Arnold Mayor Rewards His Ally Sweeney

18 Oct

This post has been on my back burner for quite some time, as it dates back to June, but better late than never, I say.

One of the first acts of Arnold mayor Ron Counts after he won re-election in April was to reward one of his biggest allies, city attorney Bob Sweeney, with a pay hike. Sweeney has done a lot, while zigzagging across ethical lines, to keep the Counts regime in power and to quash opposition, and I guess it was time to thank him (hmm, why not do it before the election)? On June 1, Counts asked the city council to give Sweeney a 40% pay raise, from $100/hour to $140/hour, and the pliant council unanimously agreed.

Here is how Counts justified the move to the Leader:

“One thing I have learned about Bob that sets him apart from anyone I can think of, as far as having an attorney, is Bob really loves our city. You can hire an attorney and usually they’re just hired guns, but this guy (Sweeney) is for real. He grew up in the city and raised his family here. He has a long history with the city and he truly cares about the city and wants it to be a success. I think when you get these kinds of people who do a good job for you, you need to do what you can to keep them.”

I guess that’s why he lives in Crestwood? I think what Sweeney loves about Arnold is that the city gives him lots of money and power. And when Counts says Sweeney does a good job, he means a good job of covering for Counts and his cronies.

Here is the information that city administrator Bryan Richison gave the council concerning hourly rates for area city attorneys:

atty fee table1

From this, you would say, yeah, Arnold is way at the bottom of the list, and even with the $40 raise, they are still low. But you have to remember that, like a car salesman, Sweeney makes it up on volume. Here’s his formula:

low hourly rate X lots of hours billed = $$lots of cash$$

While he’s not billing the city $200,000 or more like he was a decade ago, as you will see below, he is still making plenty of money despite his low hourly rate. I did a comparison of the annual city attorney payments made by Arnold to other area cities of similar populations. This kind of data was not presented to the council. Here’s what I found:

atty fee table2

The green row shows where Arnold is now. The city’s attorney expenditures are in line with similarly-sized cities, even with Arnold’s low hourly rate, and maybe even on the low end when divided by population (Arnold is the 2nd biggest city on this list). But if we take Arnold’s 2015 and 2016 spending on attorney’s fees and increase it by 40% to estimate the impact of the pay raise (the first row, in red), we see that Arnold shoots to the top of the list when you average the two years together and divide by each city’s population (“$/person avg” column). This is what Arnold taxpayers can expect going forward. Also note that Arnold’s median income is much lower than the other cities mentioned.

Retainer Option

You can see in the next to last column that three cities on the list pay a retainer fee to their city attorneys (Creve Coeur, Webster Groves, Manchester). The retainer is a monthly set fee that covers basic city attorney duties. If work needs to be done that is outside the scope of the retainer, that work is billed at the hourly fee listed in column two. Services that generally fall under the retainer include attendance at council and board meetings, consultations with the mayor, council members, and department heads, and review of documents.

It seems like Arnold could save some money by going the retainer route, given the apparently high number of hours billed by Sweeney. But Arnold probably won’t do that if it is not advantageous for Sweeney’s bottom line.

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Action Alert: Last Sliver of Hope for Critchlow Justice

8 Oct

I know I’ve been posting a lot of Critchlow stuff lately, but I can’t help it when material keeps coming up. Here, I will give you an action item to pursue if you are so inclined.

When JeffCo Prosecutor Forrest (Wrist Slap) Wegge punted the Dianne Critchlow Fox theft case to the feds, it went to the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri to decide on federal prosecution, assisted by an FBI investigation. As you recall, the feckless Feds announced their decision not to prosecute in November of 2016.

But now there is a new boss at the Eagleton Courthouse. As is customary when a new president takes office, the US Attorney has been replaced. The new one, Jeffrey Jensen, was appointed by President Trump and sworn in on Friday. Jensen is a former FBI agent and accountant, a resume that would seem ideal for prosecuting crimes like these.

So I am thinking maybe, just maybe, we can get Jensen to reopen the case and right a horrendous wrong. But we need to make him aware of this need. Therefore, I am asking everyone to call his office. The number is 314-539-2200. If you use Twitter, you can contact them here.

