Time to Shut ‘Er Down

26 Sep

After about 8 years of occupying this outpost, the time has come for me to close up shop. I will be moving out of the area and so will no longer be able to look into the events happening below the surface in our fair county. I hope that I have shed a little light, opened a few eyes, helped explain some things, and forced some accountability. I also hope I have equipped some of you with the tools and inspiration to do your own investigating and advocating.

I will leave this site up, since many of the same names get recycled over and again around here through the years, and I think this site can serve as a useful resource to provide some background next time a big story arises. Thanks for reading and commenting here and on social media, and for providing me with tips and information, these past 8 years.

Sunshine Primer: How to Get Info

16 Aug

I thought I’d put together a short description of Missouri’s Sunshine Law and how you can use it to get information from our local governments.  This is a tool I have used a number of times, and anyone can use it, not just journalists or big-time bloggers.

The Sunshine Law is enshrined in state statutes and sets out the requirements for what information a government must share, and in what cases it can keep items confidential. It also sets out how citizens can make requests for information that the government entities are legally required to respond to. In cases of violation of the law, the state attorney general can get involved to force the entity to fulfill the request.

Meetings

Part of the law pertains to the notice that must be given in advance of meetings of government bodies, and that those meetings must be open to the public, except for closed sessions. The agenda of the meeting is included in this notice. Sometimes, a government entity will just post the notice on the door of city hall. This is sufficient, but it is weak, and cities should be posting full agendas and meeting schedules on their websites. Some cities in JeffCo are good at this (Pevely, Arnold) and others are abysmal (Hillsboro, DeSoto [but the latter has improved slightly]).

If you are interested in keeping close tabs on a government body, it is a good idea to check each agenda before the meeting to see what will be discussed. This may offer the only chance to learn about or comment on something before it gets voted on.

These provisions also prevent elected officials from gathering in a quorum to discuss official business outside of an announced meeting.

Regarding closed sessions, the law outlines what reasons are permissible for going into closed sessions (closed sessions are allowed, but rarely required). Governing bodies are supposed to cite in the agenda the specific reason they are going into closed session (legal issue, real estate, personnel issue, etc). Results of votes in closed sessions regarding hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of particular employees must be released within 72 hours of the vote.

Police Reports

There are three types of police reports mentioned in the Sunshine Law: arrest reports, incident reports and investigative reports. The first two of these are basic reports that describe the initial facts related to an arrest or the initial report of a crime or incident. These reports are open records and can be requested right away after the arrest or incident. They may not have very much information other than date, time, and location of the incident, but can often serve to indicate that something happened, pursuant to a rumor or unconfirmed report that a noteworthy event occurred.

Investigative reports offer a detailed account of the facts behind an incident, and the results of any investigation done by law enforcement. These reports are not available until the investigation becomes inactive, either because charges aren’t being pursued or the accused are convicted. But if charges are filed, a lot of this information shows up in the case records.

Government Documents

The Sunshine Law can be used to acquire a number of government documents, including contracts (for professional services, employees, purchases, etc), legal settlements (unlike in private lawsuits, settlements involving governments can’t be kept secret), budgets, even emails and internal memos.

Submitting Requests and Costs

Sunshine requests can be sent most often to city clerks or board secretaries by email. The Missouri AG provides some sample language for Sunshine requests; some cities have forms they want you to fill out. Government bodies are required to respond to your request within 3 business days. This doesn’t mean they have to give you the requested info in that time frame, but they have to acknowledge your request and let you know they are working on it.

Entities are limited in what they can charge you for these requests; 10 cents per page for copies and “the hourly fee for duplicating time not to exceed the average hourly rate of pay for clerical staff of the public governmental body.” Also, “based on the scope of the request, the public governmental body shall produce the copies using employees of the body that result in the lowest amount of charges for search, research, and duplication time.”

But the entity doesn’t have to charge you. “Documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when the public governmental body determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest.” Some bodies will waive the fees, some won’t, but it is worth asking.

Sometimes entities will try to charge you a lot up front to dissuade you from making a request. For example, on one occasion Pevely tried to make me pay $125 up front so the city attorney could redact documents before they were given to me. After this happened, a St. Louis County judge ruled that governments cannot charge fees for redacting and segregating closed records. This case reportedly only applies to St. Louis County, but I suspect the ruling would weigh heavily if someone filed suit in another county over this practice.

