Government & Politics

Mayor accuses council aide of improper contact with representative of KCI bidder

Mayor Sly James on Tuesday accused an aide to a Kansas City councilwoman of having a “rather close conversation” with a representative from one of the teams vying for the KCI contract that, “no matter how you slice it, looks pretty bad, in my opinion.”

James was referring to Le’Shyeka Roland, an aide to Katheryn Shields. During last Thursday’s council session, Roland was seen sitting next to Monti Valrie, a consultant with the AECOM-led KCI Partnership.

The mayor said Valrie had his arm around Roland, while she rested her head on his shoulder.

James’ accusation came at a public council work session in the midst of a high-stakes selection process to pick a team of companies to build and finance a new $1 billion terminal at Kansas City International Airport. The competition has been especially fierce between AECOM and Kansas-City based Burns & McDonnell, which are pulling out all the stops to win the job.

An ethics complaint also surfaced Tuesday alleging that Jolie Justus, a Kansas City councilwoman who is also on the KCI selection committee, had a conflict of interest. The complaint centers on the fact that she works at a law firm that represented Burns & McDonnell in a commercial litigation case that settled last year.

Late Tuesday, the selection committee said it would announce the recommended proposer on Sept. 7, which reverses course on an earlier commitment to make the announcement this week. It was not immediately clear why the announcement was pushed back.

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 councilmembers or their aides.

James said that in light of those earlier conversations and cautions, the physical contact in the council chamber last Thursday 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, saying that Roland did not know Valrie was associated with AECOM.

“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.

With regard to innuendo, James may have been referring to questions about Justus. It has come to light that she works for a law firm that previously had represented Burns & McDonnell in litigation brought by the owner of the Branson, Mo., Airport.

In 2013 Branson Airport LLC sued Burns & McDonnell and other contractors that had worked on a $70 million runway project. The suit accused the company of designing and building a runway that quickly developed foundation problems. Burns & McDonnell denied the allegations and the case settled in 2016.

Burns & McDonnell was represented in that case by three Shook, Hardy & Bacon attorneys. Justus works as a pro bono legal services director for the law firm.

Justus, chair of the Airport Committee, said a colleague, City Councilwoman Alissia Canady, approached her on Aug. 24 about the alleged conflict of interest.

Justus said Tuesday that she had not known about that potential conflict, so she immediately sought an opinion from the city attorney and from her law firm.

She said Tuesday she had not previously known about her firm’s work on that case.

“I’m the pro bono director for my firm,” she said. “I do zero billable work. None of my salary or compensation is based on any of the billable work that the firm does.”

She said she represents children and families in the foster care system and is solely focused on that one practice.

She also noted that Burns & McDonnell has hired a different law firm, Stinson Leonard Street, to represent it on the terminal proposal process.

Justus said later Tuesday that lawyers who are advising the KCI terminal selection committee also saw no conflict of interest.

An informal legal opinion written by Cecilia Abbott, city attorney for Kansas City municipal government, indicated she thought there was no personal or financial benefit to Justus from Shook Hardy’s work with Burns & McDonnell.

But Abbott did note that a Kansas City citizen, Ryan Elsenpeter, had filed a complaint with Kansas City’s Municipal Ethics Commission, which is on the agenda for discussion at an ethics commission meeting scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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 noted that the work her firm did for Burns & McDonnell has ended.

Elsenpeter did not return phone calls or emails seeking additional comment.

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.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt

Related stories from Kansas City Star