Archive | courts RSS feed for this section

Grandview School Theft Results in Guilty Plea

5 Jul

Unlike Fox’s Dianne Critchlow, the culprit in the theft of $1.6 million from the Grandview R-II school district, Angela Huskey, will face legal consequences, as she has plead guilty to felony fraud in federal court last week. According to the Post-Dispatch:

At her Oct. 13 sentencing, Huskey faces roughly four to five years in prison under recommended federal sentencing guidelines. She will also be ordered to repay the money.

Huskey has agreed to forfeit nearly $200,000 in various accounts and a two bedroom condo at Table Rock Lake, or the condo’s sales proceeds.

Interestingly, Huskey employed the same law firm as Critchlow – Newton Barth. They must be the go-to lawyers for public school fraudsters. But the important difference is that, while Critchlow was a superintendent, Huskey was a mere business manager. Hence, while Critchlow got put on paid administrative leave and then was allowed to retire with a big separation payment, Huskey was put on unpaid leave (after a brief period of paid leave) and then quickly fired. And now Huskey likely goes to jail while Critchlow walks free.

Staggering Swindle

In a statement, superintendent Matt Zoph, who took over the job a year or so ago, said that when the district “became aware of possible irregularities relating to the district’s internal fiscal controls, we worked diligently and aggressively to determine the nature and scope of the irregularities.” However, it took ten years for this awareness to take place. According to the feds (the same ones who gave Critchlow a pass), Huskey started stealing money as far back as summer of 2006, stopping only when she was discovered and fired in October of last year.

 

How could this happen? How could one person be able to get away with all of this without being caught? Where was the administration? Where was the school board? These are questions that the district will need to answer. The district is currently reviewing policies and procedures, to prevent such theft in the future. But this is about more than policies, it is about the people who are supposed to lead the district.

Facing Accountability

Grandview officials have not said much about this case, citing the federal investigation, but that is over now – it is time for them to start talking. The district said they are working on holding a special board meeting to discuss this incident with the public. This needs to happen quickly. As I stated in a previous post, there needs to be a state audit. Never mind that the district just spend $80,000 to have Dan Jones do a special audit of the district; a state audit is open, public, and wide-ranging. If the school board requests it, and the auditor agrees to take it on, there is no cost to the district. This is what happened at Fox.

The Grandview school board needs to be taken to task, and current members need to be removed. They were clearly not doing their jobs. Back in April, two board members were replaced: Dion Moore lost his bid for re-election and board president Randy Wakefield decided not to run for another term. Next April, two board members will be on the ballot if they choose to run again –  board president Bob Gearhart and Abe Eoff.

At the June board meeting, Zoph stated that a request for proposals had been put out for a new auditing firm. Schowalter and Jobouri Financial Services of St. Louis County has previously done the district’s annual audits. As we have seen in many districts, these are basic types of audits that every school does that are apparently unable to catch fraud.

According to Zoph, via the April 27 Leader, the district’s insurance will cover any financial losses related to wrongdoing. Conversely, Fox does not think its insurance will cover anything and does not seem to be planning to pursue a claim (maybe because there were no charges?).

We have already started to hear “time to move on” language, like we hear from Fox. Let’s not dwell on this, they may say, it’s bad for the children. But in reality that’s just a way to prematurely end the search for accountability, punishment, and reparations. Here’s what Zoph said in April:

What happened in the past is in the past. We are going to make everything correct in the future.

But the residents of Grandview can help ensure that we don’t move on too quickly. They can look to DeSoto for an example, where over 1,200 people joined a Facebook group in late April in support of a fired principal. The group has turned out in force at board meetings, raised money for the principal, held planning meetings, and started collecting signatures to have a state audit performed.

At Fox, there was a brief surge of activism, with a widely followed Facebook page (which seems to have been removed), huge attendance at board meetings, and plenty of anger. But recent school board elections have failed to produce real candidates of change.

Grandview parents do have a watchdog style Facebook page, but has only about 240 members. This could be a place to organize and share ideas.

The next scheduled Grandview school board meeting is July 20.

Waller Withdraws from Pay Suit, Lashes out at Councilwoman

24 Jun

Only four days after a recall effort was launched against him, Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller (GOP) buckled under public pressure and withdrew from the elected official pay lawsuit as one of the large group of plaintiffs seeking a retroactive pay hike (they claim they just want clarification on the charter from a judge, but come on), becoming the second politico to do so, after outgoing assessor Terry Roesch, a Democrat. Waller’s participation in the lawsuit was the number one complaint listed in the recall petition notice.

In the current edition of the Leader, Waller admits that the recall had a “small part” to play in his decision to withdraw. He also raises an interesting question:

“I don’t know what effect my withdrawal from the suit will have on whether I would share in back pay or benefits if the judge rules that way. That didn’t play into my decision to get into the suit, and it didn’t play into my decision to get out of it.”

It may not make a difference if Waller has his name on the suit or not. If the money-seeking politicians win, in theory every countywide elected official who has served since 2010 would be eligible for a payout. On the other hand, I hear that Waller played a role in helping recruit elected officials to join this suit. I suspect this was to make a show of force to the court and to spread the predictable political backlash out amongst more people. Given the above uncertainty, Waller needs to come out and state unequivocally that he will accept no lawsuit-related payouts from taxpayers if this suit succeeds. But I doubt he will, because this suit is all about the money.