Enforcement

If you think a government entity is screwing you over in refusing to release information, you can complain to the state Attorney General. The AG takes these complaints seriously, and the AG’s office has intervened several times in recent years in response to Sunshine complaints out of JeffCo. And if you aren’t sure, you can call them and get some guidance on whether you might have a case.

A Powerful Tool

I hope this post is useful to anyone out there that is interested in local government and holding elected and appointed officials accountable. As I said, the Sunshine Law can be used by anyone, and it is a powerful tool that provides citizens with the ability to acquire information from governments.

 

 

Pevely & Sweeney Form Unholy Alliance

23 Jul

Pevely, the city locally famous for cronyism and police abuse, has hired a new city attorney in a special meeting. It is the law firm of Bob Sweeney, who is known for weak legal knowledge and interfering in politics on behalf of the regimes that employ him, particularly in Arnold and Byrnes Mill, as I have written about often. Seems like a perfect match.

The law firm and the city have some history. In September 2015, Sweeney appeared before the board of aldermen on behalf of McCain Towing, demanding that the board stop trying to put a city contract that was held by McCain out for bids. He threatened to file personal lawsuits against the aldermen if they did not desist. As I have noted here before, the owner of McCain Towing is the live-in partner of Pevely mayor Steph Haas, and the city and the company are intertwined in several ways, including this recent trailer purchase.

Sweeney’s daughter and law partner, Allison, represented Haas’ hand-picked police chief, Tony Moutray, when he was being investigated for domestic violence, an incident I uncovered which led to his departure from the chief job in 2019.

I can’t wait to see what Pevely and the Sweeneys do when they are (officially) on the same side.

Strange Glitch

Speaking of McCain, Pevely recently experienced a “glitch.” This is from the June 29 board workshop:

mccain overpay 6-29-20

What are the odds that of all the city vendors that could have been accidentally overpaid multiple times, it happened to a McCain company (which is what I-55 Auto Center is)?

JeffCo COVID-19 Numbers as Reopening Expands

17 Jun

I have been providing these charts on Facebook and Twitter on an irregular basis since COVID-19 arrived in our county. I decided to post this one here for posterity. I use the JeffCo Health Department’s daily numbers to compile these charts. The Health Department does a good job of reporting on the corona situation in our county, but I feel like this chart adds extra value, particularly as it provides a 7-day rolling average of new daily cases, which gives us an indicator of what the trend is in the county,

new chart 17 Jun

On Monday, the Governor announced that Missouri would fully reopen yesterday (June 16) and enter Phase 2 of the recovery plan. This means that local officials will decide what cautionary restrictions to enact to prevent the spread of the virus.

As you can see, JeffCo has been in pretty good shape since the Festus Manor nursing home spike in April. The spike on the right side of the chart was a one-day bunch of nursing home cases reported on June 2 that immediately subsided. JeffCo has been seeing less than 5 new cases per day on average since late April besides that one day, despite all the cries of “just wait two weeks!” The last two days have seen 7 and 6 new cases, however, so it will be worth watching the rest of the week to see if this trend continues.

On June 11, the county announced 15 new cases that were determined by IgG antibody tests. I decided not to include these in my chart, because doing so would create a misleading spike, given that these cases happened at various times in the past and were not new.

Dunklin Fire Response to Tax Rejection

16 Jun

In my previous post, I wrote about how the Dunklin Fire Protection District’s request for tax hikes was shot down for the second year in a row. Here is the response from Chief Brad Williams from the June 11 Leader:

When people vote against tax increases, the response is always the same: “the voters were uneducated.” They say, “we just need to do work harder on telling them why they should give us more money.” Officials never stop to think that maybe there is a reason people are voting no.

This response goes a step further, however. It sounds to me like Williams is issuing a bit of a threat: “You’d better give us more money or we won’t rescue you when your house starts on fire.” I think this is kind of appalling. You might say that they are just warning us about what might happen if they don’t have enough money in their budget, but this is another classic government trick: when facing cuts, threaten to get rid of things that the taxpayers want, instead of making cuts in other places, or finding other ways to make ends meet (like a merger).