 

Here are some talking points:

  • The Missouri state auditor says Critchlow misappropriated over $200,000 of taxpayer money to directly benefit herself and her family.
  • Her wrongdoing cost the Fox school district up to $1.1 million.
  • She used district credit cards for personal spending, fraudulently increased her own salary, and awarded scholarships to her own children.
  • She led a reign of terror, rewarding her cronies financially while threatening the jobs of anyone who questioned her.
  • This violation of the trust of taxpayers at the expense of school children cannot be allowed to go unpunished.
  • The local investigation into this matter was tainted by conflict of interest.

This is very likely the last chance to get any justice in the Critchlow case, and it is a slim one. The federal statute of limitations is generally five years, so charges should still be possible. Thank you for your assistance, and if you get any feedback when you call, let me know.

Roorda to Run For County Exec

6 Oct

Before I begin, I thought I would point out that Jeff Roorda has been blocked on Wikipedia for trying to edit his own page to make himself look better.

One might have thought that after losing two elections in a row in rightward-moving Jefferson County (2014 and 2016), Jeff Roorda’s political career was over (at least as a Democrat). But Roorda, a former state representative and current business manager for the St. Louis Police Union, has decided to give it another shot, this time with a run for county executive in 2018.

Roorda is in an odd position. He has spent the last three years focused entirely on St. Louis issues, but wants to lead Jefferson County. He has also spent the last three years stoking divisions, but claims he can work with the county council in a harmonious manner. His ability to stir up controversy is rewarded with book sales and CNN appearances, but it is not useful in governing.

In the Leader this week, Roorda mentions the current “bitter fighting” that takes places between the council and the current executive, Ken Waller, who is not seeking another term (at least not in that position). He is right about that. But would Roorda be better? Waller at least put on a genial face in public (which has been enough to fool the Leader) while carrying out his skullduggery behind closed doors. But Roorda is open with his harsh remarks and aggressive behavior. I don’t see how that will bring about good relationships.

Loyal Democrat

In an interview with former House speaker Tim Jones on 97.1 FM, Roorda said that the Democratic party has gone too far with this Black Lives Matter stuff and become what he considers to be anti-police. He says that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton hurt JeffCo Democrats because of this, and that this issue is what gave Donald Trump the victory last year.

Since protecting police from any scrutiny or oversight is his main issue, I was expecting Roorda to come out and endorse Trump in the last election, but he did not. He refused to endorse Clinton in a Leader candidate questionnaire. I was even thinking that Roorda might opportunistically try to switch parties. He regularly runs as a conservative, pro-life, pro-gun candidate. I thought he might go with the JeffCo flow and try to increase his chances of victory with a switch to the GOP, but he has not done so.

Negativity

Roorda claims to be friends with his presumable GOP opponent in the race, recently-resigned state House representative John McCaherty, and says the race will be clean and issue-based. But given Roorda’s history of harsh attacks and questionable claims, I don’t think that will last.

Wild Card

Roorda is disliked by many in the city, particularly on the left, for his various controversial actions. He has said that if he wins this race he will resign from the police union. Therefore, many in the city will be pulling for him to win in order to be rid of him. But will that turn into concrete support, given in a way that won’t alienate JeffCo voters?

Lowlights of JeffCo Sheriff’s Critchlow Report, Part 3

17 Sep

Part 1 here, Part 2 here.

Before I begin, it is interesting to note what offenses are contemplated on the first two pages of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s investigative report into the Critchlow affair. They are felony stealing, theft, and forgery and counterfeiting.

Davis Interview

Deborah Davis was Dianne’s secretary and also secretary for the school board. The interview with her covered Dianne’s various illegitimate contracts, as discussed in part 2. It includes a great nugget; when asked if she thought the disgraced superintendent made the contracts, she said she’s “not going to throw Dianne under the bus.” Throw the taxpayers under the bus? Sure. Throw her fellow employees under the bus? No problem. Throw the students under the bus. Done. But Dianne? No way, gotta protect her. Unbelievable. You know who could have made her talk? A prosecutor, with a subpoena. Davis should have been charged as an accomplice.

Other than that, the interview contains a lot of “I don’t recall” and “I did what Dianne said.”