Along with ending the negative attention and trying to thwart the recall, perhaps another reason Waller dropped out is that he read this devastating motion from the county’s defense team to dismiss the lawsuit and realized his lawsuit is weak. This motion is rather savage:

Setback in Another Lawsuit

Waller’s other lawsuit against the county, which is the legal equivalent of a temper tantrum, was filed because the county council went against his desire to take for himself the right to remove (or not) people from county boards for missing too many meetings. This case was dismissed by the judge this week, since Waller sued the wrong entity and did not set forth an actionable claim. Waller was given until the end of the month to file an amended lawsuit. I suspect that if he can’t sue the council that he is unable to get along with and tries to use as a punching bag, he may not bother to go forward with the suit. Here was the motion to dismiss in this case, another barnburner:

Waller Lashes Out

Two weeks ago the Leader reported on Waller’s effort to gut the county council’s ability to defend against Waller’s lawsuits by trying to cut the funding for hiring outside attorneys. He wanted to reduce the amount set aside from $100,000 to $25,000, claiming a desire for fiscal responsibility. Of course, if Waller was really fiscally responsible he wouldn’t SUE THE COUNTY TWO TIMES. Councilwoman Renee Reuter (GOP) rightly put Waller in his place:

“The use of decision-making authority for the purpose of financial gain constitutes a conflict of interest. The penalty for violations of conflict of interest is criminal in nature,” she said, punishable first by a fine and on subsequent offenses, possible jail time. She also noted that under the county charter, “any officer or employee of Jefferson County who willfully violates the conflict of interest section should forfeit their office.”

Right on. Can you imagine if President Trump tried to cut the FBI budget right now, how media heads would explode? Or what if St. Louis County executive Steve Stenger, who has engaged in numerous efforts to reward donors, did something like this? The St. Louis media would be all over it. But since we’re just JeffCo, this won’t get much notice. But basically you have Waller trying to use his position to interfere in his own lawsuits to help himself win.

Well, Waller was apparently not too happy about being taken to task. While the Leader‘s Pat Martin likes to portray Waller as an aw-shucks country public servant, the fact is that Waller is a knife fighter. His revenge against Reuter was delivered Thursday, when he released an executive order removing her from her spot as one of Jefferson County’s representatives on the East-West Gateway council, a regionwide group that allocates federal transportation funding. I don’t know what Waller’s official rationale for this move is, but it is hard to see this as anything other than political payback. Waller whines in this week’s Leader that the recall effort against him just a personal vendetta, while at the same time engaging in actions like this. Maybe we should add a bullet point about hypocrisy to the recall petition.

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.”

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.

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.

Pevely-Style Actions Shot Down by Area Judges

26 Apr

Two recent court rulings should prompt Pevely to change some practices that would now appear to be unlawful. The practices are charging money for redaction of material for open records requests and limiting what can be said in the public comment portion of board meetings.

Sunshine Law Overcharging

First, in January, a St. Louis County judge said that the county prosecutor could not charge fees to a Sunshine Law requestor for the time it took to segregate open (releasable) records from closed records. The government body has to do this free of charge (they can still charge for finding and copying documents).

Pevely is in the habit, when receiving certain records requests, of demanding a payment of $125 dollars up front so the city attorney, Sean Westhoff of Duggan & Westhoff in Imperial, can separate open from closed records. In one instance, this review was merely of minutes of closed sessions of board of aldermen meetings to “redact the personally identifiable personnel information.” That requires an attorney?! In another instance, Pevely claimed that attorney fees were needed to provide a copy of a lawsuit settlement and the results of closed session roll call votes. Again, no attorney is needed for this; all of this material is clearly a public record under Missouri law. Is the city trying to thwart the Sunshine Law, or merely taking bad advice from another bad JeffCo municipal lawyer?

Pevely’s actions are quite similar to what happened in the St. Louis County lawsuit. The decision there only impacts that county though. But if someone were to sue Pevely over this, they might have a good case. But government entities often rely on the fact that most people have neither the money or inclination to pursue such a lawsuit. Pevely should stop charging exorbitant legal fees for Sunshine requests.

Public Comment Censoring

In University City, a resident spoke during public comment to call for the censure of the mayor. The mayor flipped out, had the police remove the man, and banned him from future meetings. A federal judge responded:

In her order on Tuesday, District Judge Audrey Fleissig also ordered the city to pay Roberts’ lawyer fees and costs totaling $3,060, according to the consent decree.

Fleissig also ordered that the city “cease making a public statement at city council meetings that personal attacks on councilmembers will be ruled out of order” and “cease making a public statement at city council meetings that councilmembers’ motives may not be called into question.”

Also:

The decision also calls for the city to “develop, implement, and enforce a written policy prohibiting content-based restrictions on speech during the public comment period at city council meetings.”

In Pevely, the city demands that only topics on the meeting agenda can be mentioned in public comments. But how are residents supposed to air their concerns about issues that the city has not deemed important enough to put on the agenda? The public comment section is a way for residents to publicly raise concerns that all city officials may not be aware of (sometimes certain officials like to withhold information). This policy is just a way to censor comment. The city does allow you to request to be added to the meeting agenda, but this requires action days in advance of the meeting, creating hurdles to being heard.

The Fox School District also has a very restrictive comment policy. Not only do they limit the public to speaking on agenda items, they don’t allow the mention of specific employees (so you can’t say “the superintendent gave her son a scholarship” after your emails to the board go unanswered) and they ban non-residents from commenting. In addition, they demand a “specific outline” in advance of what you want to say. They can use this to decide to shunt you off into a closed session, ensuring that other residents can’t hear what you have to say.

In light of Judge Fleissig’s ruling, both of these entities need to reconsider their draconian public comment policies. I hear that a change may be coming in Pevely, which would be a good thing.

%d bloggers like this: