Kansas City’s ethics commission found no basis Wednesday for a conflict of interest allegation against City Councilwoman Jolie Justus in her influential role relating to the potential modernization of Kansas City International Airport.
The Municipal Officials and Officers Ethics Commission met and considered both Justus’ own request for them to rule on whether she had a conflict of interest, and to consider a resident’s ethics complaint against her. In both instances, the commission found no conflict.
“I feel good,” Justus said after the commission voted 4-0 in her favor. “I wanted to make sure we put this issue to rest once and for all.”
The issue arose because Justus works for the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, which represented Kansas City engineering firm Burns & McDonnell in a lawsuit over the Branson Airport that began in 2013 and settled in 2016. Burns & McDonnell leads one of the four teams vying to build and finance a new $1 billion single-terminal building at KCI airport. And Justus both chairs the council’s Airport Committee and serves on the selection committee that’s likely to recommend a winning proposal to do that airport work.
Justus said she was not aware of her firm’s work for Burns & McDonnell until it was brought to her attention by City Councilwoman Alissia Canady last Thursday. She requested an opinion from City Attorney Cecilia Abbott.
Abbott concluded in an informal written opinion over the weekend that no conflict existed under the city’s ethics code. She found Justus derived no financial or personal benefit from the firm’s work for Burns & McDonnell. Then on Sunday, Aug. 27, Kansas City resident Ryan Elsenpeter filed a complaint with the ethics commission again alleging a conflict.
Out of an abundance of caution, Justus sought a ruling from the ethics commission, which considers ethics complaints and allegations against city elected officials. Her decision prompted the selection committee to delay its recommendation of a winning proposal, which had been expected on Thursday but has been put off until next week.
On Wednesday, Abbott told the commission that Justus is pro bono legal services director for Shook Hardy, a firm with over 500 attorneys in 12 states. Justus is not on track for partnership, is not a shareholder, doesn’t share in the firm’s profits and her compensation is not based on the firm’s revenues. She represents indigent children and families in foster care and does no billable work for the firm.
Her firm has represented Burns & McDonnell in the past and considers the engineering firm to be a client, but the company has hired a different law firm, Stinson Leonard Street, in connection with its KCI airport proposal.
In her written opinion, Abbott also noted that the city’s code of ordinances requires an official to disclose at the beginning of any project any related private financial transaction with a customer or client during the previous 24 months. But Abbott noted that Justus has not supplied any goods or services to Burns & McDonnell, so she concluded that no private financial transaction disclosure was required in this instance.
Ethics Commission member Brenda Thomas noted that “these are politically charged times,” both nationally and locally, and she suggested the city should have a better way to check on potential conflicts of interest before something like this high pressure instance with the airport arises again.
But Thomas, Commission Chair Carlose Estes and commission members Cat Larrison and Judy Gibson agreed with the city attorney’s opinion that no conflict existed in this case.
Ethics Commission member Michelle Stark Kaufman is a partner in the Dentons law firm, which is involved with KCI-Partnership, another of the airport team proposals headed by AECOM. So she recused herself from the commission’s discussion and vote.
Elsenpeter, who filed the formal ethics complaint, had been alerted about the meeting via email but did not attend or testify. The Commission considered his complaint but determined that it was addressed by Abbott’s opinion and did not need further investigation.
Justus said the commission’s ruling clears up any cloud hanging over the selection committee. She said the group is scheduled to meet again next Tuesday to begin its deliberations on a winning airport proposal to recommend for city council consideration.