Jackson County Executive Frank White was driving to Branson for a golf tournament last year when his phone rang.
“Your house is going to be sold on the courthouse steps tomorrow,” the caller said.
White turned his car around and soon he and his wife, Teresa, were meeting in Independence with White’s predecessor, Mike Sanders; Sanders’ law partner Ken McClain, as well as an unidentified third attorney.
The point of the meeting — which The Star confirmed through multiple sources — was to discuss the Whites’ delinquent mortgage payments.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
After it was over, the deficit was erased and the former Royals great kept his Lee’s Summit home.
Now, some county legislators and others are expressing concerns about the appearance of a possible conflict of interest. The deal was structured, one source with direct knowledge of the transaction told The Star, to hide McClain’s involvement because the county rents office space from McClain and houses part of his art collection for free.
According to the source, McClain provided the funds to catch White and his wife up on their mortgage. But rather than write the check himself, the source said, McClain provided the money through another lawyer.
Legislator Dan Tarwater said he was troubled by the potential implications of the deal.
“If you are not able to provide, and someone provides for you, I would assume you owe them a favor or two,” said Tarwater, who like White is a Democrat. “I always thought that was a rumor until two weeks ago when it was confirmed for me by two different people.”
Republican legislator Greg Grounds had not heard about the alleged bailout until informed of it by a reporter on Friday, but said White needs to explain what transpired in order to dispel any suspicions.
“I would agree with Dan that the appearance is one that needs to be addressed,” Grounds said. “It looks awkward. If indeed some financial help was given, it would certainly have been nice for it to have been from an independent third party.”
The Jackson County charter prohibits officers or employees from accepting “any service or thing of value, directly or indirectly, from any person, firm or corporation having dealings with the county, upon more favorable terms than those granted to the public generally.”
In a prepared statement, White said he received “no loans from Ken McClain.” He did acknowledge accepting gifts from McClain “related to attendance at sporting events” in 2016. White also denied accepting any loans or gifts from Sanders.
But he declined to comment on whether he’d gotten a loan or gift from anyone else related to his house. Nor would he comment on anything regarding the meeting.
Instead, he wrote in general terms about the financial problems he’s suffered since his decades-long association with the Royals — as a player, coach, minor league manager and, finally, team ambassador — ended more than six years ago.
“As many know, in 2011, I was let go by the Kansas City Royals,” White wrote. “This news caught me by surprise, and like many others, I was not prepared to handle such a financial loss.
“In the weeks, months and years that have followed, I have worked hard to rebuild. As I have confronted these issues, I have sought and received counsel and have followed their recommendations. While it has not been easy, I am proud of the progress I have made.”
McClain and Sanders declined to comment.
McClain owns or co-owns much of the Independence Square, which benefits indirectly from the millions of dollars in county spending on public projects in Independence while Sanders was county executive.
He benefits directly, however, in his business dealings with county government. County offices occupy the second floor of a three-story building that is owned by a company called 201 Lexington LLC, for which McClain is the manager, on the Independence Square at 201 W. Lexington Ave.
Across the street in the Historic Truman Courthouse, a portion of McClain’s art collection is displayed in gallery space dedicated exclusively to George Caleb Bingham portraits and lithographs he owns in what’s called the Jackson County Museum of Art.
The art is available for public viewing. But because the door to the warren of climate-controlled rooms is almost always locked except for twice-daily courthouse tours offered on weekdays, few people ever see the collection that was valued at $2 million when the artwork loan agreement was approved by the county legislature in 2013.
Both arrangements pre-date White’s time as a county official. But he was county executive April 15 of this year when his administration agreed to a lease that ups the rent paid on the 4,551 square feet of office space at 201 W. Lexington. Under terms of the new, five-year lease, the county will pay $56,888 a year to house the offices of four of the nine county legislators, legislative clerk and office of emergency management. Prior to April 15, McClain was paid $49,869 a year.
White, after this story was originally published online, said the lease was bid competitively and approved by the county legislature, having only received one bid.
White would not agree to an interview with The Star to discuss his finances or any potential conflicts of interest. But in his written statement, he implied that The Star’s story was tied to politics at a time when he is at odds with the county legislature over a number of issues. Just this week, he issued his third veto of a legislative action in a matter of weeks.
“I am disappointed, but unfortunately not surprised to learn that some are attempting to exploit my personal life for their political gain,” White said. “I know that it will be impossible for me to correct every error and prevent every false insinuation. However, I know that I have worked hard to meet my responsibilities and have done so in compliance with the law.”
