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Judge Rules Kwame Kilpatrick Will Not Get a New Lawyer in Federal Corruption Case

Kwame Kilpatrick
Kwame Kilpatrick and his lawyer James Thomas

Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s last-minute plea for a new lawyer, which could have delayed the public corruption trial for several months, was shot down by a federal judge this morning.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds rejected the ex-mayor’s claim that he no longer trusts his longtime lawyer so he deserves a new one.

Edmunds said Kilpatrick’s attorney James Thomas “has been an excellent and diligent lawyer in this matter,” and it is in the public’s best interest to move forward with the high-profile public corruption trial, set to start Sept. 6. Citing the prosecution’s argument, Edmunds also reminded Kilpatrick that when he could afford his own lawyer, his attorney of choice was Thomas.

“When Mr. Kilpatrick ran out of money, he asked me to appoint Mr. Thomas, which I did,” Edmunds said, adding Thomas has “aggresively, forcefully and with diligence” represented Kilpatrick since 2008. She also reminded Kilpatrick that at a recent meeting in her chambers, where a conflict of interest issue was being discussed, “The first thing out of your mouth was how much you love Mr. Thomas.”

Kilpatrick responded: “I do love Mr. Thomas. I never said I trusted him.”

After the hearing, Thomas, who also asked to be removed from the case, appeared unfazed by Kilpatrick’s comments, telling reporters: “Isn’t he something?”

Edmunds issued her ruling after a lengthy hearing during which Kilpatrick raised two separate conflicts of interests between him and Thomas, and said his relationship with Thomas had broken down beyond repair.

Kilpatrick told Edmunds he lost faith in Thomas because he was unaware of a prior relationship between Thomas and Gaspar Fiore, who was named as a government witness in the public corruption case.

“Our communication in the last few days has ended in shouting matches,” Kilpatrick said. “I dont trust that he will be aggressive in seeking the real truth in this case.”

But Edmunds said Kilpatrick had signed a waiver of conflict that specifically named Fiore.

“Any third year law student” understands waivers, Edmunds told Kilpatrick, who was a lawyer until his disbarment after the text message scandal. “And you’re a smart guy.”

Throughout the hearing, Kilpatrick stressed he did not have any trial experience as a lawyer, and his legal skills were limited.

“If I was that good of a lawyer, I would have never gone to prison for cheating on my wife,” Kilpatrick said.

Kilpatrick also raised a bizarre argument about Thomas not being “the right person for this case.” He talked about how his mother uses a turkey knife — not just any knife — to carve a turkey. He said Thomas was not the right “turkey knife” for this case, saying “I’m not willing to take his advice.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Chutkow didn’t buy it and said Kilpatrick was “simply pushing for a delay.”

“He has received one of the top criminal defense attorneys … this was his lawyer of choice,” Chutkow said. “He claims that he was not the right turkey knife. But when he had the money, that was the turkey knife that he purchases.”

To avoid any issue with Fiore, Chutkow said the government would be willing to drop the count in the indictment that names Fiore. He also said the government would not call on Fiore at trial — a step that would solve much of the potential conflict.

Thomas also addressed Edmunds. And after hearing Kilpatrick make his plea for a new lawyer, he said the former mayor’s claims added up to an irreconcilable conflict.

“I regretfully ask you to allow me to remove myself,” Thomas said in court.

After the hearing, Thomas appeared satisfied that he was still Kilpatrick’s lawyer. He said he has no intention of appealing Edmund’s ruling.

However, he did note that should Kilpatrick get convicted at trial, he could later argue on appeal that he had ineffective counsel, and the judge forced him to keep a lawyer he didn’t want.

Thomas also noted today represented a courtroom victory for his client since the government agreed to drop one count from the indictment and keep one witness out of the trial.

“Guess what, we win … we’ve already won our first count,” Thomas said, smiling.

Edmunds also said she was satisfied no conflict stems from Thomas joining a law firm that was suing Kilpatrick and others for $25.5 million over a sewer repair project that the lawsuit says involved overbilling and kickbacks for Kilpatrick.

The lawsuit alleges wrongdoing by at least four of the defendants involved in the federal public corruption case: Kilpatrick, Mercado, contractor Bobby Ferguson and ex-Kilpatrick aide Derrick Miller, who has cut a deal in the case and is expected to testify at trial.

In the public corruption trial, Kilpatrick, his father, Bernard Kilpatrick, Mercado and Ferguson are charged with running a criminal enterprise through the mayor’s office to enrich themselves. They are charged with several crimes, including bribery, extortion and fraud.

All men have denied the charges.

Jury selection will officially begin on Sept. 6. Lawyers today will begin combing through 400 juror questionnaires, which were filled out last week.

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