In the eighth-floor federal courtroom where Kwame Kilpatrick is on trial, prosecutors in coming weeks will summon one of their star witnesses: Derrick “Zeke” Miller.
Miller, who authorities say was a “bagman” and "right-hand man" for Kilpatrick, was a close friend of the mayor -- not a fair-weather flatterer, as politicians often attract.
He first met Kilpatrick in Mrs. Cunningham’s ninth-grade English class at Cass Tech High School. They forged a friendship. He helped Kilpatrick get elected and worked in Kilpatrick’s inner circle at city hall along with another classmate of theirs, Christine Beatty, who would eventually become a central figure in the text messaging scandal.
“Other than my wife and Christine, I trusted no one more than Zeke,” Kilpatrick wrote in his 2011 autobiography. Eventually, the friendship died.
Miller -- who went by nickname “Zeke” because of his affinity for Pistons basketball star Isiah “Zeke” Thomas -- could have been sitting at the defense table along with Kilpatrick. He was initially one of five people named in the Kilpatrick indictment along with Kilpatrick’s close buddy, Bobby Ferguson, a contractor; father Bernard Kilpatrick and water department ex-director Victor Mercardo.
Last week, Miller's name surfaced at trial as the prosecution introduced text messages showing that he was communicating to Kilpatrick, Ferguson and Mercado about city contracts.
Unlike Kilpatrick and the others, Miller chose not to roll the dice and instead pleaded guilty to public corruption and income tax evasion. He admitted receiving $115,000 in kickbacks from a real estate company in connection with lease and sale of Detroit properties and failing to report to the IRS $568,000 in “consulting fees” from a real estate company that the Detroit pension fund invested in.
Even with his cooperation, he’ll probably get some prison time. The government put a ceiling of 10 years in its plea agreement, though he is likely to get far less, particularly with his cooperation. Ultimately, it will be up to U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds.
“He’s owned up to those mistakes by the plea, and he’s moving forward,” Miller's attorney, Byron Pitts, told WWJ reporter Vicki Thomas.
Trials and federal indictments sometimes have a way of turning life upside down, redefining loyalty and relationships. In some cases like this, it’s about betrayal, about saving one’s skin, or at least getting a reduced sentence. It’s the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy.
“Generally any time someone asks you to testify against someone who is a childhood friend, there’s a tremendous struggle that one goes through,” says Leon Weiss, who represented Miller at one point in the case. “I think that’s something that has been an ongoing struggle with Derrick.”
Taking the Witness Stand
Miller won’t be the only person close to Kilpatrick to testify in the trial. Emma Bell, Kilpatrick’s chief fundraiser, who viewed Kilpatrick as a son, ran into serious tax evasion problems with the IRS. She already testified, as part of her plea agreement, telling jurors she gave the mayor kickbacks totaling about $250,000 from donations to the Kilpatrick Civic Fund and other accounts. Besides Bell and Miller, others close to Kilpatrick will testify for prosecutors.
But what makes Miller stand out -- as Kilpatrick stated in his book -- is that he trusted no one more besides his wife Carlita and Christine Beatty. Plus, prosecutors consider him the biggest Kilpatrick insider of all government witnesses.
“You’ve got somebody who was sitting at the table in closed-door meetings and attending private social gatherings, who helped create the political agenda,” Adolph Mongo, who did consulting for Kilpatrick when he was mayor, says of Miller. “He was one of the architects. An architect is someone who helps design a building, so they can tell you where the flaws are.”
One thing likely to come up during questioning is Miller's statement that he passed on a $10,000 bribe to Kilpatrick in a restaurant bathroom in fall 2007. Court documents also allege that Miller and water department head Victor Mercado helped steer millions of dollars in contracts to Ferguson, the mayor’s close friend. Ferguson, a co-defendant, is accused of giving kickbacks to Kilpatrick.
