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Sweeney Rebuked by MO Appeals Court

4 Jan

Robert Sweeney, who serves as attorney for multiple local government entities, including the cities of Arnold and Byrnes Mill, and who appears frequently in these pages, has once again achieved that combination of malfeasance and incompetence that he is known for. This time, his client was the Northeast Public Sewer District (NEPSD) of Jefferson County. In this case, the Appeals Court for the Eastern District of Missouri slammed Sweeney for filing a “frivolous appeal” and awarded legal costs to his opponent as a punishment.

Case Background

  • NEPSD took an easement on the property of one William Feucht of Fenton by condemnation and paid him $570 (Sweeney has experience with land taking – Arnold used eminent domain against a number of people and businesses to help a private developer build Arnold Commons. This led to long legal proceedings and surely big legal bills).
  • Feucht sued and won a jury trial that awarded him $11,500 for the property.
  • Sweeney appealed the verdict on the sole grounds that Feucht’s service in the Marines, which was mentioned during the trial, was irrelevant and prejudiced the jury.

The Decision

Now here is where the incompetence comes in. In order to appeal on certain grounds, you have to present that argument in the original case. If you don’t object to something at the time, you can’t complain about it later.

The reason Feucht’s service came up was that he was an accountant in the Marine Corps. He claimed at trial that this was part of his qualifications for being able to to state that his land was worth more than NEPSD gave him credit for.

Before evidence was presented at the trial, Sweeney made vague statements like (paraphrasing) “I may object to one or two slides” and “I don’t know what relevance this Marine thing is.” But when Feucht testified on his qualifications, and when he entered his Marine meritorious promotion certificate into evidence, Sweeney did not object. He also never motioned for a new trial. So he lost any right to appeal based on this issue.

And here we turn to the malfeasance. The court states that, even if Sweeney was able to appeal the mention of military service, he would have lost on the merits. The Sweeney Law Firm, actually represented by Bob’s daughter Allison on the appeal, claimed the discussion of Feucht’s military service was “extensive.” The court rejected this claim, pointing out that only a few lines of testimony on the subject were offered. And the court stated that being an accountant was highly relevant and central to Feucht’s ability to claim that he knew what his land was worth.

Penalty

Because of the blatant frivolity of this appeal, the court took the drastic step of forcing Sweeney to pay Feucht’s legal expenses (and he can’t get NEPSD to pay the money for him). But since Feucht was representing himself in front of the appeals court, and thus had few costs, he only got $350. Note: Sweeney lost to a guy representing himself! (Feucht did have an attorney for the original trial and early on in the appeals process.)

Here are some excerpts from the unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel hearing the case (link to the full opinion here):

 

sweeney-sewer1

And this:

sweeney-sewer2

Devoid of merit…failed to take basic steps…bad faith…careless attitude…no prospect of success…lack of professional effort.

These are damning words.

I have long theorized that Sweeney files meritless cases for two reasons: 1) he knows most people can’t afford to fight him in court, and 2) to inflate his legal bills. Both reasons appear to apply here, though the first did not work out for Sweeney. In addition to the $350 levied by the court, NEPSD should demand that Sweeney pay back his legal fees for this appeal.

With Sweeney’s history of failure (see links below), local government entities need to ask themselves why they continue to employ the Sweeney Law Firm, or in the case of Arnold, give him a big raise. It is clearly not in the best interest of these entities or the taxpayers to pay money to a lawyer that continues to litigate and lose weak cases.

Here is a list of Sweeney clients:

  • Arnold
  • Byrnes Mill
  • North Jefferson Ambulance
  • Public Water Supply District No. 13 (Lake Tishomingo)
  • Northeast Public Sewer District
  • City of Iberia, Missouri
  • Jefferson County 911 Dispatch
  • Washington County 911 Dispatch
  • Big River Ambulance District
  • Bismarck Fire Protection Association
  • Saline Valley Fire Protection District
  • Potosi Fire Protection District
  • DeSoto Rural Fire Protection District
  • Glaize Creek Public Sewer District

Sweeney Lowlights

Here are some Sweeney greatest hits:

