By Carrie Johnson and Alice Crites
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 5, 2009
In the snow-covered parking lot of a McDonald's in Detroit two years ago, City Council member Monica Conyers met with a waste-management consultant who slipped her an envelope stuffed with as much as $3,000 in cash.
The under-the-table payment, made shortly after she cast the swing vote on a $1 billion city sludge deal, drove Conyers's guilty plea to a bribery charge that could send the Democratic politician to prison for up to five years. Conyers emerged for her court hearing late last week in the same building where her husband, John Conyers Jr. (D), who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1965, maintains an office.
Federal prosecutors in Detroit took pains to say that they had "no suggestions" that John Conyers knew of or was involved in the two-year-long bribery investigation, which has shaken a city already struggling to recover from a sex scandal that forced its mayor out of office. Monica Conyers, 44, appeared on a local television station this week to resign as the council's second in command, apologize to Detroit residents and denounce a former aide about whom, she said, her husband had warned her.
Questions about what the 80-year-old congressman may have known about his spouse's supplements to their finances continue to swirl, as do inquiries about how closely federal investigators examined him about the issues.
Through a spokesman, Conyers pointed to a statement by prosecutors that "the evidence offered no suggestions that U.S. Representative John Conyers . . . had any knowledge or role" in his wife's illegal conduct.
In connection with her guilty plea, Monica Conyers acknowledged pocketing less than $10,000 in a pair of parking-lot rendezvous in 2007. At the time, she served on the City Council and on a board that controlled the city's general retirement fund. Her former aide later told reporters that she took more in cash, jewelry and meals from a Detroit mogul and other Michigan political intermediaries. Government court filings are careful to report that she pleaded guilty to "one instance" of perceived influence peddling.
Authorities say they are continuing to root out corruption in the city extending beyond the sludge deal, and state lawmakers have asked what John Conyers knew, even after prosecutors absolved him of involvement in the arrangement with the waste company.
Steve Fishman, an attorney for Monica Conyers, said, "Congressman Conyers had nothing to do with any of the activities described in the plea agreement."
A Separate Life
Allies of John Conyers, who prizes his record of jousting with the Bush administration over its approach to civil rights and national security, say that he attends to few details outside his legislative duties and largely leads a separate life from his wife of nearly two decades. Conyers chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Justice Department, but according to law enforcement officials in the city, the congressman did not "attempt to influence this investigation in any way."
"The reality on the ground is, in my 20 years, not once has anybody tried to steer me toward or against any investigation for political reasons," said Lynn Helland, the chief prosecutor in the public corruption unit in Detroit.
The office is led by acting U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg, a career lawyer who donated to the campaign of President Obama and who had expressed interest in becoming the administration's new top prosecutor in Detroit. But he is not the leading candidate, and John Conyers and the Congressional Black Caucus have thrown their weight behind another candidate, according to people in the District and in Michigan who are following the process.
Sam Riddle Jr., a Democratic political consultant who worked for Monica Conyers and has met with federal investigators to provide damaging information about her, said in an interview he thinks John Conyers is "oblivious" to happenings on the home front. Riddle said he did not field "any heavy questions, any substantive questions" about John Conyers in multiple meetings with the FBI. There also is no public signal that the FBI interviewed John Conyers, according to participants in the investigation.
Government officials declined to address their investigative strategies. But they said they stand behind their statement at the time of Monica Conyers's guilty plea without closing the door on the possibility that new information could emerge. "We're going to continue to pursue any of the leads that we receive," Berg said.
Recent attention in Detroit has focused on a 2007 letter that John Conyers wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency in support of a troubled waste-well project in the state. Conyers had previously opposed the plan on environmental grounds, according to Michigan sources, but allies of the lawmaker say his record on the issue was more ambiguous. In July 2007, he broke with a fellow Michigan Democrat, Rep. John D. Dingell, and urged the EPA to reconsider its decision rejecting a bid by area businessman Dimitrios "Jim" Papas to transfer permits that would have given new life to the project.
Papas, who controls a financial empire in Detroit, has donated money and hosted fundraisers for Monica Conyers. A year before the July 2007 EPA letter, Papas said, he hired Sam Riddle for consulting work, an arrangement that both men say was brokered by Monica Conyers. Riddle says some of those proceeds went back to her.
Through a spokesman, Papas issued a statement in which he "categorically denies any wrong-doing regarding past interactions with Monica Conyers or Sam Riddle and is outraged to have been publicly dragged into the matter."
"Retaining Riddle and the execution of the letter from Congressman Conyers were completely unrelated matters," Papas's statement continues. "At no time was there any arrangement to hire Riddle in exchange for a letter of support. . . . Mr. Papas had no knowledge that Riddle was giving Ms. Conyers a portion of his consulting fee . . . and was not aware of that activity until notified by federal investigators in 2008."
John Conyers last week e-mailed the Detroit Free Press, which first reported the letter, to say that he changed his position based on how it would affect constituents including city pension programs for firefighters and police that had invested in the waste well.
Conyers did not answer questions from The Washington Post about whether he would amend his financial disclosure forms to include money that his wife received, and experts said the process of tracing illicit assets could be complicated.
"I have no reason to believe that the congressman was aware of any financial benefit that accrued to Monica Conyers," said Riddle, who worked with Conyers on his unsuccessful bid to become Detroit's mayor in the late 1980s. "There's no question in my mind that Monica Conyers administered the household. They had money problems because the congressman is oblivious to all of that."
The marriage has been elusive from the start. The former Monica Ann Esters took a job in the lawmaker's Washington office in the late 1980s, before moving on to work on his mayoral campaign. They married in 1990, a month before their first son was born in Detroit's Grace Hospital. Conyers was marrying for the first time at age 61. Esters was 25. Her political ambitions were only beginning.Thin Bank Accounts
Their years in public service left their bank accounts thin, according to financial records and friends. The lawmaker, in fact, is among the most cash-strapped members of the House, declaring little beyond an investment property valued at between $15,000 and $50,000 that Monica Conyers inherited. In March, Wayne County sent a forfeiture notice on the property because of what a letter described as $465.25 in "delinquent taxes, penalties, interest and fees." In 2004, a Michigan business placed a $22,000 lien on the Conyerses' primary residence, a brick house at the Detroit Golf Club valued at $334,932, records say.
For longtime residents of the Motor City, they own vehicles that are hardly state-of-the-art. John Conyers has an eight-year-old Lincoln Town Car; Monica Conyers drives a 2001 Ford Expedition and a Chrysler Sebring.