While she has departed from Fox, Davis is still active in district politics. She served as treasurer for successful school board candidate Carole Yount (who has other FOC – friend of Critchlow – connections). Why would someone like Davis who shows no concern for the district want to be involved in the school board? And why would a board candidate want anything to do with Critchlow cronies?

Menchella Interview

Sandy Menchella took over Debbie Davis’ job. Her interaction with deputies showed that the changes to Dianne’s contract were not considered or approved by the school board, as seen in board meeting minutes. This would seem to poke a hole in the idea that Critchlow was not charged with crimes because the board approved everything she did (knowingly or otherwise). The lack of any evidence that the board approved her self-initiated salary increases shows that she is guilty of fraud and theft.

Norrid Interview

Matt Norrid is payroll supervisor at Fox. He pulled out information from 2011-12 and 2012-13 showing additional times that Critchlow gave herself a new contract with higher pay with no authorization. Menchella was consulted again, and the relevant board meeting minutes had no record of these salary increases being approved.

This completes the investigative report.

Omissions

Here are some interviews I would have liked and expected to see performed as part of this investigation:

Todd Scott: Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources under Critchlow. What did he know about all these unauthorized salary hikes for top administrators? We know he helped abet Dianne’s nepotism hires.

Jim Berblinger: CFO before McCutchen. What about these allegations of his Pasta House meetings with district vendors? Also, the current regime at Fox called him out by name for complicity in Dianne’s antics in its responses to the state audit.

Mark McCuthchen: Former Fox CFO, the one who was shredding documents on his way out the door. He was behind the unauthorized pay hikes for top administrators besides Critchlow. He knew what was going on. I imagine he would have lawyered up and refused to talk, but make him do that.

The Critchlows: Why not talk directly to the culprits? Again, they would have refused to talk, but still, put them under pressure and make them rack up attorneys fees.

Perhaps search warrants could have been conducted on the Critchlows’ properties in Arnold, Reynolds County, and wherever else, to look for documents related to her illicit spending and income, and maybe some of the items she purchased on the Fox credit cards. She returned some items to the district (shouldn’t that have been proof of guilt?), but I don’t think everything was given back.

Statute of Limitations

I was thinking that perhaps when a new county prosecutor takes office in January of 2019, he or she could reopen the Critchlow case with an unbiased eye. But Missouri law sets forth a statute of limitations of only three years, so Dianne and her gang are free and clear at this point, as far as the state of Missouri is concerned.

Lowlights of JeffCo Sheriff’s Critchlow Report, Part 2

8 Sep

In Part 1, I covered the first two interviews in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office investigative report into Dianne Critchlow’s reign at the Fox school district. Let’s continue:

Jones Interview

Judith Jones was an employee in the Accounts Payable department under Critchlow. She was responsible for paying the district’s bills. In that capacity, she paid Dianne’s credit card bills and fulfilled her reimbursements.

She started by saying she would not remember any specific transactions. She also said she would not question bills because they came to her approved by Critchlow or her partner in crime, former CFO Mark McCutchen. She also says she did not see itemized lists of credit card charges. In the state audit (page 19), a person (apparently Jones) states that she reviewed and reconciled all credit card statements except for Critchlow’s. Dianne reviewed her own statements (or claimed she did).

Finally, she said she heard rumors of misuse of credit cards, but “did not feel it was her place to question her boss.” The audit states that 36% of the transactions made on the credit cards of Critchlow and her secretary, Deborah Davis, “raised concerns.”

This gets into a philosophical question. Ideally, we would expect all people to do the right thing, consequences be damned. In this case, that would mean being diligent in questioning expenses, investigating these rumors she heard, and passing on her concerns to the school board and other senior administrators. But in real life, lower level employees often cannot afford to risk their jobs. They don’t get golden parachutes like superintendents do. It can be a lot to ask of someone with a family to risk their livelihood.

And given that the Fox district leadership was rotten to the core, stacked with yes-men and cronies, backed by a lax, compliant, and partially bought-off school board, who could Jones have talked to that would have done anything about the fraud? A guy like Tim Crutchley could easily have afforded to do the right thing (if he had any such interest), but it is not so easy for people such as Jones. Though I must say I question her “I don’t recall” act in this interview.

