Saturday, March 13, 2010

Monica Conyers Gets 37 Months For Bribes, Vows Appeal

Conyers arrives for Wednesday's sentencing hearing. In addition to 37 months in prison, the judge ordered her to serve two years of probation. She's scheduled to report to federal prison July 1. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Monica Conyers Gets 37 Months For Bribes, Vows Appeal
Ex-councilwoman tries to withdraw guilty plea, then vows appeal
Paul Egan / The Detroit News
Detroit -- Monica Conyers, who plunged her sentencing hearing into controversy Wednesday, has slim hopes of successfully appealing her 37-month prison term, experts say.

An angry Conyers, who surprised U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn by announcing she wanted to withdraw her guilty plea on bribery charges, unleashed a loud courtroom tirade against federal prosecutors and the news media.

"I'm just not going to jail for something I didn't do," said the former Detroit city councilwoman. Conyers left the courtroom saying: "I'm appealing this case" because Cohn had "no right to do that."

A plea document Conyers signed in June said she "waives any right to appeal her conviction or sentence" as long as Cohn sentenced her to five years or less.

It was another dramatic day for a woman known for injecting drama and conflict into City Council meetings, sometimes by hurling insults at colleagues. An upbeat Conyers blew kisses to supporters in the packed courtroom shortly before the sentencing hearing started, but her mood shifted shortly before Cohn took the bench.

Conyers, the wife of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, the veteran Detroit congressman who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, is the only Detroit elected official convicted so far in a long-running corruption investigation that has netted 10 guilty pleas.

Kenneth Mogill, a Lake Orion attorney with extensive experience in criminal appeals who teaches criminal procedure at Wayne State University, said it's almost unheard of for a defendant to attempt to withdraw a guilty plea on the day of sentencing with no advance notice, especially when that defendant negotiated and signed a plea deal with the help of a competent attorney.

Courts will allow defendants to withdraw guilty pleas if new evidence emerges or if a decision was made in haste and then promptly reconsidered, Mogill said. Under Conyers' circumstances, in which more than eight months lapsed between her plea and sentencing, "it's next to impossible to get it withdrawn."

Thomas Cranmer, a Troy defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, said "nobody is going to physically prohibit her from filing the appeal papers if that's what she chooses to do," but the chances of success are "a real long shot."

Conyers filed a motion to appeal late Wednesday and Cohn assigned the Federal Defender's Office to represent her.

Cohn questioned Conyers extensively at her June plea hearing about her decision to plead guilty and read her a transcript of that exchange Wednesday in denying her request to withdraw her plea.

Cohn, who said Conyers must also serve two years of probation after her release, said she does not have to report to prison before July 1, allowing her time "to get her affairs in order."

Conyers, 45, admitted in June she took at least $6,000 in cash bribes in connection with her vote on the $1.2 billion contract the council awarded to Synagro Technologies Inc. of Texas in 2007. She had originally spoken out against the controversial deal, but her vote proved to be the deciding one as the contract passed 5-4.

'Relevant conduct' counted
Part of the controversy over her attempted plea withdrawal stemmed from Cohn's comments that he would consider other "relevant conduct," such as alleged shakedowns of a strip club, a technology company and a real estate developer with matters before the City Council or the General Retirement System, where Conyers sat as a trustee.

Those alleged acts, detailed in the recent trial of political consultant and former Conyers aide Sam Riddle, involved more than $60,000 in illegal payments. Taking them into account increased Conyers' sentencing guidelines -- which are advisory only -- from 30-37 months to 46-57 months.

Conyers protested vehemently, saying she denied all the allegations.

"Everything Sam has done, he has done on his own," she said, adding that some of the FBI wiretaps of Riddle's cell phone exonerate her and she also has made her own tapes of conversations with Riddle, Detroit businessman and local Synagro partner Rayford W. Jackson, and others.

Cohn relented, saying he would not consider the other conduct and would leave Conyers' sentencing guidelines at 30-37 months.

But that did not dissuade Conyers from wanting to withdraw her guilty plea.

"I'm not going to be made the scapegoat for other people," Conyers told Cohn. "I'm sorry that the newspapers have put pressure on you to make an example of me."

She cited what she said was the unfairness of West Bloomfield businessman Karl Kado recently receiving probation after admitting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal payments. She pleaded for her two sons, saying they are young and "my husband is an older man," referring to the congressman, who did not attend the sentencing although sources said he was in his office inside the same federal building at the time of the hearing.

She said a psychologist she saw at Cohn's request said she was easily influenced and "when someone badgers me into doing something, I give in." That's a basis for withdrawing her guilty plea, she said.

She even explained her infamous "You better get my loot" comment to Riddle, that was picked up on an FBI wiretap, saying she was referring to loan money Riddle owed her from her election campaign.

Feds weigh information
It was disclosed for the first time that Conyers has attempted to cooperate with government prosecutors. According to Cohn, prosecutors said they are still checking out information she gave them but so far do not feel it is valuable enough to warrant a reduced sentence.

Cohn's courtroom was packed, with dozens of people, including FBI agents who investigated the case, unable to get a seat to watch the sentencing.

"It was one of the most bizarre courtroom experiences of my career," said Conyers' attorney, Steve Fishman, who is in his 37th year of practice. He told Cohn after the hearing he needs to withdraw from the case as he could be called as a witness in any appeal.

"No judge in my memory has allowed cooperation (with prosecutors) to go unrewarded," Fishman said. "That's essentially what he did."

Though Fishman did not argue that Conyers should be allowed to withdraw her plea, he told Cohn she deserved a much lower sentence. Cohn, he said, should resist media drum-beating for a harsh sentence.

"They've made Monica Conyers the human pinata for all that is wrong with Detroit," he said.

Before the hearing started, Conyers greeted family members and other supporters in the courtroom, including Wayne Circuit Judge Vonda Evans, a close friend. "I just want to say hi to my family. Hi everybody," Conyers said shortly before Cohn took the bench.

About a dozen family members and friends and her pastor were in court.

Riddle's trial ended in a mistrial in February. His retrial is set for July.

Staff Writers Doug Guthrie, Christine MacDonald and Leonard N. Fleming contributed.

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