Ethics Questions Again for Local Attorney

15 Jun

A JeffCo lawyer who serves as judge for the once-predatory Byrnes Mill court, Colby Smith-Hynes, is accused of unethical conduct in a family law case where he was representing his wife (and employee of his law firm) April regarding her kids from a previous marriage. This conduct allegedly includes his firm forging a signature and fraudulently notarizing it, which allowed Smith-Hynes to represent his wife’s ex-husband (Sean) for a several-month period without his knowledge, even though the ex-husband is actually siding against April and with the long-deceived biological father in this case (Steve) in a drawn-out paternity/custody case.

The notary for the Smith-Hynes Law Firm has received a cautionary letter from the Missouri Secretary of State over this incident, and the state Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel is investigating. While Colby was ordered to withdraw from this case, since he might be a witness, the only other lawyer at his law firm, Matt Stone, has taken over these duties. Stone has moved to quash a request that the original signed, notarized document be produced in court.

After the ex-husband found out about the unwanted representation, he put an end to it. After that, with his position damaged, Smith-Hynes lashed out in lawyerly fashion with unwarranted filings, including an order of protection against Steve, depriving him of contact with his own son, and a motion for contempt claiming Sean is behind on child support payments. These filings are intended to delay the proceedings, increase legal costs, and inflict stress. Meanwhile, April continues to receive child support payments, and a teenage boy continues to live in limbo.

These parties are simultaneously battling in small claims court. Sean’s wife, Shannyn, was forced to pay taxes on the loan forgiveness of a vehicle that April took ownership of when divorcing Sean but then lost to default and repossession. The IRS does not recognize divorce settlements, so Sean (and therefore Shannyn) were stuck with the $1,400 debt when April did not pay. Now she has to sue April to get it back. Colby is representing her on this case. A search of Casenet and PACER (the federal courts database) reveals that the Smith-Hynes’ have run into a lot of trouble with paying their debts over the years.

Past Issues

Smith-Hynes serves as municipal judge for the two formerly most confiscatory cities in the county when it comes to charging high fees for traffic tickets, Byrnes Mill and Hillsboro. The legislature passed SB5 in 2015, and this law has since forced ticket reforms and fee reduction. In his judicial capacity, Smith-Hynes was found to have double billed the two cities in 2012-2014 for some travel expenses for the annual municipal judge party/conference at Lake of the Ozarks. After my investigation, he reimbursed Byrnes Mill almost $400, calling it an “oversight.”

Recall Effort Launched Against Jefferson County Executive

12 Jun

Unlike many levels of government, the Jefferson County Charter allows for the recall (or removal from office) of county elected officials upon the collection of a specified number of voter signatures followed by a public vote. For the first time, a recall effort has been launched in the county, directed at county executive Ken Waller, a Republican who has clashed repeatedly with the GOP-majority county council.

The reasons for the recall effort are laid out in the petition notice:

 

Reason one is the politician pay lawsuit that he is a part of. Reason two is his alleged role in the Health Department end-around of the council to pass a prescription drug monitoring plan. Reason three is his behavior towards citizens at council meetings and other public forums, and the sending of cease and desist letters.

According to the charter, petition organizers have six months to collect a number of signatures equal to 20% of the people who voted in the last gubernatorial election, which comes out to a requirement for 21,167 signatures. If this threshold is met, a vote would be held at the next election or a special election on whether or not to recall him, and a simple majority would be needed to remove Waller from office.

Waller was elected to his second term as county executive in 2014. I don’t believe he has announced whether or not he plans to run again in 2018, though he did try to land another job recently. He has $63,000 in his campaign account, but he also has a possible GOP primary challenger in state representative John McCaherty.

Here is an online version of the petition. The legality of an online signature is in question, so this may be more of an interest-gathering effort. If this petition interests you, best to sign a petition in person. I’m sure we’ll be seeing the petition at major county events this summer.

JeffCo Health Department Does Stealth End Run on PDMP

4 Jun

The Leader‘s Peggy Bess had a good column last week about the lack of openness exhibited by the Fox and DeSoto school boards in response to recent controversies. I think she should add the Jefferson County Health Department (JCHD) to this list for its sneaky passage of a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) ordinance on May 25, after the county council rejected such a proposal in April.

While it is true that the Health board has discussed PDMP at its meetings since August of last year, this was in the context of pushing the county council and city councils in the county to pass it. And Health board meetings are quite opaque anyway, as the JCHD does not post agendas or minutes on its website (with the exception of four meeting minutes from late 2015-early 2016) or even list meeting dates and times or who is on the board. [I am told by board president John Scullin that the JCHD will now start posting agendas and minutes.] The most information you can find about JCHD governance is on a state of Missouri web site.

The JCHD relied on a state law that gives health departments the right to make rules “to enhance the public health” to justify its own passage of a legislative ordinance.

“For the health, safety and welfare of the county, (the Health Department) can enact ordinances. It’s not used very often, but they can do it,” said county executive Ken Waller.

However, in early May (after the county council vote) the JCHD director, Kelley Vollmar, seemed to dismiss such a strategy in a comment to the Leader:

As an independent agency, we have the authority to create our own ordinances. But traditionally, independent health departments have been very respectful of county governments and the mandate that they have representing the people. I’m not sure that this is an area where we want to strike out on our own.

But all that went out the window after a special meeting of the JCHD board on May 15 at which Ken Waller appeared. Since JCHD only gives notice about its meetings via postings on the doors to its two facilities and via emails to the Leader, few people would have known about this meeting, where PDMP was the only item discussed. It was at the JCHD board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting ten days later on May 25 that the ordinance was passed. But the county council was not aware that this vote was going to take place. Waller could have announced the upcoming vote at the May 22 county council meeting, but he kept silent on the issue, instead issuing a veiled threat that he had a press release coming out about councilman Bob Boyer (this press release was promised last week but did not happen). Waller clearly wanted the passage of PDMP to be a surprise, and as such he deprived county residents of the chance to have their say.

Speaking generally, the JCHD board should have been more transparent in this. But when the board was planning to use a rarely used provision of law to counteract the decision of the people’s elected representatives, they had an extra duty to inform the public in advance. But they did not do so, because they did not want publicity or scrutiny.

PDMP Evidence in Illinois

The arguments in JeffCo in support of PDMP were mostly along the lines of “it’s the right thing to do” and “every other state does it.” Not a lot of evidence. Here is a recent article from across the river in Illinois, which has a PDMP, that is interesting:

mad_opi

Hmm. Illinois had a jump in opioid deaths in 2015, while Missouri did not, says the CDC. That year, Missouri was 22nd in the nation in opioid overdose deaths, which is a lot lower than you would expect after hearing the “only state without a PDMP” cry. Here’s another noteworthy item from the CDC:

PDMPs are promising tools for health care providers to see patients’ prescribing histories to inform their prescribing decisions. However, a PDMP is only useful to health care providers if they check the system before prescribing. Some states have implemented polices that require providers to check a state PDMP prior to prescribing certain controlled substances and in certain circumstances, and these policies have significant potential for ensuring that the utility and promise of PDMPs are maximized.

The St. Louis-area PDMP that JeffCo is joining does not require doctors to consult the database when issuing prescriptions, which seems to me to defeat the whole purpose of the database. The PDMP bill that has passed the state House several times is also optional for doctors.

Conflicts with Charter?

There is some question whether the Missouri statute in question here, RSMo 192.300, which gives health departments power to pass ordinances, applies to a charter county like JeffCo. The charter bestows all legislative power in the county upon the council. This question would have to be tested in court, though. Given that the county is currently spending a lot of money defending against lawsuits in which Waller is a plaintiff, the council may not want to incur more legal bills. But, to quote Scullin, the JCHD board president, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Perhaps the council can find other ways to fight back.