It looks like Dunklin is just going to ask for another tax hike in 2021, despite losing by a wide margin two times already, without offering any substantial change in order to earn votes (besides possibly lowering the amount of the hike, like they tried this year).

How many more times will voters have to say no before Dunklin Fire will consider the idea of merging?

Dunklin Fire Loses Tax Votes Again; Time to Merge

8 Jun

For the second year in a row, Dunklin Fire District voters resoundingly rejected two tax hikes requested by the district. This year, the district asked for a 25-cent property tax increase for general revenue (down from a 50-cent request last year) and a 5-cent increase for pensions. The measures lost, with 65% and 63% of voters saying no, respectively.

The fire taxes failed last year as well:

The April 2019 Dunklin Fire propositions also were called Proposition S and Proposition P and also required simple majorities to pass. Proposition S, the 50-cent property tax increase, failed with 627 no votes, or 65.86 percent, and 325 yes votes, or 34.14 percent. Proposition P, the 5-cent property tax increase, was rejected with 603 votes, or 62.42 percent, against, and 363, or 37.58 percent cent in favor.

As you see, cutting the one tax request in half pretty much gained them zero extra percentage of votes.

I have been beating this drum a lot in general, but I’d say it is time for Dunklin FD to find a merger partner. The obvious choice would be the Herculaneum Fire Department. Many cities in JeffCo don’t have their own FD, but are instead part of a district (for example, Arnold, Hillsboro, Pevely). Two cities that have their own fire departments, DeSoto and Festus, are much bigger than Herky. Crystal City is not much bigger, but they also should not have their own FD.

Dunklin FD is on the right edge of the map in the center of the county:

jeffco-fire-dist-map2

A merger would allow for the elimination of a chief, maybe an assistant chief, and perhaps another position or two. It would also allow for sharing of equipment and fire houses.

According to Facebook posts by the two FDs, here are the number of calls they have fielded so far this year:

  • Dunklin: About 660 runs through May = 4.3 per day
  • Herky: 133 runs through April = 1.1 per day

In both cases, most of the calls have been for emergency medical services, so we can presume that the local ambulance district (Joachim-Plattin) is responding to these calls as well. I think a merged FD could handle this combined call volume.

Since Dunklin seems to have little chance of getting a tax increase, now is the time to make this merger happen. Only when forced by circumstances are changes like this likely to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and parochial interests.

However, Herculaneum just successfully passed a public safety tax hike, which in part will allow them to hire two new firefighters, in addition to the paid one they have now. This might make them less likely to want to merge, but most of the tax money is for police, and it seems that Herculaneum will likely remain in a tough financial situation, so perhaps there is still some hope.

Herky Cemetery Follow-Up

15 Apr

In July 2018 I wrote about a weird lawsuit involving the Herculaneum cemetery. That case seems to have disappeared from Casenet for some reason (Pryor vs City of Herculaneum). The last items I saw about the suit from there were some motions in limine in November 2019. I’m not sure if these would have resulted in the case being stricken from Casenet.

Anyhoo, I do have an update. One of the issues in the lawsuit was whether the cemetery was disclosing to customers that it was a non-endowed cemetery, meaning it did not have money set aside to care for the property in perpetuity. Well, an addition has been made to the sign at Herky Cemetery:

NE cemetery

HP Investigation Sheds New Light on DeSoto Accusations

14 Mar

Back in September 2018 I wrote about assault allegations made by a DeSoto city employee against councilman/mayor Rich McCane. But now, newly revealed information about a Missouri Highway Patrol investigation into that city employee forces us to look at these allegations in a new light.

The alleged assault incident, for which no charges were brought, happened in August 2018. DeSoto Public Works Director Kevin Warden, who made the allegation, was last interviewed by the HP in April 2018, only four months previously. In the interview, Warden seemed to contradict himself and could not account for $3,800 in missing funds. You can read the summary of the investigation at the bottom of this post.

The HP was brought in to investigate in DeSoto because two councilmen learned about a sketchy scheme and informed the authorities. The two councilmen were Clayton Henry and Rich McCane.

