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Law > News Hits

Split hairs and big pictures

How Mike Stefani is dodging professional misconduct charges

 

Published 11/18/2009

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News Hits has been pondering last week's testimony by Mike Stefani, the attorney for whistle-blowing cops who played a pivotal role in forcing former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick from office.

Stefani now faces professional misconduct charges brought by the Attorney Grievance Commission* for his role in crafting the secret deal that was supposed to keep proof of Kilpatrick's perjury from becoming public.

As we now know, the attempted subterfuge by attorneys representing Kilpatrick and the city was pointless from the start; even before Stefani had laid the incriminating evidence on them he had already given a copy of the now famous text messages to Free Press reporter Jim Schaefer.

Did Stefani act unethically? He says no. Had Kilpatrick lawyer Samuel McCargo been astute enough to ask if Stefani had already shared the messages with anyone, he would have been truthful, he testified under oath. But the question, it seems, was never asked.

And when the secret agreement required him to turn over the original and all the copies he'd made, Stefani says he got the disc back from Schaefer. The fact that Stefani says he didn't ask the reporter if he'd made a copy of the computer disc containing the messages, and Schaefer didn't volunteer the info, gave Stefani plausible deniability.

Those are some pretty fine hairs getting split. And it might be they weren't sliced quite finely enough. "It was larceny by false pretenses," attorney David Griem, a former state and federal prosecutor, told The Michigan Citizen. "It would seem that an argument could be made that Kwame Kilpatrick, Christine Beatty, and the plaintiffs, the police officers and their attorneys were involved in a conspiracy, a conspiracy to obtain money from the city."

This part of the story is well-known by now: After a jury found Kilpatrick and Beatty retaliated against cops Harold Nelthrope and Gary Brown for pursuing concerns about members of Kilpatrick's security detail and the rumored party at the Manoogian Mansion, the city was on the hook for $6.5 million.

After the trial had settled, Stefani was finally able to get the text messages from the company SkyTel, based in Mississippi. Stefani admits of having violated a court order by not providing those messages to the judge handling the case. And he says he's willing to accept the consequences for that action.

But he denies committing extortion. For one thing, he claimed, what he did actually saved the city money.

After the jury in the whistle-blower case found in favor of Nelthrope and Brown, Kilpatrick pointed to the fact that only one African American served on the panel, the point being that he was the victim of white racists, and he vowed to appeal the verdict. That would mean years more of litigation with the city footing the bill. In the end, the city would never win; the text messages, which would have become part of the proceedings had the city not settled, guaranteed that. And with interest on the settlement accumulating at a rate of $2,300 a day, the city's payout in the long run would have been much higher had it tried to drag things out, Stefani testified.

So when Stefani squeezed the city to pay his attorney fees, and obtained a $400,000 settlement for another whistle-blowing cop, Walt Harris, whose case had not yet gone to trial, the nearly $9 million the city eventually handed over was really was really a way of cutting its losses, Stefani testified.

Stefani also testified that his deception was an act of public service because the truth needed to come out.

Kilpatrick's claim that the verdict against him was the result of racism had to be proven wrong, testified the lawyer, and having the content of the text messages revealed was the only way to prove beyond any doubt that the judicial system had indeed worked.

Stefani, a former FBI agent, suburban police chief and Detroit cop who once took a bullet during a drug raid and was decorated for valor, is a guy that many consider a hero for the role he played in bringing down Kilpatrick. But we have to say that even those who agree with that have to admit his claim that he gave to text messages to the Freep for "safe keeping" is truly a hoot. As former prosecutor Griem told TV station WDIV, that's like asking the family dog to watch your steak dinner.

Another whisker getting sliced by a razor has to do with the word "source."

Stefani testified that when he gave the messages to Schaefer, it was with the understanding that a diligent effort be made to obtain the messages from another source. And, indeed, before the Freep eventually exploded the story in January last year, Schaefer did make a trip to where SkyTel is headquartered, so it may be that a second copy was obtained.

Even so, certainly Stefani wasn't truthful when asked about that by the Detroit City Council and he replied, "... I'm not sure how they got them." He may not have been the only source, but he certainly was a source — at least in our opinion.

We also found it interesting last month, after Stefani first revealed to the Attorney Discipline Board that he had indeed provided the messages to the Free Press, that the paper reported that the revelation  "set off speculation that Stefani was the paper's source for the text message scandal coverage that ultimately brought down the Detroit mayor's administration."

But maybe were just not as astute as the likes of Schaefer and M.L. Elrick when it comes to defining who's considered a "source." After all, they're the Pulitzer winners, not us. (And, as we've said all along, it is a well-deserved honor, and as far as we can tell, nothing that's happened detracts from their achievement.)

But, as long as hairs are being split, we'll call your attention to a piece penned by Freep publisher and editor Paul Anger just after the paper's blockbuster scoop broke last year.

Anger told readers that, in the "wake" of Kilpatrick's unexpected and "abrupt" decision to settle the case, the paper set out to find the "truth" about why he did so.

We now know that even in that statement, there was a little sleight of hand. The paper knew Stefani had those messages and what was in them before the settlement was made, not after, as Anger implied.

These are all fascinating fine points — at least to the geeks here at News Hits — that provide insight into the fact that things are seldom as they seem on the surface. But along with the insider details and behind-the-scenes glimpses, the case also offers up some big questions as well.

One of the biggest of those was posed by Robert Edick, the lawyer serving in the role of prosecutor for the Attorney Grievance Commission, who asked Stefani last week: Do the ends justify the means?

During the procedure, we sat next to a man — the only member of the general public, as far as we can tell, to sit in on the action — who kept muttering under his breath that Stefani was a liar. During a break, he derided Stefani for extorting money from the city.

He clearly wanted to see Stefani nailed. And there are no doubt others in that same camp.

But there are also those who see Stefani as a white knight. He testified that strangers who recognize him from TV approach him all the time to thank him for what he did. To those people, Stefani said, he's an example of how the legal profession can "help the little guy stand up to someone extremely powerful."

And when you take your focus off of the fine points and concentrate on the big picture, whatever you think about the way Stefani handled the case, this much is clear: Detroit is far better off now that a corrupt mayor has been removed from the scene.


* This was changed from the original story to correct an error.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.

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