Wegge Walks Away

18 May

Not surprisingly, Jefferson County Prosecutor Forrest Wegge, a Democrat, has decided not to run for re-election in 2018, according to the Leader. He says the usual stuff about how it’s time to try something new and he’s been thinking about stepping down for a long time. But really, we know what this is about. With the GOP wave sweeping the county, he had little chance of winning again. Add to that his total bungling of the Dianne Critchlow case, which he first punted to the feds after a six-week review, but then only upon getting the case handed back to him did he decide that he should recuse himself due to his friendship with Critchlow. Why on God’s green Earth didn’t he recuse himself the first time around?

Of course, the Leader appeared to accept his explanation for not running again, and did not press him on either of these issues. The Leader has a history of not asking obvious questions about the Critchlow debacle to relevant figures.

Hats in the Ring

Two people have already announced plans to run for the job, both as Republicans.

The first one is Trisha Stefanski, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination to a county judge position last year. Interestingly, after the primary, she signed on to a newspaper ad (along with Bob Sweeney) which endorsed all of the Democratic candidates for judgeships. She responded to me about this issue here. Stefanski currently works in Wegge’s office. After the Critchlow debacle, though, we may need new blood at the top.

The second announced candidate is Mark Bishop, who ran against Wegge in 2006…as a Democrat. But you see, he’s not switching parties for political expediency, nope, he says the GOP “more closely aligns with my beliefs” now. Bishop is a partner and owner at Wegmann, a well-connected Hillsboro law firm. He formerly worked under St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough.

Waller Can’t Defend Pay Lawsuit, PDMP

17 May

Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller has always had difficulty providing a persuasive argument for his preferred policies, instead usually resorting to “because it is best and those who oppose me are dumbheads.” But he had even more difficulty giving a sufficient explanation to Fox 2’s Elliott Davis as to why he’s suing JeffCo taxpayers to get more salary for himself:

Oh, no, you see, it isn’t about getting more money in his pocket! He just wants clarification from the judge! If the judge decides I need more money, what can I do? *chuckles* If that’s the case, then Waller should come out right now and say that he will refuse to accept any extra money if he wins his lawsuit. I mean, if all he wants is a legal clarification, that should be an easy pledge to make and it would put people’s minds at ease that this isn’t about personal enrichment. We’ll be waiting.

PDMP Fails

The proposal for JeffCo to join a multi-county prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) to fight opioid abuse failed at the April 24 council meeting by a 4-3 vote, according to the Leader. The roll call was:

  • Don Bickowski – no
  • Renee Reuter – no
  • Bob Boyer – no
  • Charles Groeteke – no
  • Jim Kasten – yes
  • Dan Stallman – yes
  • Jim Terry – yes

Waller moped afterwards:

“It’s sad that people just don’t do the right thing, and that (allowing the county to join the database) was the right thing to do. The bottom line is that it didn’t pass, and more people are going to die and they’re not going to do anything about it.”

This was the extent of his argument for this bill, along with his single-minded focus on PDMP instead of a multi-pronged approach to the opioid/heroin problem, as was advocated by Boyer. No data, no facts, just demonizing. Waller also suggested he would go to Jefferson City to lobby for a statewide PDMP (which did not pass, but could come up in a special session). I doubt he would win over any votes there, either.

JeffCo Legislative Wrap-up

15 May

As a follow-up to my last post, here’s an update on JeffCo-related happenings in the last week of the legislative session:

-Senator Gary Romine’s SB 43, one of the most controversial bills of the session, was passed by the legislature after six hours of debate in the House on Monday night. This bill changes the standard for winning a discrimination case from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor.” In the House, JeffCo reps voted along party lines on this bill.

-Representative Rob Vescovo was able to pass his bonding bill by attaching it to another piece of Senate legislation, SB 111. The provision requires school districts and cities to use competitive bidding when they issue bonds. A state auditor’s report in 2013 stated that this practice is little used but will save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars per bond issue.