Clack Interview

Kerry Clack was payroll supervisor at Fox. She tells a tale similar to that of Jones, that she was deprived of documentation and told by Critchlow and McCutchen just to do what she was told. She said that McCutchen took away her salary schedule, which is supposed to dictate what employees get paid based on their time in service, and instead sent out a spreadsheet with the salary numbers he said should be paid (undoubtedly to help pad the salaries of Critchlow and her cronies).

Clack stated that, since she was so close to retirement, she did not want to question her supervisors. Dianne forced her to sometimes sign the time sheets Dianne’s sons submitted for their no-show jobs with the district.

Logging Equipment

When caught buying logging equipment with district funds, Dianne’s husband Jamie said the equipment was for a service project in Arnold parks with the kids in the Bridges program. A JeffCo deputy talked to Dave Crutchley, brother of assistant superintendent Tim, from the Arnold parks department, who said no such work took place.

G’Sell Interview

Tim Crutchley indicated in his interview that he heard that Ray G’Sell told people that he poured concrete at the Critchlow residence and was paid by a district credit card. So a deputy went to the G’Sell company to check this out. He talked to Mrs. G’Sell, who acted kind of squirrely.

She said she wasn’t sure if any work had been done for the Critchlow’s, that she was too busy to check the records at this time, and she had to check with her husband to see if she could release any information without a warrant. She said the company did not accept credit card payments, and that she was “in a hurry” and had to leave. The deputy asked her to call him back with the information he requested, and said he would file a supplemental report when she did so, but there is nothing else in the investigative report pertaining to this company.

Hard Drives

The report reveals that six hard drives were acquired by the Sheriff’s Office from the Fox district, and five of them were turned over to the FBI in June 2016 for forensic examination. The FBI returned them in March of 2017. No word is given on what was found on the drives.

More on the Logging

A Reynolds County deputy went to some property the Critchlows bought there in 2012 and 2014 (purchases facilitated by the money they stole from the district) to check for signs of logging, but found none.

Dianne Contracts

The report considers the four different contracts that existed for Dianne during the 2013-14 school year. They are as follows:

  • 1st contract: Salary of $253,694, signed 1-15-13, approved by the school board.
  • 2nd contract: Salary of $256,131, signed 10-15-13, no documentation of it being approved at board meeting, but was signed by board president Dan Smith.
  • 3rd contract: Salary of $260,598, signed 2-4-14, also no documentation of it being approved at board meeting, but was signed by board president Dan Smith. “Done by the order of the board of education” 1-21-2013.
  • Second 3rd contract: Same as above but signed by Dianne on 1-29-14 and “done by the order of the board” on 1-21-2014.

These contracts are discussed in the state audit report on the pages numbered 6-7. In the end, Critchlow was paid the $260,598 salary that year, retroactively applied to the entire school year, though the last contract was enacted in January. According to the audit, this was the highest rate of pay per student enrolled of all Missouri superintendents that year and the 2nd-highest overall.

Smith Interview

A JeffCo detective interviewed the aforementioned Dan Smith. He said he did not recall signing three contracts that school year. He said he used his electronic signature once, for a “minor” contract. The audit states that electronic signatures of the board president and secretary were able to be automatically added to new contracts when they were printed, which would explain why he did not recall using them on Critchlow contracts.

Smith recalled that he was summoned to the office of Critchlow’s secretary, Deborah Davis, to sign “an unknown contract on an unknown date for an unknown reason” (these are the words of the interviewer). Whatever it was, he went ahead and signed it. Way to be diligent, there.

Smith also reported that he missed the 1-21-14 board meeting due to recovering from surgery. Look above at the date the second 3rd contract was supposedly approved by the board.

Dan Smith now serves on the county planning and zoning board, to which he was appointed by county executive Ken Waller.

I will wrap up this post now, and conclude my review of the JeffCo Sheriff’s investigative report into the Critchlow affair in Part 3.

Lowlights of JeffCo Sheriff’s Critchlow Report, Part 1

4 Sep

After much nagging, and bringing in the Missouri Attorney General, Rich Simpson over at Fox C-6 Watchdogs has acquired an investigative report from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on the Dianne Critchlow reign of fraud at Fox C-6 school district. His Sunshine Law request was directed at the county prosecutor, Forrest Wegge, who claimed to no longer have a copy of the report, but when Sheriff Dave Marshak learned of the request, he gave a copy to Simpson. The report is here.