Jim Thomas, Kilpatrick’s attorney, declined to comment for this story. Kilpatrick did not respond to a personal message on Facebook. And Miller could not be reached.
Kilpatrick and Miller were tight in high school. Kilpatrick, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1988, recalls in his book how a teen-age Miller got drunk at a gathering at his mother’s home and broke glass in an antique door in the dining room.
“She’s still pissed at me about that, and I still own Derrick for it!” he writes lightheartedly.
Miller graduated from Jackson State University in Mississippi with a biology degree.
He eventually went to work for Kilpatrick’s mother, Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, on her congressional staff in Washington. He later became district director of her Detroit office. Then he became deputy chief of staff for Kilpatrick, who had become the state House minority leader.
“For God’s sake, he was in my wedding and I was in his,” Kilaptrick wrote in his book “Surrendered -- The Rise, Fall & Revelation of Kwame Kilpatrick.”
In the first mayoral campaign, Miller and Beatty helped Kilpatrick get elected in November 2001.
Bob Berg, Mayor Coleman Young’s press secretary from 1983-93 and an adviser to Kilpatrick for a good stretch of time, says in the first mayoral campaign Kilpatrick, Miller and Christine Beatty “were kind of inseparable. The three of them really had good synergy. They clearly respected each other’s judgment.”
Kilpatrick appointed Miller as chief administrative officer to address outdated administrative processes. He also turned to Miller to work on special projects like casino developments, the Port Authority and Cobo Hall expansion.
In the first two years of office, Kilpatrick says in his book, he spoke to Miller several times a day. That changed in time as he spoke less often to members of his cabinet.
It became a running joke among insiders, Kiklpatrick writes, that often no one seemed to know where Miller was.
“He became a mystery man,” Kilpatrick writes. “ They’d raise this issue at cabinet meetings and Derrick would defend himself vehemently, often enough to make others back down.
He said in time that Miller began to deliver "weak reports from his area. It was odd because Derrick always believed he was the smartest person in the room. "
Kilpatrick felt Miller was distancing himself.
“It pricked me, though, because Derrick wasn’t a random politico. This was my friend since age 14.”
After one cabinet meeting, Kilpatrick said he called Miller and Christine Beatty into his office.
“Zeke launched into a lament,” Kilpatrick writes. “He was tired of being tied to Christine in the newspapers, and tired of being packaged as part of my crew of buddies from high school. He believed he brought skill and professionalism to the job and that was being overshadowed.
After Beatty walked out the room, Kilpatrick again asked what was going on. He told Kilpatrick that word was that he was going to lose his re-election bid.
“He also suggested that I should sever my relationship with several people both on and off the staff,” Kilpatrick recalls in the book.
He said Miller got the info from City Council member Shiela Cockrel, who fraternized with “folks who despised me.”
They hugged as the conversation ended, according to the ex-mayor.
'Beginning of the End'
“I didn’t have another serious or private conversation with him. That was the beginning of the end of our friendship,” Kilpatrick wrote.
Miller left city hall in November 2007 to form Citivest Capital Partners, LLC. He lived in Indian Village with his wife and young son. A few years ago, they moved to suburban D.C., where he worked as a consultant. He and his wife have since split up.
A friend of Miller's, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says: “People who had no love for Kwame, loved Derrick. It’s impossible not to like the guy. People really trusted him and had high hopes for him. It was so shocking that he allowed himself to get into that.”
The friend added that not all Miller’s friends are happy that he’s testifying against Kilpatrick.
His current attorney, Byron Pitts of Detroit, declined to divulge much during a phone interview about Miller’s present life in McLean, Va., a suburb of D.C. He said federal prosecutors have told him they’ll give him at least a week’s notice before he Miller has to testify. He hasn’t heard yet.
It won’t be easy for Miller.
“Anytime you’ve known someone all your life, it’s not an easy situation or one that’s entered into lightheartedly,” Pitts says. “But he’s going to tell the truth.”