The FBI is investigating some Clay County government actions, including the county’s contracting and personnel practices, sources have told The Kansas City Star.
Three sources independently confirmed the federal probe, which began more than a year ago. Each told the paper that he or she had been interviewed by agents or had provided records to investigators. Each asked for anonymity.
Two other sources, both top county officials speaking anonymously, said that although they have not talked with investigators, they have heard that agents are speaking with current and former county officials and employees. One county law enforcement source told the newspaper that he was aware that agents were “on the (Liberty) square interviewing people.”
The county’s administration building sits in the middle of the Liberty square.
Spokespersons for the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City declined to confirm or deny the investigation.
The investigation’s full scope is not clear, but agents apparently began asking questions in 2013 after community members complained about Clay County’s contract-awarding practices and personnel decisions.
Pamela Mason, a former presiding commissioner, said Tuesday she was not aware of the inquiry.
“They aren’t talking to me. I don’t know who they’re talking to,” said Mason, who lost a re-election bid in November for a second four-year term.
Western Commissioner Gene Owen, who was elected in 2012, also said he knew nothing about an investigation and has not been approached by federal investigators.
“I think it’s a rumor,” he said. “I mean, my God, you would think we would’ve heard that if that was happening. If they were doing anything up there it (word getting out) would be like a flash fire.”
Easterm Commissioner Luann Ridgeway could not be reached for comment.
The Star’s sources said that investigators appear to be looking, in part, at whether campaign contributions influenced contracting decisions the three-member county commission made in 2013.
A newspaper review of several matters referred to investigators found that some county vendors had made contributions to commissioners before receiving contracts, in one case giving as much as much as $1,650 over five years. However, the commissioners who received the contributions appeared to have abstained from voting on those contracts.
Agents also are said to have explored whether county officials approved several personnel agreements — including terminations and a demotion — to make room on the county payroll for friends and political supporters.
County records obtained by the newspaper show that in 2013 and 2014, the county paid more than $132,000 to settle employment issues with five county workers. In one instance, the county demoted a department director to an hourly post. County records reflected that the employee underwent a 44 percent pay cut.
Another worker left county employment, settling a state employment discrimination complaint for $50,000.
Three others quit. One received six months pay and $500 to maintain memberships in professional organizations as part of the severance package.
A strict confidentiality agreement covered all of the written employee agreements, which also contained pledges from all parties not to disparage one another.
Investigators also are said to have reviewed county hiring to determine whether the new employees’ friendships with county officials, or their campaign contributions, factored into hiring decisions.
Owen said commissioners have their county counselor review and advise them on any contracts or settlement agreements that will come before them.
Current Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte said, “If there’s some kind of investigation like that, hey, anything we can do to cooperate … is where we are going to be.”