  • His poor ballot language forced a tax revote
  • He kicked a candidate off the ballot and lost the resulting lawsuit, so new ballots had to be printed
  • He advised Arnold to deny a councilwoman’s request to see a city hall visitor log. The state attorney general intervened with a hard rebuke and threatened a lawsuit against the city.
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Jefferson County Government Chaos Continues

16 Nov

Despite a full agenda that included approving higher-cost insurance coverage for county employees, appointing several people to county boards, adopting a procedure to fill resigning councilman Jim Kasten’s seat (Democrat, district 5), and dealing with a controversial zoning change on Old Lemay Ferry Road, the council instead voted to adjourn its November 13 meeting early in a continuing, seemingly intractable row between the council and County Executive Ken Waller over the payment of legal bills to defend the county against two lawsuits filed by county officeholders, including Waller himself.

After public comments part of the meeting, which happens right after roll call and in this case took over half an hour (mostly focused on the insurance issue), it was time to approve the agenda of the meeting. Councilman Don Bickowski (GOP, district 1) made a motion to add to the agenda a “resolution to acknowledge the valid obligations of Jefferson County to pay for legal services.” At a special meeting on November 6, the council voted to have this item placed on the agenda for the November 13 meeting, as the county charter allows in section 3.5.10. However, Waller did not place the item on the agenda. County counselor Tony Dorsett stated at Monday night’s meeting that there were unspecified “errors” with this vote, which apparently explain Waller’s failure to add the item to the agenda.

Dorsett also stated that, because of the Sunshine law and the charter’s 72-hour rule, both regarding advanced notice to the public of meeting agenda items, Bickowski’s resolution could not be added to the agenda. Some discussion took place over whether these rules apply to resolutions as opposed to bills, and Waller, in his role as chairman of the meeting, refused to allow a vote on this motion, stating at one point that “we aren’t going anywhere.” The meeting was at a standstill.

Bickowski then motioned to adjourn, and this motion passed on a 5-2 vote, with councilwoman Renee Reuter (GOP, district 2), who had been pressing for a vote on Bickowski’s agenda item, and councilman Phil Hendrickson (GOP, district 3), voting no. Though clearly frustrated, Kasten voted yes on the motion. So the meeting ended. The above described events can be watched on video here, starting at the 43:30 mark (the back-and-forth only lasted 10 minutes).

I’m not sure how this conflict over the legal bills is going to be settled (besides Waller resigning), but the county has to pay for services it has already received, and it is undeniable that Waller has a big conflict of interest here, since he was involved in bringing these lawsuits (one is a money grab for politicians, the other was a spat over who can remove county board members). However, I do not see what was accomplished by adjourning the meeting prematurely and delaying a lot of needed actions.

Pevely’s Side of Cop Beating Suit

12 Nov

I wrote here about a lawsuit filed against the Pevely police over alleged excessive force. The incident was from November 2016 and the suit was filed in January 2017. In it, a man (Robert Golden Jr) alleges he was beaten by Pevely police at a traffic stop for no good reason.

Having acquired the Pevely and Herculaneum police reports on this incident, I can provide the other side of the story. First, I stated in the previous post that dashcam video should be useful in adjudicating this claim. However, the police vehicle used in this incident (an unmarked one) does not have a dash camera. Several other Pevely cars also do not. The department is looking to phase out dash cameras and switch to body cameras for officers.

As the officers tell the story, Golden’s vehicle drew their attention because one of them recognized it from a brief high-speed chase a few months previously. The vehicle is distinctive in that it is a Chevy truck with a lift kit (as preferred by Florida-Georgia Line) and LED brow lighting. The officers turned to follow the vehicle and claimed that it crossed the center line four times and began to drive very slowly (35 in a 45). Golden states that he slowed down to let the close-following vehicle pass him. A stop was initiated.

Golden pulled over, but says that since he saw nothing indicating the people behind him were police, and he saw their guns drawn, he took off again. Pevely police indicate they were in an unmarked car equipped with lights and a siren that has been used for traffic stops in the past without incident. The police were also wearing plain clothes, as they were working that night on a Minor in Possession grant looking for underage drinkers. The police make no mention of their guns being drawn.