-Senator Paul Wieland had a bill, SB 302, that would allow for the creation of Advanced Industrial Manufacturing (AIM) Zones within ports (like the Jefferson County Port) along with some other port provisions. The bill, handled in the House by Rep. Becky Ruth, attracted a number of economic amendments, including one that would allow for special utility rates in the Bootheel in order to potentially attract a steel mill to replace a shuttered aluminum smelter, which was a major employer.

That amendment had some relation to SB 190, which was intended to allow for the modernization of Missouri’s electric grid. The plan would allow utilities like Ameren to raise rates to pay for these upgrades. But Sen. Romine led the charge against this bill, saying that it was not needed.

And so, likewise, with the Bootheel amendment, which Romine also opposed, seeing it as a giveaway to one company. Senator Wieland disagreed, according to the Missouri Times.

“It doesn’t cost the state a dime, we’re easing regulations, and creating jobs. This is straight from the Republican handbook, it seems to me,” Wieland said.

This opposition by Romine and others led to an epic rant from the House floor by Don Rone, a representative from the Bootheel (video here):

“I have traveled this entire United States and I’ve dealt with a lot of people in my job,” Rone continued. “I’ve dealt with some of the craziest farmers you’ve ever seen. But I don’t want to deal with the most selfish people as Libla, as Romine, in my life. Never. Five hundred shovel-ready jobs. I just don’t understand it. We shouldn’t pass anything they do because they’re heartless and they’re selfish. They are disrupting government at the state of Missouri. This is an opportunity for a whole generation in the state of Missouri. The citizens of my district will know and know and know how Libla treated them.”

Ultimately, the provision Rone wanted did not pass. However, the measure concerning AIM Zones in ports was attached as an amendment by Ruth to another bill, SB 283, which did pass the legislature.

-The Legislature passed a REAL ID bill that ensures that Missouri drivers licenses will still be accepted at airports and military bases next year. There has long been opposition in the Legislature to federal ID laws due to privacy. This bill gives Missourians the option of getting a REAL ID compliant license, which requires one’s proof-of-identity documents to be scanned and stored by the state. Rep. John McCaherty voted against this bill.

-Romine also played a role in bringing the Senate to a halt in the last two weeks. He joined up with several other senators on a crusade against “dark money” after a group linked to Governor Eric Greitens launched an ad against Sen. Rob Schaaf for his obstructionism. The group, A New Missouri, also prepared a mock-up of an ad against Romine, but did not run it. The group was able to force a hearing on an anti-dark money bill (dark money is given anonymously to non-profit organizations) by stopping Senate business, but the bill did not pass the Senate.

“The people of Missouri want ethics reform, and they don’t like these games that are being played,” said Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican. “I don’t think any member of this chamber wants to have a gun held to their head, that the governor might do this to them.”

Here’s an editorial by Romine on the matter. What’s funny to me is that this issue did not become serious until a senator was attacked, and only then did he and other senators react with high outrage.

-Rep. Ruth got a provision passed as part of SB 50 to add two new disorders to Missouri’s newborn screening test panel.

-Rep. Elaine Gannon and Sens. Wieland and Romine pushed a bill through to name a section of I-55 after West Point cadet Tom Surdyke of Festus, who died saving a classmate from drowning last year.

-The prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) bill failed, which keeps the issue alive at the county level, including here in JeffCo.

-Rep. Vescovo has announced that he will run for the position of House majority floor leader next year.

May Legislative Update

8 May
  • Sen. Gary Romine (R, 3rd district, Farmington) has been under heavy criticism for his role sponsoring SB43, a bill to change the legal standard in discrimination lawsuits from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor” (a higher bar to clear). This would prevent frivolous suits like the one filed by Arnold police chief Bob Shockey. Romine is under fire because a business he owns is being sued for discrimination. But this law would even not affect his case; since the suit is already in progress, it would proceed under the current rules. And people who are actually discriminated against can still win lawsuits under SB43, their claims just have to have some merit to them. Remember how Dianne Critchlow has threatened to sue the Fox district now that feckless prosecutors have let her off the hook? I guarantee her suit will include a baseless gender discrimination claim if it is filed under the current standard. As a business owner, Romine knows about the issues Missouri has with frivolous lawsuits, and is trying to address the problem. The House would need to approve this bill this week in order to send it to the governor.

