Detroit City Council member Monica Conyers, the wife of powerful and popular Democratic congressman John Conyers, pleaded guilty Friday to accepting cash bribes in exchange for supporting a sludge contract with a Houston company.
Conyers, a political unknown who won her council seat in 2005 largely on her husband’s name, admitted in federal court to a single count of conspiracy to commit bribery, responding quietly to questions from Judge Avern Cohn.
She faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when she’s sentenced.
The fiery 44-year-old Conyers left court without commenting.
Her lawyer, Steve Fishman, said he will ask Cohn to impose a sentence that does not include prison time.
Rep. John Conyers, the 80-year-old chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who prosecutors said knew nothing of the bribery, declined to answer a reporter’s questions as he walked to the House floor for a vote Friday morning. "I have no comment whatever," he said.
His office issued the following statement:
"This has been a trying time for the Conyers family. With hope and prayer, they will make it through this as a family. Public officials must expect to be held to the highest ethical and legal standards. With this in mind, Mr. Conyers wants to work towards helping his family and the city recover from this serious matter."
City Council President Ken Cockrel Jr. said city attorneys were looking into whether Conyers’ guilty plea will bring about her automatic and swift expulsion from the board, or if that has to occur following sentencing.
U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg said Monica Conyers admitted to "a pattern of conduct of accepting bribes," but the plea agreement does not specify how much money was involved.
Prosecutors said Monica Conyers accepted two payments in late 2007 from a Synagro Technologies official, Rayford Jackson, in exchange for supporting a $47-million-a-year, contract that November to have Synagro recycle wastewater sludge and build a modern incinerator in a poor Detroit neighborhood.
The council voted 5-4 to approve the 20-year contract with Conyers’ vote. It was rescinded in January amid the accusations of wrongdoing.
Monica Conyers is the most prominent person snagged in the Synagro investigation. Jackson and the company’s Michigan representative, Jim Rosendall, have also pleaded guilty to bribery charges in the case. Rosendall’s plea agreement described how he distributed cash and other gifts to officials.
Berg said the Conyers plea doesn’t end the Synagro investigation, but it does mark the conclusion of the probe into elected officials in the case. He called the plea deal an "appropriate and fair resolution to the matter," with a "high-level public figure pleading guilty" to bribery.
"It’s a very sad day for Detroit," Cockrel said. "On the other hand, I think it’s another step in clearing out some problems in city government. I don’t necessarily think this is over. This may go beyond one council member and may involve non-elected officials."
Andrew Arena, special agent in charge of the Detroit FBI office, said Conyers’ guilty plea should signal others who may have been involved in wrongdoing who have not been named that the noose is closing on them.
"The message I want to send is, "We’re coming after you."
Monica Conyers’ plea is the latest blow to a city beset by political scandal in recent years. Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and a top aide were jailed after admitting to lying under oath about their romantic involvement during a whistle-blowers’ trial.
And a recent audit of the city’s beleaguered public school system has uncovered theft and other wrongdoing by employees.
Monica Conyers’ name still will appear along with 166 others on the Aug. 4 nonpartisan primary ballot for council, and it’s unclear what would happen if she receives enough votes to get her name on the ballot for the November general election.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm noted Friday that with all the recent upheaval in Michigan politics, voters have a real opportunity to change the political landscape.
"We have a primary coming up in August. We have a general election coming up in November," Granholm said following an unrelated announcement in Birmingham. "It’s a new day. There is new leadership at all levels. People have to see that."
Like the brash and arrogant Kilpatrick, Monica Conyers took a defiant stance as the Synagro bribery accusations swirled around her, the council and city. She refused to address the accusations in recent weeks, and was often contentious with colleagues and the media.
Monica Conyers told The Associated Press in September that she would like others to see her as "someone who cares about the city, someone who wants to make sure all the citizens of Detroit have what they need to live" productive lives.
But it was another side of Conyers that gained the most attention.
She has called reporters seeking interviews "evil" and compared the local media to "paparazzi."
Last summer, Conyers was involved in a disturbance at a Denver hotel while attending the Democratic National Convention with her husband. She also has been accused of threatening to shoot a mayoral staffer, and she publicly called Cockrel "Shrek."
Associated Press writers Corey Williams and David N. Goodman in Detroit, Jim Irwin in Birmingham, Mich., Kathy Barks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich., and Ben Evans in Washington contributed to this report.