The officers state that Golden took off at high speed and continued to swerve. He proceeded into Herculaneum, where a Herky officer was waiting with lights flashing. Golden says he pulled over to seek assistance, but the Pevely officers say he pulled over abruptly in a way that had his vehicle pointing at the Herky car’s driver door, giving Golden “a distinct tactical advantage” and creating a “very grave and dangerous situation.” As such, the Herky officer drew his gun, a fact agreed to by all, and Pevely police initiated a “dynamic approach” to the vehicle.

Pevely police claim that Golden refused to exit the vehicle, so they yanked him down from his lifted cab to the ground and he sustained an abrasion on his cheek (this is the only injury visible on booking photos). They say he would not put his hands behind his back, so they forcibly pulled them back and cuffed him. This included an officer placing a knee in his back and placing a gun against his head, at which time his resistance stopped. [This is when Golden alleged that other abuse, including kicks and head slams into the ground, occurred.] Meanwhile other officers broke the passenger window after orders to open it were ignored, opened the door themselves, and removed three passengers without incident.

Two minor charges were all that Pevely filed as a result of this incident:

  • Failed to maintain a single lane of traffic
  • Failed to yield to emergency vehicle

Judge Reverses Council on Zoning Rejection

5 Nov

I have written before about what I see as the Jefferson County Council’s excessive willingness to deny rezoning applications filed by people trying to start new businesses, instead siding with the NIMBY interests of neighboring landowners. On this subject, we had a case last month (16JE-CC00344) in which a rejected applicant sued the county and won, with the judge ordering the council to approve the rezoning request.

It was in April 2016 that the council heard a request by Tony Pona to rezone land at Miller Road and West Outer Road in Imperial from residential to commercial in order to open a mini-storage and boat/RV storage facility. The county staff and the planning and zoning commission recommended approval of the project, but the county council rejected it (see meeting minutes here). Pona filed a lawsuit a month later.

In October, JeffCo judge Troy Cardona sided with Pona, stating that:

The reasoning for the denial was at best conjecture and refuted by the evidence presented. The denial cites to traffic concerns as one of the main reasons for denial, yet such speculation used in the denial was refuted by a traffic study that showed little to no impact on traffic. It has been held that it is incongruous to use existing traffic conditions to limit a property owner to a use which those very traffic conditions have made undesirable.

At the council’s October 23 meeting, it passed the first of three votes of approval of the storage project. This was after moving the vote to the end of the meeting, after a closed session that presumably was used to discuss this case and the judge’s order.

This case goes to show that business owners have avenues to challenge the council if it makes improper zoning denials.

Waller Lawsuit Dismissed

27 Oct

Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller (Republican) was a plaintiff in two lawsuits. One was asking for more salary for county elected officials. This suit is ongoing, but Waller took his name off of it (though he probably still stands to gain if it succeeds). The second suit was filed against the county council in a dispute about who can remove the appointed members of county boards (the council or the executive) in the wake of a recent piece of county legislation. On Tuesday, a judge granted the council’s motion to dismiss this suit.

Part of the judge’s decision was whether to enforce the settlement that was initially agreed to in the case. Apparently the two attorneys in the case made a deal, but the council did not accept the deal and thus did not vote to accept it. Waller asked the judge to make them accept it, but he ruled that a deal isn’t a deal until it is made official, so he would not enforce the settlement.

The dismissal of the case centers on ripeness. You can’t sue over a hypothetical. Nobody is actually trying to remove a board member at this time, so there is no dispute for the judge to decide on. So this case is over for now. It could be filed again if an attempt was made to remove a board member.

This seems like a fairly obvious result. However, it took seven months and tens of thousands of dollars of legal bills to get here. Thanks, Ken.

Update: Waller Response

Here is a press release Waller issued in response to the judge’s decision:

waller press release board lawsuit.jpg

Paying the Bills for the Lawsuits

There is an ongoing dispute over the payment of the legal bills for the county to defend against the lawsuits filed by the sue-happy county exec. First, Waller tried to cut the allocation for legal defense from $100,000 down to $25,000. This drew a strong rebuke from councilwoman Renee Reuter, who Waller then retaliated against by removing her from the East-West Gateway council.