Romine: “Rather than seeing this bill for what it is — one of the most significant economic development measures to come along in years — the media has been more interested in eliciting the opinions of trial attorneys, SB 43’s only real opposition and a group of people who generally stand to lose from any significant progress on the tort reform front.”

  • Sen. Paul Wieland (R, 22nd, Imperial) briefly held up the passage of HB 130, the bill to allow rideshare services like Uber to operate statewide. He thought, misguidedly in my opinion, that Uber drivers would drop their personal auto insurance since Uber provides coverage while you are working. He had other concerns as well. But three weeks later, Wieland’s concerns were satisfied and the bill was passed and signed into law.

“I just wanted to make sure we protect the public and we keep the number of uninsured motorists to a minimum and I believe this bill will do that,” Wieland told The Missouri Times Thursday.

  • Rep. Rob Vescovo (R, 112th, Arnold) was the House sponsor of SB 182, which eliminates project labor agreements in public construction projects. This bill, which has passed both houses, ends requirements that non-union contractors pay union wages and stops local governments from giving preferential treatment to union contractors. This bill will reduce the cost to taxpayers of public projects. Reps. Vescovo, Shaul, and John McCaherty (R, 97th, High Ridge) voted yes; Reps. Elaine Gannon (R, 115th, DeSoto), Becky Ruth (R, 114th, Festus), and Ben Harris (D, 118th, Hillsboro) voted no; and Roden voted present (weak).

“Some would say it’s an anti-union legislation, and I disagree,” Vescovo said after the House adjourned for the week. “I would say it’s pro-worker and it allows the other 86 percent of the workforce to bid on projects and work on projects without being signatory. That’s very important.”

  • Rep. Dan Shaul (R, 113th, Imperial) ticked off teachers, according to the Leader,  with his vote for HB634, which would allow for the expansion of charter schools in the state. Shaul also serves on the Windsor school board. Charters currently exist only in St. Louis and Kansas City. Teachers claimed Shaul has a conflict of interest, which I don’t buy. Some teachers turned their back on Shaul as he was sworn in for another term at the April 12 board meeting, which is quite juvenile. It doesn’t look like this bill will get a Senate vote. McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo also voted yes on this bill.

“I would disagree with the assumption that my vote on HB 634 was a conflict of interest,” Shaul said. “The vote I took on 634 was to ensure that all kids throughout the state of Missouri have the same opportunity that kids (who) go to Windsor have.”

  • Along with SB43, other much-needed legal reforms have been advancing through the legislature, and our county reps have voted for them along party lines. However, Rep. Shane Roden (R, 111th, Cedar Hill) voted no on HB460, which would limit out-of-state plaintiffs who bring their cases in St. Louis in hopes of winning big verdicts. This is why you hear all those ads from lawyers about talcum powder and cancer on the radio or see them on billboards. Those plaintiffs don’t even live here.
  • Sen. Romine took to the Senate floor during debate over the budget to offer an amendment to fully fund the state’s foundation formula for education for the first time. It was a bit unusual to do this on the floor after the Appropriations Committee already put the budget bill together, and it caused a split between Senate leadership and some GOP senators as the amendment passed. Romine voted yes on this, Wieland voted no. The House also voted to fully fund the formula.
  • The issue of whether to join a prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) has been roiling county government here for months, but such a plan is also advancing at the legislature, and if it passes it would make the JeffCo debate moot. The House and Senate will be going to a conference committee to iron out their differences, but with only one week left, it seems unlikely this will get done. In the House, representatives McCaherty, Roden, and Vescovo voted no on the PDMP bill, HB 90, as did Sen. Wieland.
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