The information contained in the report makes it even harder to understand how Critchlow avoided prosecution. Let’s take a look at it.

Crutchley Interview

The first interview summarized in the report is with Tim Crutchley, who was Critchlow’s number two man for nine years, first among the many assistant superintendents that Fox employed then. He became interim superintendent when Critchlow abruptly retired, and shortly thereafter took a big $77,000 buyout as part of Fox’s ridiculous golden parachute program from the Critchlow era. As you may recall, the Leader did a puff piece interview when he retired in which they didn’t ask a single question about Critchlow.

Crutchley had lots to say to the deputies and FBI agents who interviewed him. Here’s how the interview summary starts:

crutchley bitch

He proceeded to call out the following people:

  • Dianne’s husband Jamie Critchlow (and five other unnamed individuals) for holding jobs requiring a Master’s degree without actually having one.
  • Longtime Fox school board member Pete Nicholas, who was voted out in 2013 (before the Critchlow scandals broke), for just happening to work for whatever electric company got contracts to do work with the Fox district, and for his wife having a food service job with the district that was, Crutchley says, created by Critchlow.
    • This electrical stuff is a new allegation, at least to me. We know that Critchlow rewarded board members who abetted her reign, and we know that the food service department was one place where employees of board members got jobs (see Kelly Nash).
  • Debbie Davis, Dianne’s administrative assistant and the school board secretary, for being “overpaid” and for letting Dianne use her district credit card.
  • Mark McCutchen, former Fox CFO who abruptly resigned as the poo was approaching the fan, for not being qualified, having no clue what he was doing, shredding lots of documents before he departed the district, and for getting $18,000 in “hush money” from Dianne on the way out.
  • Dianne’s son, for getting paid as a student worker while he was away at college.

This interview seems to prove my thought all along that Crutchley knew what was going on at Fox. How could he not? Even though he claimed to be all about character when he was at Ridgewood Middle School, when he worked under Dianne he did not exhibit character, he exhibited cowardice and complicity.

[I reckon he could have found all this stuff out only after the scandal broke, but I’m not buying that.]

The way he sang to the feds, he could have been the star witness against Critchlow at trial. But unfortunately, feckless prosecutors deprived him of the chance.

Brazeal Interview

Current Fox CFO John Brazeal, who uncovered and revealed a lot of the Critchlow fraud when he took over for McCutchen, was the next interview to be summarized in the report. Here’s what he described:

  • A “do what you’re told because I’m your boss” atmosphere where many feared to speak up because they might lose their jobs.
  • The school board would often vote on items without having all the details.
    • We know that Critchlow withheld information from the board, but the board did not appear to ask too many questions along the way, perhaps in part because some of them had relatives that Critchlow got jobs for in the district.
  • Critchlow donated district money to the MO Association of School Business Officials, but then created a fake check and got reimbursed personally for it.
  • Jamie Critchlow getting a principal job despite lacking the required credentials, and being hired at a dollar amount, not a salary step.
  • Fox’s CFO before McCutchen, Jim Berblinger, had lunches daily with Fox vendors at the Pasta House in Arnold, at which Berblinger would provide the vendors with lists of items he wanted, in exchange for larger contracts with Fox. The interviewing deputy said he had not been able to verify this, but there is no other follow-up mentioned in the report.
    • This is another new-to-me allegation. Berblinger gets blamed in Fox’s response to the state audit for basically being lax, but this suggests he was actively involved in fraud himself.
  • Brazeal also attests to McCutchen’s shredding of documents.
  • Critchlow’s sons were employed by the district, but may or may not have done actual work. One son received $4,000 in scholarships from Fox, directed to him by his mom, as I described here.
  • Jamie accompanied Dianne on a business trip, and trip got paid for by the district even though it was personal.
  • As we saw on the district’s long-withheld credit card statements, Dianne was a big spender on sites like Amazon.com. Many purchases were shipped to her home. She also appears to have gotten the district to pay for her son’s graduation robe.

But wait, there’s more! I will cover other interviews in the sheriff’s report in my next post.