There is also a question about the date that the council’s lawyers started working on the cases versus the date when the money was allocated (the council argued that the relationship with the attorney and the allocation of money were pre-existing). The council is trying to clarify the effective date of the appropriation, but Waller vetoed the change, in a clear conflict of interest (he is once again trying to cripple the defense against his lawsuits). The council tried at its Monday night meeting to override this veto, but fell one vote short, according to the JeffCo Citizens for Honest Government Facebook page. As has happened several times that I can recall, an absence from the council doomed a bill, as councilman Dan Stallman (GOP) was not there. In addition, new councilman Phil Hendrickson (GOP) abstained, as he did on a vote to add additional money to the legal defense fund. (He abstained when the vetoed bill was originally passed, but that was on the day he was sworn in to the council, so I can excuse that). So it is not clear where we go now in this dispute.

These abstentions by Hendrickson are wrong. It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t on the council when all this stuff started. He’s on there now, and he needs to take a stand. If he doesn’t want to, he should not have applied to fill the seat. In addition, council members need to be present for meetings.

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.

Pevely Cops Facing Three Lawsuits

20 Aug

The Pevely police force has had some issues recently, included accusations of policing for profit and carrying out quotas enacted by the former mayor, “losing” a bunch of city gun money, and just this week being accused of letting an incompetent repo man get away after he damaged a car he wasn’t entitled to repossess (the PD posted and then deleted some comments on the linked Facebook thread). But the city is now facing a lawsuit in an excessive force case, the Leader reported last week, as well as two suits regarding a deadly police chase.

The excessive force lawsuit (full text here) accuses three cops of beating up Robert Golden Jr. after pulling him over in November 2016. The suit says they pulled him over for no reason in an unmarked car on Highway 61 and emerged with guns drawn. Golden, seeing no indication the men with guns were actual officers, drove away and continued on until he saw a Herculaneum officer and then stopped. The Pevely cops pulled up and allegedly immediately began whaling on him and forced him to say “I’m a pussy” several times. Golden was then taken to jail. Nothing illegal was found on him. He was given citations for “Failure to Yield to Emergency Vehicle” and “Failure to Maintain a Single Lane of Traffic.” After being released, Golden went to the hospital for treatment.

Notably, one of the accused in this suit is Tony Moutray, the acting chief of police since October (right before the beating took place). Recently, the city decided to accept applications for a new permanent chief, but some expressed dismay that Moutray was not simply handed the job. Steve Markus and Don Menkhus, who I consider to be the good old boy faction on the council, voted against seeking outside applicants, as did John Norton.

It seems like this suit should be pretty easy to decide  – just look at the dashboard camera footage. It will tell us if anything warranted such rough conduct by the police (and to what extent they actually beat him). If there is no such footage, we have reason to be suspicious. The suit alleges that Moutray yelled out “make sure your cameras are off” to his fellow cops during the beatdown. Many times have we seen rogue cops allege that there just happened to be a malfunction with their camera, or they forgot to turn it on, when alleged misconduct occurred.

Police Chase Suit

Two separate lawsuits arise out of a police chase in 2014 in which two Pevely cops and two Missouri Highway patrolmen engaged in high-speed pursuit with a car that ended up crashing, killing three occupants. It seems that speeding was the only offense the driver of the fleeing car was suspected of, but the cops still pursued him at up to 125 mph and deployed several spike strips. The question is whether all of this dangerous chasing was justified given the minor offense the police were interested in.

The common thread that connects all three of these suits is two officers who are named as defendants in each one: Kyle Weiss and Brian Benjamin. I know Pevely doesn’t have that many police, but to have the same officers accused in each suit would seem to suggest a problem.

Weiss previously got in trouble for releasing non-public information about the (now deceased) son of Pevely regime critic Dave Bewig onto Facebook in August 2014, which is a class A misdemeanor that JeffCo Prosecutor Forrest (Wrist Slap) Wegge apparently chose not to prosecute.

Despite all these issues, Weiss was hired on by the Arnold Police a few months ago. I don’t know what the circumstances of his departure from Pevely were.

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