FBI probe in Kansas may not find anything, officials say

05/23/2014 6:48 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Rod Jetton remembers his reaction a few years ago after he learned the FBI was asking questions about his activities as speaker of the Missouri House.

“I just assumed my life was over,” he said.

Jetton wasn’t in mortal danger, but he could have been in big trouble.

The FBI had launched a formal inquiry into his decisions during the debate over changes to Missouri’s strip club law. He got a “target letter” informing him of the investigation, and he eventually testified before a grand jury.

The legal process cost Jetton time, worry, what little money he had and most of his friends.

“My phone stopped ringing,” he recalled. “You’re like the plague. Nobody wants to even get close to you.”

Yet like many similar cases, Jetton’s ordeal ended quietly. He was never charged with any federal crime.

That fact, experts said, should be kept firmly in mind as the FBI probes similar pay-to-play allegations in Kansas.

Federal authorities can, and often do, ask lots of questions. Some lead to criminal charges. Some don’t.

“As the name says, the FBI is a bureau of investigation,” said former FBI spokesman and agent Jeff Lanza. But “just because you’re doing an investigation doesn’t mean there’s wrongdoing.”

In the 1990s, federal investigators found evidence that led to the conviction of Bob Griffin on bribery and mail fraud charges carried out during his time as speaker of the Missouri House.

Other times, such probes come up short of finding illegal behavior, or at least the evidence needed to pursue charges.

Federal authorities have not confirmed an investigation into lobbying activities in Kansas. Several sources, though, have told The Star they’ve answered FBI questions about fundraising and lobbying by former associates of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

It isn’t publicly known if law enforcement officials launched their inquiry after receiving a complaint from the public, or if they acted on their own. Whatever the source, federal guidelines give authorities broad discretion to pursue allegations of impropriety, often without firm evidence of illegal behavior.

The FBI, for example, is allowed to conduct “assessments” of potential criminal activity based on leads from the public, news media reports or its own concerns. Assessments can include Web searches, interviews and public surveillance “not requiring a court order,” according to the guidelines.

The next step is an approved preliminary investigation, typically lasting six months to a year. Then, if facts are present to suggest it, a full investigation can follow and more aggressive evidence-gathering techniques are permitted.

Investigators can, and do, walk away from their work at any point.

“The FBI can quietly ask some questions, do nothing, and no one knows it even happened,” said former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves. “That happens frequently.”

Some critics worry the structure gives federal investigators too much power.

“FBI agents can investigate anyone they choose so long as they claim they are acting to prevent crime,” the American Civil Liberties Union has said. “Innocence no longer protects ordinary Americans from being subjected to a wide range of intrusive investigative techniques.”

A spokeswoman for the FBI in Kansas City declined to comment on the agency’s investigation practices.

Authorities can seek indictments after a formal inquiry is over.

Kansas City lawyer Phil Cardarella and his wife, former Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields, were accused of mortgage fraud following a federal probe.

Both were acquitted in a jury trial in 2007 after the pair accused authorities of political bias.

“Government by prosecution is very, very dangerous to society,” Cardarella said this week.

But he — and Jetton — agreed federal authorities have some responsibility to investigate allegations of wrongdoing.

Public disclosure of a federal inquiry is another matter, they noted. In a political context, even the suggestion of illegality can hurt election campaigns, fundraising and governance.

“It’s harder on politicians,” Jetton said, “because you’re so dependent on public perception to continue to be able to do your job.”

The disclosure of the inquiry into lobbying and fundraising in Topeka, for example, is believed to have damaged Brownback’s re-election campaign.

Federal policy generally prohibits authorities from making public comments during an investigation. Members of the public who are questioned, on the other hand, are typically free to talk about the inquiry or tell reporters about it.

They often do.

The political impact of that kind of disclosure has prompted federal officials to allow investigators to occasionally clear a subject under the microscope.

In 2011 — in the middle of a hotly contested mayoral race — then-U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips issued a statement absolving a local lawyer of wrongdoing related to his work for Kansas City’s Port Authority.

“It is the policy of the Department of Justice that we shall not respond to questions about the existence of an investigation,” Phillips, now a federal judge, wrote at the time.

“However, due to the substantial publicity received by allegations of a criminal investigation into a matter of public concern, this release of information is in the public’s interest.”

Such a statement is an exception, however. No one officially exonerated Jetton. Investigators looked at whether a $35,000 political donation from strip-club owners swayed Jetton to assign a bill restricting their operations to a committee likely to kill the measure.

In the end, though, the accusations against him simply drifted away. (He did plead guilty to an unrelated misdemeanor assault charge in Missouri.)

The former speaker recently published a book about his experience and says he is no longer directly involved in politics. He was once considered one of the most powerful politicians in Missouri and among the most feared.

He says he isn’t angry about the scrutiny he faced. Instead, he said, he used the investigation — and other changes in his life — as motivation. Jetton said those circumstances drove a focus on private growth and faith instead of public success.

“I thought it was very unfair,” he said. “But in hindsight, when you look back, it was a very helpful thing.

“It helped me get my life back on track.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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