votes before the city of Detroit," Jackson, 44, told Judge Cohn.

Mr. Jackson's former boss, Synagro Vice President James Rosendall Jr., pleaded guilty to bribery charges earlier this year.

Any deal or conviction likely would end Mrs. Conyers' brief public service career and could become yet another political black eye for the Motor City just as it looks to move ahead after years of scandal and economic struggle. The 44-year-old Mrs. Conyers has had a brief but stormy tenure in Detroit politics, joining the council in 2005 after 16 years as a teacher and administrator in the Detroit Public Schools.

"She owes her political life to her husband. If her name was Monica Smith, she wouldn't be on the Detroit City Council," said Bill Ballenger, the longtime publisher of Inside Michigan Politics who has watched the city deal with scandals for years and is no fan of Mrs. Conyers.

Mrs. Conyers, the mother of two sons, who is more than three decades younger than her 80-year-old husband, graduated from the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.

She serves on the board of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, according to her Web site. Her husband is a founding CBC member and a fixture in Washington politics, having represented the Detroit area in Congress since 1965. He serves as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee and was re-elected in November with 92 percent of the vote.

The councilwoman, whose aggressive political style often brought her public criticism, had sparred with fellow council members during meetings and had a frequently contentious relationship with local press. She also drew media scrutiny for using a police detail and city vehicle to drive her son to a private school in the suburbs, which her spokeswoman defended as necessary for her own protection and encouraged by law enforcement.

During one memorable April 2008 council discussion over disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's role in a police whistleblower scandal, Mrs. Conyers called City Council President Kenneth Cockrel Jr. "Shrek" after the green-hued Walt Disney movie character, an ogre.

The "Shrek" exchange is posted on YouTube along with another public exchange where Mrs. Conyers is chastised by a girl for her name-calling episode with Mr. Cockrel.

Mrs. Conyers also drew fire when it was discovered that she had helped her brother, who is a convicted felon, get a city job. When first confronted about suspected nepotism, she denied the man in question was her brother, but later changed her story. The brother eventually was fired over issues with absenteeism and earlier this year given a five-year-sentence on weapons charges involving pointing a shotgun at a group of people.

Detroit political consultant Eric Foster of the Urban Consulting Group said her conduct in recent years has not helped bring together those hurting in the Detroit region.

"I would characterize her tenure on the council has been chaotic," Mr. Foster said. "It's a tenure that has not been laden with professional or legislative accomplishment. She has not been the most effective."

A plea deal likely would reduce any jail time and save the city more heartache as it recovers from the sex-and-texts scandal that led to the resignation of Kilpatrick and deals with a $300 million deficit among other economic woes, including a school district in the midst of massive reorganization and overhaul.

"Detroit has f#aced so much over the past year with so many issues of scandal and corruption," Mr. Foster said of a possible plea. "I think it's time for her to think of what is best for the city, the citizens. This whole thing projects an image of this city as not able to identify competent and ethical leaders."

Mr. Ballenger says her political troubles, whatever the outcome, will not harm her husband politically.

"If Monica Conyers was a Washington wife, a lobbyist or something, they could tie in her conduct with him and his performance. Then I could see this really metastasizing into something that would become a national story," he said. "At this point, I don't think hardly anybody connects them."

Mrs. Conyers faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison if convicted in a case that analysts fear could further stain the city's political landscape, just as it attempts to gain much-needed credibility under a new mayor, Pistons basketball legend Dave Bing, who took the helm of the city last month after a special election.

Jerry Seper reported from Washington. Ben Conery contributed to this report from Washington.