Mike Sanders, a former Jackson County Executive, prosecutor and once a rising star in Missouri’s Democratic Party, is now a convicted felon after pleading guilty Friday afternoon to a federal corruption charge.
Sanders admitted in court to misusing tens of thousands of dollars for his personal gain, including trips to California wine country and to pay his federal income taxes. He then lied about it by not including the expenditures on campaign finance records.
Sanders’ longtime friend, aide and chief of staff, Calvin Williford, sobbed after pleading guilty at a separate hearing earlier Friday to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He testified that he and Sanders used campaign cash for gambling trips to Las Vegas and other personal purposes.
The charge against Williford also describes a scheme involving an unidentified printing company. The company would submit bogus or inflated invoices in order to funnel payments to Williford and other workers on Sanders’ campaigns that they did not want to identify on disclosures filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
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Sanders pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, admitting that he enriched himself through a kickback scheme that The Star first reported in December. Sanders acknowledged in court that he converted roughly $62,000 in campaign funds to cash with the help of a disabled friend from high school.
Steve Hill told The Star that Sanders hand-delivered checks made out to Hill ostensibly for campaign work that Hill never performed.
Hill said he would keep roughly 10 percent of the money and return the rest to Sanders, who told Hill the money was being used for political purposes.
But the authorities said at least some of that money went for Sanders’ personal use, including trips in 2012 and 2013 to California. For instance, court documents say Sanders used money he obtained through Hill on Nov. 13, 2013, to reimburse an assistant, who had previously paid for Sanders’ hotel stays and wine purchase in Sonoma, Calif.
A $4,550 kickback from Hill in 2012 was also used to pay Sanders’ federal taxes from 2010.
Authorities said Williford and two other unidentified conspirator also participated by delivering checks to Hill for cashing and then returned the bulk of the proceeds to Sanders.
At Friday’s hearing, Sanders’s attorney, J.R. Hobbs, stressed that some of the money was used to pay other campaign workers, but that Sanders kept $15,000 to $40,000 for himself.
Hill told The Star that Sanders quit delivering checks to him in late 2013, after he informed Sanders that the FBI was looking into the matter. Hill was not identified by name in the government’s case, but the facts and dates laid out at the hearing mirror his account.
Sanders and Williford are both free on signature bonds pending sentencing and were ordered to surrender their passports.
Conspiracy to commit wire fraud carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Hobbs read a statement on Sanders’ behalf as his client stood silent surrounded by friends and family outside the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City.
“This is a very difficult day for Mike and his family,” Hobbs said. “He sincerely apologizes to his family and residents of Jackson County. Mike set out to do good work for the people of this community, and he made many positive and constructive improvements.”
But Hobbs went on to say that Sanders knew better than to misspend campaign funds for personal use and knows as a former prosecutor “that mistakes come with a price.”
Williford’s attorney, Brian Gaddy, said of his client: “He has attempted to accept full responsibility for his actions in this case.”
Both men are accused of misusing funds from a series of campaign committees Sanders controlled. Williford admitted during a 45-minute court hearing that he misused between $40,000 and $95,000 in campaign money.
While the 50-year-old Sanders was stoic during and after his hearing, Williford, 60, became emotional following his proceedings after greeting well wishers in the audience. He could be heard telling his family, “I am such an idiot.”
He expressed his remorse in a written statement.
“I am deeply sorry for the pain I’ve caused my family and friends by letting them down over these campaign expenditure issues,” it read. “I will not make excuses for my stupidity and fully accept responsibility for my actions. I am committed to learning from these mistakes and will continue to make amends for my failure of honesty. I am grateful to have been a public servant and help on a range of community initiatives. Service to others has been the greatest honor of my life.”
As Sanders’ chief of staff, Williford oversaw a program that gave houses to needy families and helped arrange the purchase of the Rock Island rail line through Kansas City, which will one day connect to the cross-state Katy Trail. Prior to working for Sanders in that job and while Sanders was in the county prosecutor’s office, the Dartmouth University graduate worked at non-profit groups that fought crime and substance abuse.
But Williford’s downfall would be using campaign committee expenditures to obscure how money was being spent.
“Basically, it involved political campaign committees where some of the monies in those campaign committees were used by folks, including Mr. Williford, for personal benefit,” Gaddy said.
During Friday’s hearing, Williford acknowledged that he took some of the money from the committee checks that straw men cashed at banks, gave some to Sanders and kept some for himself, which he then used for personal uses, including trips to Las Vegas.
The allegations tarnished the squeaky clean image Sanders cultivated first as a Jackson County prosecutor and later as county executive. As a three-time elected Jackson County Executive, Sanders cast himself as a departure from his two predecessors, who were ensnared in political scandals.
When Sanders unexpectedly announced his resignation in December 2015, he said the job had taken its toll on him and his family and that he wanted to return to private law practice.
But some questioned his motives. His resignation came just one year into his third, four-year term, and just months after reports that the FBI was looking into his handling of county contracts.
Sanders maintained some visibility in the community. Working for the prominent Independence law firm Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, Sanders was the municipal attorney for Sugar Creek and made occasional television appearances on the KCPT news commentary program “Ruckus.”
But after The Star’s report, he took a leave from the law firm and has kept out of the public eye.
Sanders’ legal trouble likely snuffs out his future as a politician and lawyer.
Sanders, a Kansas City native and Army veteran, graduated from the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in 1994 and went to work as an assistant Jackson County prosecutor under Claire McCaskill, now a U.S. senator.
Sanders in 2002 became Jackson County prosecutor, using the office to seek the political spotlight and forging an image as a tough-on-crime lawman.
After winning his first term as Jackson County Executive in 2007, Sanders’ political future looked bright in Missouri.
He would later become chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party from 2011 to 2013 and drew no serious opposition in his two bids for re-election as Jackson County Executive. Sanders was often rumored as a possible successor to U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver whenever he decided to leave Congress.
Those prospects took a hit when reports first emerged in 2015 that the FBI was questioning the provenance of a $75,000 consulting contract that Jackson County had awarded to a former aide of then-Gov. Jay Nixon. Sanders left office later that year.
Despite years of predictions that Sanders would ascend to higher political office, he often hinted that he may not last long in public life.
Toward the end of 2007, he told a reporter that two terms as Jackson County Executive might be enough.
“I may not go much further in politics,” he said at the time.