An ethics complaint against a member of the KCI selection committee has delayed plans to publicly reveal the recommended choice to build and finance a new single terminal at the airport.
The KCI selection committee, a six-member board composed of two council members and four city officials, previously said it would announce its recommendation Thursday afternoon.
One of the selection committee members, Kansas City councilwoman Jolie Justus, was the subject of an ethics complaint that surfaced Tuesday.
It alleged that Justus had a conflict of interest because she works at Kansas City law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon, which represented Burns & McDonnell in a commercial litigation dispute that settled in 2016.
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Burns & McDonnell is one of four teams that have submitted proposals for the $1 billion terminal project.
The delay represents another setback in picking a proposal and starting a campaign for a November vote on the KCI project by the public. The council last week approved ballot language for a November election, but settling on a proposal has not been a smooth process.
The ethics complaint came about during a tumultuous day at City Hall. Mayor Sly James accused an aide of council member Katheryn Shields of having improper contact with a representative of AECOM-led KCI Partnership, another proposer seeking the $1 billion contract.
James said Le’Shyeka Roland, an aide to Shields, was spotted at last Thursday’s council legislative session having a “rather close conversation” with a representative from KCI Partnership that, “no matter how you slice it, looks pretty bad, in my opinion.”
Roland was seen in the council meeting chamber sitting with Monti Valrie, a consultant with the AECOM-led KCI Partnership. James said Valrie had his arm around Roland, and her head resting on his shoulder.
Shields said her aide did not know Valrie was working with KCI Partnership.
On the Justus matter, the councilwoman said the entire KCI selection committee agreed there was no conflict of interest, a view shared in an informal opinion by Cecilia Abbott, the city’s attorney.
But out of an abundance of caution, Abbott wanted the issue considered first by Kansas City’s Municipal Officials and Officers Ethics Commission, which reviews ethics complaints against elected officials.
“I didn’t want us to enter into deliberations with this cloud hanging over the process,” Justus said. “I want the opportunity to appear before the commission.”
A Kansas City resident, Ryan Elsenpeter, filed the complaint against Justus. The complaint now goes before the Kansas City Municipal Ethics Commission when it meets Wednesday afternoon.
Elsenpeter could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In his complaint, Elsenpeter wrote that Justus chaired the council’s Airport Committee and was on the “bid selection committee while the law firm where she is employed has business with one of the bidders and that bidder does extensive business with the airport and the city.”
Justus said she did not know about Shook Hardy’s work on Burns & McDonnell’s behalf until it was brought to her attention last week by fellow council member Alissia Canady. Justus sought an opinion from the Kansas City Legal Department, which determined that Justus did not stand to gain a personal or financial benefit from Shook Hardy’s work for Burns & McDonnell.
Justus is a pro bono legal services director for Shook Hardy; she is not a partner or a shareholder and does not share in the law firm’s profits.
“I do zero billable work” for the firm, she said Tuesday. “None of my salary or compensation is based on any of the billable work that the firm does.”
She also noted that Burns & McDonnell has hired a different law firm, Stinson Leonard Street, to represent it on the terminal proposal process.
Former City Councilman Ed Ford, also a lawyer who has considered conflicts of interest issues at City Hall, said Tuesday he did not think there was any conflict as long as Shook Hardy & Bacon is not now doing work for Burns & McDonnell.
Shook Hardy represented Burns & McDonnell in a case brought by the owner of the Branson, Mo., Airport. The lawsuit alleged faulty work done on a $70 million runway project. All parties reached a settlement in January 2016.
Whatever the outcome of the ethics complaint, it marks another controversy about the KCI selection process. Four companies have been vying for the $1 billion contract, and competition has been particularly fierce between Burns & McDonnell and AECOM.
During Tuesday’s work session, James brought up Roland’s interaction with Valrie last Thursday.
Council members and their aides have generally been discouraged from having contact with the KCI proposers. Charles Renner, a Husch Blackwell attorney advising the council and the selection committee, agreed that the council had been cautioned about avoiding interactions or communications between proposers and council members or their aides.
James said that in light of those earlier conversations and cautions, the physical contact in the council chamber gave him pause.
“I’m sorry, there seems to be a lot of innuendo and things floating around about what other people are doing,” James said. “I thought I would point out that that looked bad, especially in light of the conversation that had taken place a few days earlier.”
Shields defended her aide.
“When I saw her in the legislative chamber go over and sit by the guy, I sent her a text that said, ‘You can’t sit by him, he’s from AECOM,’” Shields said. “She immediately got up and moved. She’s never had any conversations with him about the consulting. She didn’t know that they had any relationship with AECOM, and that’s the beginning and the end of it.”
James replied, “Generally when you sit by somebody you don’t know, they don’t put their arm around you.”
Shields said her aide did not know Valrie was a consultant with the KCI Partnership team.
“It was nothing more than a greeting,” Valrie told The Star after Tuesday’s council work session meeting.
It’s not clear whether the Valrie and Roland have a personal relationship; Roland was not immediately available for comment.
“She hasn’t been to the River Club with him (Valrie), I assure you of that,” Shields said.
That’s a reference to a meeting in March between James, City Manager Troy Schulte, Justus and other KCI officials with executives from Burns & McDonnell at the downtown members-only restaurant.
That meeting, city officials have said, was the first time Burns & McDonnell broached the idea of designing, building and privately financing a single terminal project at KCI.
The plan was revealed in May and presented as a sole source contract to Burns & McDonnell. City Hall soon reversed course and decided to put the project up for competitive proposals, for which there are now four companies that have offered their ideas for the project.