Victor Mercado: The cautionary tale

Former Detroit water boss pays price for staying silent during Kilpatrick's criminal reign

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®

DETROIT - Victor Mercado, by all accounts, was one of the best in the business -- the water and sewer business.

He was found in Puerto Rico by the late Judge John Feikens. In 2002, he was the federal consent agreement overseer in Detroit. Detroit's water and sewer department had violated water quality standards in the 1970s and spent the next 30 years under federal oversight that only ended last year. Feikens was looking for a highly respected new water and sewer department director and did a nationwide search. He is the one who made the contact with Mercado. Mercado tonight is likely wishing he could go back in time and not take that call.

Mercado is a New York native and on his first day in Detroit he was wearing his boots and climbing in a sinkhole which his new team was working on. He was directing the crew on how to properly fix the problem and fix it the way professionals do, not the band aid and bailing wire method that so characterizes the system even to this day when it comes to repairs and maintenance. It was after this timeframe I got to know Victor Mercado a little bit and watch him work. He was no doubt hard working but he was not big on talking about his department or his direction.

My first memory of him came at 15 Mile Road in Macomb County when a massive water main break sent water spilling onto Interstate 696 and it was a muddy mess that took weeks and millions of dollars to fix. I can recall going out to cover that mess and discovered the water and sewer director was camera shy. He was on the scene overseeing crews for a while, but I spent most of that first afternoon watching him sit with his staff having a long and leisurely lunch in the restaurant that was within feet of the sink hole and refusing to comment on camera. At some point I do believe he spoke on camera as the mayor didn't show up at the site for some 10 days after the fact. Mercado at some point in the process put Bobby Ferguson's construction crew on the case and it became one of the many projects Kwame Kilpatrick steered Bobby's way while Mercado was at the DWSD helm.

Then there were a couple of winders thereafter where virtually every other fire hydrant in the city was frozen solid and inoperative. We did story after story showing how the water and sewer department was supposed to be fixing the problem, but Mercado never once wanted to appear on camera and address the issue and the problem exists every winter to this day. Instead Mercado allowed me to beat on his media relations guy like a piñata for weeks upon end.

We were unrepentant in trying to embarrass the city into some kind of action. Try as we might, Mercado never showed his face and could not be embarrassed by this so obviously life threatening problem. We showed how people were being maimed and severely injured by the lack of operating fire hydrants. We even resorted to doing a story about the quality and function of the fire hydrants in front of the responsible officials' homes. The fire hydrant in front of Manoogian Mansion, then Kwame's house, worked perfectly well. The hydrant right in front of the fire commissioner's house worked perfectly well, too, and then we took a close up of the fire hydrant in front of Victor Mercado's home. It worked perfectly well as well. It was in West Bloomfield! Yes, Victor Mercado did not live in Detroit and he did not make Detroit public servant money. He was making $240,000 a year, 42 percent more than Kwame Kilpatrick was making at the time, and could afford a beautiful home in the ‘burbs.

That sizable salary ended up being Mercado's undoing. Kwame Kilpatrick and Bobby Ferguson were convicted of turning the mayor's office into a public racket -- $71 million in water and sewer contracts alone were siphoned off.

Kwame is doing a 28-year pull in the federal pen and Bobby Ferguson is serving just more than 20 years in the same conspiracy of steered contracts. Mercado was charged and ended up pleading guilty to a lesser conspiracy charge because, even though he did not make an extra dime from any of the water and sewer contract deals Kwame Kilpatrick wanted and got Mercado to steer Bobby Ferguson's way. The federal government claimed Mercado was doing what he had to in order to preserve his big salary. A prosecutor said in the hearing today "no one questioned his skills, but when it came time to take action on behalf of the people, he did not."

Federal Judge Nancy Edmunds agreed "he didn't step out or step up or blow the whistle. He enabled Kwame Kilpatrick and Bobby Ferguson and Bernard Kilpatrick to profit mightily. It would have been better for him to step forward at some point."

In Mercado's defense, his attorney said he met weekly with Judge Feikens, was trusted by the judge and had he known what was really going on he could have and would have told the judge. That did not fly with Judge Edmunds who sentenced Mercado to a day in jail [that he already served], two years' probation, and eight months in a halfway house where he will sleep at night and work during the day.

Mercado said, "I must say this experience has been life altering, it has affected my family, I feel horrible, and I cannot express how horrible I feel today. This has destroyed my career. I hurt my children especially. I am sorry for what I did. I apologize to you and the City of Detroit."

Judge Edmunds said that is all well and good but in the end Victor Mercado is a cautionary tale. "While he is a good man," she said. "Who did what he could to get clean water in the city, it was his salary that cost him" so dearly.

She said he was not a member of Kwame's inner circle.

"He was played as a tool and manipulated ... Never the less it is clear Mr. Mercado went along with what Kwame wanted to keep that salary."

When it comes to deterrence the judge called Kwame's reign the "decade of disaster" and Mercado did know enough to become a whistle blower. In not taking that opportunity it is important that the public know there is a price to be paid for silence.

Victor Mercado's life was inextricably altered that day he picked up the phone and decided Detroit was a good idea. Now he is that cautionary tale that everyone who sets foot inside city hall should watch, and everyone who does business with the city in the future pay heed. The only good news is that this is the last of the cautionary tales to come from Kwame's reign.

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