Scrap Scheme

The activity that the HP was investigating started in 2015 when the city began to replace all of its water meters. The old meters contained brass, which could be sold to a metal recycler. So city employees in the Public Works Department took the meters apart to separate the brass and took loads of the metal to be sold. However, employees were instructed to take the payments in cash, if possible, or to have the checks made out to them personally instead of to the city. The employees were then told to cash the checks and bring the cash to Warden. Warden kept the cash in a can in his office. Some employees said they felt intimidated into going along with this scheme.

Reportedly, the money was used for employee barbecues and turkey dinners, as well as to buy TVs and other items for the Department. Warden said some dinners cost up to $500. Receipts gathered by the HP showed expenditures consistent with dinners, but also showed purchases of pizza, Febreze, dog food, gas station snacks, car washes, furniture polish, and a Microsoft tablet.

In total, the Department scrapped metal worth about $13,800. However, between receipts for purchases left in the can, and unspent cash, only about $9,900 was accounted for. Warden could not say (interview report here) where the remaining almost-$4,000 went. Warden claimed the City Manager at the time, the late David Dews, knew all about the slush fund, and even that he authorized its creation. But in his interview with the HP, Dews (who was fired in October 2017) said he first learned about the fund only in the previous year, when it was brought to his attention by an employee, and claimed that he thought the fund was small, as low as $100 (the HP found $2,000 in the can). But Dews also says he didn’t ask how much money was involved. Dews said he told Warden to do what the city’s auditor suggested, turn the money over to the city to handle. But Dews didn’t follow up, he just assumed the matter was closed. It sounds from the investigation like Dews pursued a don’t ask, don’t tell policy about the fund – he really didn’t want to know. At least one of these two men was not being completely honest here.

No charges were filed as a result of this investigation by the JeffCo Prosecutor’s office.

Assault Claim A Revenge Ploy?

Given this information, we must question the timing of the assault allegations by Warden against McCane. You can read his complaint here (well, you can try, it is pretty much illegible). Was this allegation made in an attempt to seek revenge against McCane for exposing Warden’s scheme and putting him in legal jeopardy? After leaving the council, McCane also mentioned receiving anonymous, threatening letters? Was Warden involved in those as well?

According to the city website, Warden remains the Public Works Director in DeSoto. The HP investigation indicates that after this came to light, subsequent proceeds from metal recycling were handed over to the city.

Yet Another Lawsuit Reveals Continued Repercussions of Pevely Mayor’s Choice of Moutray for Chief

25 Feb

The decision by Pevely mayor Steph Haas to select Tony Moutray as chief of police in spring 2018 (after he unofficially took over in fall 2016) over objections from the board of aldermen has caused several black eyes, and several big lawsuit payouts, for the city. While Moutray was forced out in March 2019 over domestic violence accusations (first reported by me), the repercussions of his reign continue to unfold. Another lawsuit is the latest aftershock.

In this case, Pevely officer Amanda Kula, who worked for the city from 2015 until she was fired in December 2018, is suing for sex discrimination (read the lawsuit here). In the lawsuit, she gives a list of incidents where she was reprimanded and claims the reprimands were unfair and that male officers were not written up for similar actions. The main players identified in the lawsuit as engaging in discrimination are:

-Moutray, who in addition to the domestic violence accusation, was involved in a police abuse case that netted a $300,000 settlement for the abused party.

-Ryan Watson, who was hired and promoted to corporal by Moutray, and was fired in May 2019 and pled guilty to a federal misdemeanor after being caught on video abusing a prisoner at the city jail.

-Ben Litteral, who was promoted to sergeant by Moutray. He is alleged in the suit to have had a sexual encounter with Kula, and that this later affected his supervision of her.

Disparate Treatment

Here are some examples from the lawsuit of behavior Kula was punished or treated differently for, compared to specific male counterparts who engaged in the same activity during the same time period:

  • Required to provide a doctor’s note because she left work early to care for a sick child. Watson had done the same thing two weeks previously but was not asked for a note.
  • Was not allowed to bring home her patrol car because she lived more that 15 miles from Pevely. Watson, however, was allowed to take his car home despite living over 15 miles away.
  • Had to provide documentation for needing to miss work during a city movie night, while two male officers were able to miss that night without documentation.
  • Her patrol car was reassigned to another officer while she was on medical leave. Two male officers did not lose their cars while on medical leave.
  • Written up for being involved in a police pursuit just outside city limits. Litterall and Watson had previously violated pursuit policy and were not punished.
    • I’m not sure if this is what the lawsuit refers to, but in 2014 Litterall was part of a police chase that led to the deaths of three passengers and cost the city almost $350,000 in a lawsuit settlement.
  • Reprimanded for missing an official photo shoot after being sent home because her dress pants did not fit. A male officer missed the shoot but was not written up.
  • Kula now works for the Herculaneum PD, but is not allowed to access the Pevely jail, which Herculaneum uses. When she was hired there, Pevely cut off jail access to the entire PD, but eight months later restored access to all Herky officers but Kula.