Eclipse Turnout Below Projections

27 Aug

Along with witnessing the remarkable eclipse itself, obviously, I was interested to see what kind of visitor turnout there would be locally for the big event. Forecasts were difficult, because there is no precedent for an event like this. It is understandable that officials wanted to err on the high side in order to avoid getting swamped with unexpected numbers. Some projections that were published locally included a doubling of the county population on eclipse day (our current population is about 225,000) and up to 40,000 people in DeSoto, at the center of the path of totality.

But let’s take a look at some actual visitor estimates, as reported in the Leader and elsewhere:

Hillsboro: “hundreds…viewed the eclipse at Jefferson College.”

Arnold: “hundreds..gathered at Arnold City Park.” “Crowds were lighter” at the Saturday and Sunday events. “Traffic…was much lighter than expected.”

De Soto: “1,500 to 2,000 people. “Parking lots around town still had plenty of spaces.”

Festus: “Near-capacity crowd” at West City Park. “A parks department guy…thought there were 4,000 people” but the fire chief thought it was higher. The police chief estimated 12-15,000 at West City Park. KMOV says Festus had over 20,000 total visitors.

Herculaneum: “crowd of about 1,000 at Herculaneum High…200 more at City Park.”

These number don’t include others who watched at private homes or other viewing events hosted by businesses (like Surdyke Harley or Villa Antonio Winery), churches, baseball fields, etc.

Festus seems to have drawn the most local visitors, which I attribute to its location near I-55 and the fact that it advertised one site for all its festivities. De Soto had a longer totality, but their marketing was basically “here are a bunch of places in town to watch.” Festus has many more hotel rooms than De Soto, also, so that was likely a factor.

I did not expect Arnold to get many visitors, since it only experienced 2 minutes 8 seconds of totality at the park where it hosted an event. People who traveled for the eclipse were going to try to get as much totality as possible (De Soto got half a minute more than Arnold), and thus bypass cities further from the center of the path of totality. And locals, I think, were more likely to avoid the crowds and watch from the comforts of home, where air conditioning, bathrooms, and fridges were available, even sacrificing a dozen or two seconds of totality in exchange for convenience.

For a nearby data point, Jefferson City’s turnout was about half of what was predicted.

Traffic

The Leader also reports that the weekend was “peaceful and traffic congestion-free,”and that backups did not occur until Monday morning in the 9 am hour on southbound roads. There were some northbound backups after totality ended. According to MODOT, 55 South was “fairly heavy, but steady” on eclipse morning and “fairly heavy” on 55 North afterwards. This is what I noticed as well. As with many parts of the country, traffic was worse after the eclipse than before it.

However, MODOT also said the traffic was “what they expected.” These results are not consistent with the department’s warnings leading up to the eclipse of massive traffic. MODOT also said that there was heavy traffic Saturday, which I don’t think we really saw here in JeffCo. In line with what Arnold said, there were not big Saturday visitor numbers. I did not see reports about attendance at Herky’s weekend events, but I did attend the parade there Saturday morning and the crowd was light. I think the vast majority of eclipse visitors came to town Sunday night or even Monday morning, in part due to the fact that our county’s limited hotel room inventory was all booked up. Even in Carbondale, site of the longest duration of total eclipse, the visitor numbers were reportedly underwhelming on Saturday and into early Sunday, though things definitely picked up after that.

Weather Impact

The weather may have played some role in reducing the number of visitors to the area. Right up until eclipse morning, the forecast was for approximately 50 percent clouds over our area. Serious eclipse viewers may have decided at the last minute to head for other locales, such as the Nashville area, where the forecast was for clear skies. That’s what the head of the St Louis Eclipse Task Force did. However, it sounds like Nashville had more cloud issues than we did. From my vantage point, clouds only covered the sun for one brief moment an hour before totality.

On the other hand, the forecast was worse in the Columbia and Kansas City areas, so we have have received a last-minute bump from people redirecting from points west.

Again, I don’t blame anyone for overestimating how many visitors we would receive for the eclipse. I just think it is worthwhile to compare projections to reality. After all, there’s another eclipse in seven years (JeffCo residents will have to travel a bit for that one – SEMO, here I come), and we have to start planning soon. Tip #1: BUY YOUR DANG GLASSES WELL IN ADVANCE!

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