It was either political payback or a prudent business decision.
On the morning of Dec. 15, Laura Ray Wagner got a phone call from Bill Clarkson Jr., head of Clarkson Construction and a partner with Edgemoor, the developer struggling to win the contract for construction of the new single terminal at KCI.
Wagner, a marketing and public relations consultant, had spent the last several years as a contractor for Clarkson, a politically connected, family-owned company. She handled communications on various big Clarkson ventures, including the Johnson County Gateway road project and the Christopher S. Bond Bridge.
That all ended with the phone call.
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A day earlier, her husband, Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wagner, had voted to reject a proposed agreement with Edgemoor. Wagner was part of a council supermajority that found the memorandum of understanding lacking on multiple fronts.
“He wasn’t happy with me after my husband voted no on the MOU (memorandum of understanding),” she said. “He said he was sorry but that he couldn’t do business with me, considering everything. He told me he was sorry but he was just mad.”
Clarkson said Wednesday evening that her dismissal had nothing to do with her husband’s vote. It had everything to do, he said, with avoiding any appearance of possible conflict of interest while negotiations continue between Edgemoor and the city — even though Laura Wagner has never worked on KCI matters for the firm.
“We made a business decision because we what we heard (from attorneys) at that time was that there cannot be any semblance of of a conflict of interest,” he said. “There was no malice when I talked to Laura.”
Wagner said conflict of interest never came up in their conversation.
“If he wants to say that, that’s fine,” she said. “It’s probably what his attorneys want him to say.”
It’s not completely clear how Laura Wagner’s continued employment would cause a conflict for the company. But Clarkson said he was acting out of an abundance of caution.
“We wanted to be completely transparent. And if we were working with Wagner Marketing no matter what the subject, someone could tie it back to the airport,” Clarkson said.
Asked if employing the mayor pro tem’s wife was a way of ensuring a favorable vote, Clarkson said absolutely not.
“There was no quid pro quo,” he said. “That’s not the way we work.”
Laura Wagner was not considered a liability prior to the vote. A few weeks earlier, she said she had been was in discussions with the company about her role in 2018, which was to involve non-airport-related internal communications, such as a safety newsletter and upgrades to the company’s web page.
Clarkson said he was “not sure” what his staff had in mind for Wagner’s firm.
Scott Wagner, a candidate for mayor in the 2019 elections, said his wife’s relationship with Clarkson had been vetted by city attorneys. When her Gateway assignment ended last year, her work for the company had been smaller, one-day assignments unrelated to any KCI matters.
When the possibility of an expanded role came up, he said he revisited the issue with the internal auditor, an arm of the city manager’s office that reviews ethics issues. Wagner said he was again cleared to vote on any airport matters--both because his wife was not working on them, and that Clarkson was part of another legal entity, the consortium of companies led by Edgemoor, that was negotiating the MOU.
While he downplayed the suggestion of political payback, he said he wasn’t happy with Clarkson’s decision.
“Anytime someone does something that adversely affects my wife, I don’t take kindly to it,” Wagner said. “The way I look at it is, I made a vote in the best interests of the city. It was not viewed well by some people.”
Wagner explained last month that he voted against the agreement because of concerns about the lack of clarity in Edgemoor’s commitment to minority hiring and the potential of up to $30 million in city payments to the firm if the deal fell apart after it was signed. The council is scheduled to continue its discussions today at its business session.
The episode is a reflection of the high-stakes and high emotions that have swirled around the airport project over the last year. At one time or another, it has set most of the principal players at odds with each other: Mayor Sly James with the City Council, the council with Edgemoor, council with its attorneys and Edgemoor with its competitors for the job.
Scott Wagner, who founded the marketing firm firm and worked in it before his election to the City Council in 2011, said he has not spoken to Clarkson about the matter.
He noted that such separations are also part of the business.
”I’ve been fired by clients before and so has she,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city and Edgemoor continue to try to resolve their issues. Wagner said he’s been heavily lobbied by all stakeholders, including Clarkson executive Steve Kellerman. Neither he nor Kellerman have discussed his wife’s situation, he said.
Laura Wagner said she feels awkward and uncomfortable about the whole matter.
“It feels very personal,” she said. “I like a lot of the people at Clarkson and I don’t think they feel good about the way this went down.”