The political chaos enveloping Jackson County is expected to take another turn next week as county legislators plan to ask Missouri’s attorney general to investigate a number of issues surrounding County Executive Frank White.
Among some legislators’ concerns is The Star’s finding that when White filed for office in 2016 he signed a sworn document declaring that he was current on all state and local taxes. But the newspaper’s review of court documents show White owed more than $5,000 in back state income taxes at the time.
Records show that those taxes, dating back to 2013, weren’t paid until April 15, 2016 — two months after he filed for office and swore that his taxes were paid.
That gap is important because Missouri office-seekers are required to testify that they are “not currently aware” of any delinquent state or local taxes. Candidates who are behind on their taxes are disqualified from running for office. Lying on the form is perjury.
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White acknowledged on Friday that he misstated his tax situation when he signed Department of Revenue Form 5120, but said it was unintentional.
“In 2016, when I signed the form, I did so honestly and in full compliance of the law,” White said in an email. “When I later became aware that I owed taxes for a prior year, I immediately paid the amount in full and moved forward.”
It’s too early to say whether authorities would take action to remove White from office for that supposed oversight alone.
But it’s just one of several issues that county legislators will likely ask Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley to investigate when the legislature meets on Tuesday, key legislators said.
Legislator Dan Tarwater said a majority of legislators are in favor of Hawley stepping in.
Tarwater also wants Hawley to follow up on The Star’s Dec. 22 article that described a secret deal to save White’s house from foreclosure in the spring of 2016. At the time, White was the interim county executive and seeking election to the office in his own right. He turned to his predecessor, former county executive Mike Sanders, and Sanders’ law partner Ken McClain for help one day before his house was to be sold on the courthouse steps.
Sources, including one with direct knowledge of the deal, told The Star that the foreclosure was averted when McClain funneled an undetermined amount of money to White through an unidentified third party. That person loaned the Whites enough to cover delinquent mortgage payments.
The reason for the pass-through arrangement is unclear, but Tarwater and others saw it as possibly an attempt to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because McClain does business with the county. Sanders was then under contract with the county to provide legal advice, as well.
Neither Sanders, who is under federal investigation for his alleged participation in a kickback scheme, nor McClain would comment for last month’s article.
White declined to provide an explanation on how he avoided the foreclosure.
Tarwater, a Democrat, and Republican legislator Greg Grounds said at the time that the public deserved full disclosure on the house deal.
“The air needs to be cleared,” Tarwater said Friday.
Tarwater has made no secret of his desire to become county executive whenever White steps aside, but he said his intent in asking for an investigation is not to have White removed from office.
“I don’t want to see anybody lose his position,” Tarwater said, “but on the other hand I don’t want to see anyone lose the trust of the taxpayers.”
Legislators say trust in county government has broken down in recent months as the feud between White and the legislature has intensified. Employees have been caught in the middle. Some were disciplined for violating what they perceive as White’s unlawful directives ordering them to divert funds to pay the salaries of aides, whose positions the legislature ordered eliminated.
“Great employees, who’ve survived all manner of political dysfunction over the years, are suffering under this administration,” legislator Crystal Williams tweeted Thursday. “An extraordinary amount of upheaval underway at my beloved county.”
Legislators complain that White continues to ignore the will of that governing body by defying recently passed ordinances that White sees as challenging his authority.
White said the ordinances are illegal. And legislators have challenged him to prove that in court.
Legislator Dennis Waits said those issues are more important to him than White’s taxes and finances, but doesn’t object to Tarwater’s insistence that those personal issues be looked at.
“Essentially what they (White and his staff) are doing is ignoring anything the legislature is dictating,” Waits said.
Legislators say White has abused his power by ignoring their wishes on spending matters and by refusing to hand over control of COMBAT, the county’s anti-drug and anti-violence effort, even after the legislature has voted to transfer that authority to Jean Peters Baker, the elected county prosecutor.
White recently asked the state auditor to examine the county’s finances to settle some of the disagreements, which legislative chairman Scott Burnett readily endorsed. But so far no audit has begun.
“We have been in contact with the State Auditor’s Office regarding the County Executive’s recommendation,” White’s spokesperson, Marshanna Hester, said Friday in an email, “but by law, the request must come from the Legislature. We are working with the Legislature in hopes that it will do so immediately.”
White was elected to the legislature in 2014 and served one year before resigning that seat to replace Sanders as the county’s top official. When he was appointed in January of 2016, he had the unanimous endorsement of the other eight legislators — six fellow Democrats and two Republicans — all of whom still hold office.
They didn’t know he was behind on his taxes at the time — including $80,000 he and his wife owed the IRS — and no one asked.
In addition to the unpaid state taxes, records show he was also delinquent on his local property taxes when he was sworn in: Two weeks past due in paying more than $500 in personal property taxes on his 2008 Ford pickup and more than a year delinquent on some of the $1,000 in real estate taxes he and his wife owed on his boyhood home in the 2900 block of Olive Street.
When two of his top aides discovered he was behind on his local property taxes, one of them told The Star, they dug into their own banking accounts to pay the delinquent local taxes, in cash. County property records show the payments were made separately, on Feb. 17 and 18, 2016, five days before White filed for office.
Their intent was to help White truthfully sign the form on which candidates swear they are current on their taxes. However, the state income tax bill remained outstanding.
Baker has the power to initiate removal proceedings for violations of election laws. Several years ago, she threatened to initiate such an action against then-legislator James Tindall, who was unqualified to serve because he was a convicted felon, but he resigned rather than fight it.
White’s failure to declare his tax liability when filing for election falls under another provision of the same law.
Baker’s office is currently investigating White’s situation, but it’s unclear where she is in the process.
“It would be inappropriate to comment at this time,” spokesman Mike Mansur said.