One of the most damning allegations is that Watson, in front of several officers, yelled “I can’t wait to fire that dyke bitch!” He was upset he had to work on Halloween to cover her shift while she was on medical leave. Throughout the suit, Watson is described as being the most antagonistic to Kula, and other officers witnessed this behavior.

The city will argue that the reprimands and the firing were justified. However, personnel records should exist to prove or disprove the above examples of disparate treatment. Furthermore, what is the city going to do? Put Moutray on the stand? Fetch Watson from a jail cell and put him on the stand? That would be a disaster for the city; with their records, these two witnesses would be destroyed on cross-examination. Expect yet another settlement.

Greivances Aired and Ignored

In January 2019, about a month after she was fired, Kula and another former officer, Tim Schiele, appeared before the Pevely board of aldermen to lay out a list of issues they had observed with the PD. The board, which is beholden to mayor Haas and was buddies with Moutray, refused to act on the allegations, just like they refused to act when Alderman Larry Coulson threatened officers with consequences if they persisted in investigating him for harassment.

JeffCo Medical Weed Licensees Have Limited Apparent Local Ties

8 Feb

The results of the Missouri medical marijuana licensing process are out, courtesy of the state Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS). A total of 11 individual facilities proposing to operate in Jefferson County received licenses (out of 38 applications). I checked the MO Secretary of State website to see who the listed officers were of the companies that were successful. While these companies can operate with some level of anonymity behind registered agents and “organizers” who work for big law firms, from what I found, it does not appear that any of the successful companies have local ties, with one exception. It is possible that there are more locals involved, but their names have not been made public at this time.

The exception is North Medical Group, which won two dispensary licenses. The owner of the company, Zach Mangelsdorf, is not from JeffCo but he owns Home Service Oil Company, which owns several JeffCo gas stations and led the charge to require prepaying for gas at stations in the unincorporated county.

Here are the victorious licensees, by type of license:

Dispensaries

Nirvana Bliss I – Registered Agent: CT Corporation System, Clayton; Listed Organizer: lawyer at Spencer Fane law firm, St. Louis

Nirvana Bliss III – Same as above

Occidental Group – Registered Agent: STLHCRA, St. Louis; Listed Organizer: John Narayan, St. Louis

North Medical Group (two dispensaries) – Registered Agent: Zachary Mangelsdorf, St. Louis: Listed Organizer: Christopher Yarbro, Poplar Bluff

VG Imperial – Registered Agent: SCW Registered Agent, St. Louis (Summers Compton Wells law firm); Listed Organizer: Same

Infused product manufacturing

Robust Missouri Process and Manufacturing 2 – Registered Agent: Kent Weber, St. Charles; Listed Organizer: Same

5150 Processing – Same as Nirvana Bliss above

CMOY – Registered Agent: AT Inc, St. Louis; Listed Organizer: Bill Mackiernan, Denver, CO

Cultivation

None

Transportation

Bold Lane Logistics – Same as Nirvana Bliss above

Testing

GCA – Registered Agent: Accountax, St. Louis; Incorporator: Alisa Meister, St. Louis; Board Members: Syed Hayat, St. Louis, Saqlain Sial, St. Charles

 

Locals Strike Out

By contrast, one JeffCo applicant that does have local ties but was denied licenses, Bright Green Missouri, headed by Arnold city councilman Jason Fulbright, lists Fulbright and four other locals as organizers of the company.

Another company that did not receive a dispensary license was Generations, LLC, which applied for a license to operate in Arnold and lists local big time lawyer Derrick Good as registered agent. I found a couple of other failed applicants with JeffCo ties. But being a hometown weed entrepreneur was clearly not a big deal to the people handing out the licenses.

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