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Elected officials in Detroit face a widening federal public corruption probe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some elected officials in Detroit face a federal corruption probe just as an election approaches. This news is testing the public's faith in its elected leaders. WDET's Eli Newman reports.

ELI NEWMAN, BYLINE: Detroit City Council has nine elected members, and nearly half have been implicated in a sprawling criminal investigation. This year, two council members resigned from office after pleading guilty. Two other council members had their homes and offices raided by the FBI. They have not been indicted. Chantel Watkins is a labor organizer here. She says Detroiters already deal with a lot of problems, and the corruption probe is just another hurdle.

CHANTEL WATKINS: There are so many holes in our system in Detroit, whether it comes to the water, whether it comes to parking, whether it comes to - anything that's going on. And the representatives are busy fraternizing and committing fraud and corruption.

NEWMAN: While Detroit is certainly not the only city government under intense scrutiny, issues of malfeasance are often front and center here. In 2013, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted on federal corruption charges and served more than seven years in prison before being released in January. Just last month, one elected official confessed to taking nearly $36,000 in bribes in exchange for his support on towing issues and contracts. The other admitted to taking $7,500 in cash from a businessman involved in a property dispute with the city. Watkins accuses some local leaders with disgracing the city's democratic institutions.

WATKINS: Like, it's not even a lot of money. You're willing to sell, like, Detroiters out for a couple of thousand dollars? It's ridiculous.

NEWMAN: In recent years, many here have celebrated Detroit's comeback from its worst political scandals and economic challenges. City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez says despite that narrative, many problems still exist in local government.

RAQUEL CASTANEDA-LOPEZ: For me, it very much seemed like this farce - right? - like this show or this performance that was being put on.

NEWMAN: Castaneda-Lopez is Detroit's first Latina City Council member. While most elected officials are Black, she argues that the city's white establishment has outsized influence in running the city. She says it doesn't surprise her that some of her colleagues pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

CASTANEDA-LOPEZ: 'Cause I think it's just pervasive in the culture, and it's become part of the status quo.

NEWMAN: The hope for many residents is that the current political upheaval will lead to reforms. Beth Rotman agrees. She's with the policy group Common Cause.

BETH ROTMAN: Often, these scandals lead to more public awareness of how these ties can actually begin on the campaign trail and also in the relationships that form because of the connections between wealth and policy outcomes.

NEWMAN: But public awareness of political misconduct may not influence this election. Turnout during Detroit's primary was a paltry 14%, and that's not projected to improve much next month. Still, organizer Chantel Watkins says a new generation should seize the moment.

WATKINS: I think that it's going to make an opportunity for younger people to actually run and for people who have seen the corruption really come in and make change.

NEWMAN: But even Watkins doubts that significant reforms will happen any time soon. With low voter turnout and high name recognition, she expects most City Council incumbents, even those under federal scrutiny, will easily win reelection next month.

For NPR News, I'm Eli Newman in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MILK'S "GREY FOR SUMMER (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.