By the time White announced his candidacy for an open seat on the county legislature in the spring of 2014, he and Teresa were having financial difficulties. They owed the IRS $80,000 in back taxes and the state of Missouri $5,000.
But because those liens weren’t filed with the county recorder’s office until the following year, they weren’t public knowledge during that campaign, where he scored landslide victories in both the Democratic primary and general election.
Nor did anyone raise the issue when his fellow legislators picked him unanimously to lead county government when Sanders resigned as county executive unexpectedly in 2016.
The new paycheck was welcome. The Jackson County executive earns $145,000 a year, which is nearly five times what White was paid as a part-time county legislator.
But years of underemployment had taken a toll. Three months after he took charge of county government and its $300 million budget, the Whites’ house showed up on a list of pending foreclosure sales. Lender U.S. Bank had spent months in court laying the foundation for the sale by establishing itself as the first creditor ahead of all others, records show.
The house was set for auction at 12:30 p.m. April 21, 2016. The minimum starting bid was $210,800.
Although the sale notice had been on a public website for weeks, the Whites didn’t learn about it until they were one day away from losing their house.
While they were driving back to Kansas City, White’s friends and political allies rallied, according to three people with first-hand knowledge of what transpired who spoke on background because they said they remain friends with White.
The aim was to find some way to stop the sale and avoid embarrassment. The late James Nutter, a mortgage banker and one of White’s political supporters, was sympathetic but said no to a bailout, two sources said.
Property records show that the Whites borrowed $294,150 to buy their house on Northeast Parks Edge Drive in the Oak Ridge Meadows subdivision in 2001. They took out another, $15,000 loan against it the following year.
This year the county valued the house for tax purposes at $289,739 and Zillow.com estimates it is worth $332,126.
After Nutter declined to get involved, sources said Sanders arranged a meeting with McClain, whose firm, Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, earns big money suing tobacco, trucking and agriculture companies, among others.
“Next thing I know, the sale didn’t happen,” said a county official who helped make others aware of the pending crisis that day.
White’s house again was listed for foreclosure in the fall of 2016, but no sale took place. This October, his banker appointed a company called S&W Foreclosure Corp. as trustee on the property.
White built his political career on the foundation of his long association with the Royals.
He won eight Gold Gloves as a second baseman, helping the franchise win its first World Series in 1985. He later coached first base, managed the organization’s minor-league team in Wichita, worked in the front office and was finally color commentator on Royals television broadcasts.
White and the Royals began parting ways in early 2011, when team executives cut his pay, saying his broadcasting career was taking time away from his team responsibilities.
He went from calling 24 games in 2008, his first year in the broadcast booth, to 135 games in 2009 and 120 in 2010.
White quit the team rather than accept less pay, but said he had no hard feelings.
“They felt like because I increased the number of games I did with Fox, I wasn’t able to be used as much as they wanted to use me, so therefore, it required reduction in salary,” White said at the time. “We just couldn’t come to an agreement on that.”
But his attitude changed when, at the end of the 2011 season, he lost the TV job, too, after Fox Sports Kansas City announced it was not renewing his contract.
“I’m done with the Royals,” he told The Star’s Sam Mellinger then. “In all aspects. I’m tired. I’ve worked so hard to build my reputation and prove to them that I was loyal.”
That loss of income spelled financial doom.
“He said three years of unemployment caused by the Royals ‘screwing’ him had done financial damage,” one close associate said.
“He went from $300,000 a year to zip,” said another.
Zip is an exaggeration. White lists a pension from Major League Baseball on his Missouri Ethics Commission personal financial disclosure form.
It does not state an amount. But for someone who played as long as White did, the MLB Players Pension pays up to $9,351 a month, according to a pension summary on the MLB website.
His disclosure forms also list income received from a sales and marketing job with a roofing company; as a paid spokesman along with his wife for a local non-profit agency, Kansas City’s Medicine Cabinet; and as first-base coach for the Kansas City T-Bones.
Unlike today’s ballplayers, whose high-dollar contracts set them up for life, White played in an era before salaries spiraled.
His top salary, in his final season playing second base for his hometown team, was $1.15 million, according to Baseball Reference. That’s roughly $2.2 million in today’s dollars.
Second basemen with fewer Gold Gloves than White’s eight earn five to 10 times that much now.