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News of Conyers, Riddle takes me back to days of bribery and extortion

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Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle Detroit political consultant Sam Riddle
Former Detroit City Council Pro Tem Monica Conyers Former Detroit City Council Pro Tem Monica Conyers

By M.L. Elrick
Fox 2 Investigative Reporter

(WJBK) -- With talk Monica Conyers may be leaving Camp Cupcake for a half-way house soon, and Sam Riddle popping up at the federal courthouse last week, I got to thinking about the hot, crazy day I spent with both of them more than three years ago.

It was Friday, June 26, 2009. Sam agreed to meet with me at the now-defunct Detroit Breakfast House & Grill on Woodward. Like me, he enjoyed meeting at restaurants. I was always happy to ding the company for a meal, and Sam was usually short on cash. (At least once, he tacked onto our bill a carryout for Mary Waters, the former state rep who, at the time, was his long-suffering lady friend.) But that morning I didn't come for what was on the menu.

The meeting held the promise of some information. And since Conyers, Sam's former boss/reputed lover was copping to a bribery count down the street in federal court at the same time, it seemed like a good time to catch up with the grizzled political vet who taught me how to say "the thing speaks for itself" in Latin (even though he almost always had something to say about the thing -- whatever it may be).

During the course of a meal interrupted by Sam's acquaintances and diners who recognized him from his TV appearances, it became clear that he had some documents that would make for a pretty good story. There was only one problem: It wasn't handy. He tried, during calls from the restaurant, to scrounge up gas money to get to Saginaw, where he could retrieve the paperwork.

Ever eager for a scoop, and fairly fond of Sam's company, I offered to drive him to Saginaw. He agreed.

After a stop by Mary's condo, where Sam freshened up after showing me a magazine article in which he was quoted, we hopped in the black '98 Nissan Maxima I long ago had dubbed "The Truthmobile" and headed north to Saginaw.

It was a long drive on a brutally hot day made even longer and more brutal by an air conditioner that had seen its best days long before The Truthmobile passed 130,000 miles.

Sam was good company, but I couldn't help thinking that if he couldn't find his paperwork -- or wouldn't share it -- I would have literally been the driver but figuratively been the one taken for one helluva ride.

My concerns were reinforced when we got to our first stop, a tidy home in a pleasant working class section of Saginaw.

I waited in the car while Sam walked around the house -- supposedly looking for a key, but seeming suspiciously like a dude hoping to find an unlocked door.

Once inside, Sam showed me photos decorating the home of an attractive, 40- or 50-something professional woman with whom it appeared he had some kind of close relationship. While I sat in the living room, he rummaged around some closets and back bedrooms for, if I recall correctly, a hat box containing some papers. I was greatly relieved that when the woman who lived there arrived, she greeted us not with a gun, but with grace and some bemusement.

On the way to our next stop -- to the home of another acquaintance -- Conyers called.

Clearly amused but also annoyed, Riddle listened to the disgraced and deposed president pro tem of the Detroit City Council tell him she tried to talk to him but ultimately decided to just go ahead and plead guilty to bribery.

Riddle, his own federal case still very much in play, admonished her and wondered aloud if she was trying to set him up. As he alternately scolded and flirted with her, he held his cell phone out so I could hear some of what she was saying.

I either didn't hear enough of it, or it just plain didn't make sense, but I couldn't make much of her rambling.

What I'll never forget is that, mere hours after pleading guilty to a heinous breach of the public trust, she was talking about making a political comeback -- and asking Sam to assess her chances.

I wouldn't say his response was exactly diplomatic, but if you factor in how ridiculous the entire proposition was, I'd have to say he was downright tactful when he told her that the good people of Detroit might, just might, hold her conviction against her -- especially since it seemed to be the only conviction she held during her ill-fated and mercifully short time on city council.

After the stop at the second home -- I wasn't invited in this time, leaving me outside hoping that papers were all he was picking up there -- we were back on the road.

We broke bread once more, at the White Horse Tavern in Flint, where Sam was also a well-known political intriguer, before I dropped Sam off back in Detroit.

By then I had heard and seen enough to begin writing a front page story that ran in the following Monday's Detroit Free Press under the headline: "Ex-aide: Conyers took cash, jewelry."

The story detailed how Conyers received cash and jewelry for brokering questionable deals -- including arranging for Sam to get a $20,000 contract with Greektown entrepreneur Dimitrios (Jim) Papas in about 2007 for crisis consulting and political advising -- even though he was never asked to do any work.

Sam told me Conyers demanded $10,000 of the loot as a "finder's fee."

The story detailed how her husband Congressman John Conyers sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of a controversial hazardous waste injection well in Romulus that one of Papas' companies was seeking to operate. The congressman has not been accused of wrongdoing.

My exclusive interview also yielded that Conyers introduced Sam to the owner of Zeidman's Jewelry & Loan, a pawnshop whose efforts to relocate and expand in Southfield became part of a federal probe into public corruption. Sam said Conyers collected jewelry from Zeidman's for her role, while he received a five-figure fee and a watch from the pawnshop. Sam said he gave some of that money to Southfield councilman William Lattimore. (Lattimore later pleaded guilty to federal charges. The pawnshop's owner has not been charged.) Sam, who was wearing the watch during our tour of mid-Michigan, told me he didn't break the law.

"I never bribed anyone," he said. "I never attempted to buy any votes."

Nearly a year later, Sam pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, extortion and filing a fraudulent tax return. He admitted passing money to Lattimore and copped to conspiring with Conyers to extort money from folks doing business with the Detroit City Council and the city's pension funds.

I meant to send him a letter while he was doing time, but never got around to it. Partly because I was busy, partly because I didn't want him to think I was just trying to butter him up for a story, partly because I didn't know what to say. I had already written one letter to a former aide to Kwame Kilpatrick who was doing time, but never heard back.

No matter. I'm sure I'll bump into Sam soon. And I'm sure we'll grab a bite and catch up.

But if not, we'll always have Saginaw.

Follow M.L. Elrick's coverage of the Kilpatrick & Co. trial daily on FOX 2 and at www.myfoxdetroit.com. Contact him at ml.elrick@foxtv.com or via Twitter (@elrick) or Facebook. And catch him every Friday morning around 7:15 a.m. on Drew & Mike on WRIF, 101.1 FM. He is co-author of "The Kwame Sutra: Musings on Lust, Life and Leadership from Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick," available at www.kwamesutra.com. A portion of sales benefit the Eagle Sports Club and Soar Tutoring. Learn more at www.eaglesports.com.

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