The FBI is investigating a lobbying contract between Jackson County and Polsinelli, a top law firm in Kansas City, The Star has learned.
A federal judge referred to the investigation of a lobbying contract last week as she sentenced former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders and top aide Calvin Williford to prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud. But Judge Roseann Ketchmark did not disclose details other than the contract had resulted in a $200,000 loss. She did not explain who lost the money.
Sources later told The Star that the contract involved Polsinelli and Jackson County. Polsinelli confirmed that on Wednesday and said it was cooperating with a probe.
“Polsinelli is aware of an investigation and we have fully cooperated,” said Doug Laird, general counsel for Polsinelli. “We believe our engagement by the county with the federal lobbying work complied with all applicable rules and law.”
Polsinelli is a fast-growing law firm based in Kansas City with about 800 attorneys spread across offices around the country.
Federal lobbying disclosures show that Polsinelli began lobbying for Jackson County in 2010 until the relationship was terminated in April 2018. Jackson County paid the law firm $1.27 million, largely for lobbying on transportation issues.
It’s not publicly clear what investigators are examining, but multiple sources have said part of the investigation concerns questionable travel expenses.
Records obtained by The Star show that former Polsinelli senior partner Pete Levi authorized tens of thousands of dollars on trips taken by Jackson County employees and elected officials to cities across the country. Polsinelli’s 2016 contract called for the firm to cover “costs relating to educational and fact-finding activities engaged in by county officials pursuant to the goals for the scope of work.”
None of the other annual contracts contained such specific language, even though Polsinelli was paying for county officials’ travel those years. Sanders approved the 2016 contract on the day he left office.
The Star’s sources say that authorities have questioned the propriety of those expenditures, but have not determined whether any of it was illegal.
“It is my understanding that they have asked for all travel records,” said Dan Tarwater, a Jackson County legislator. Tarwater said he has not been contacted by the FBI.
The county’s lobbying contract with Polsinelli was at the center of a dispute last year between legislators and Jackson County Executive Frank White, who budgeted $200,000 for Polsinelli’s lobbyists to continue their work on Capitol Hill, according to Tarwater. He and others questioned the expense.
The lobbying work had begun years earlier when Sanders first sought to purchase the Rock Island rail corridor, a 15-mile stretch of unused railroad from Lee’s Summit to near the Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City. Sanders said it was important to buy the right of way for possible mass transit use, and to extend the area’s multi-use trail system. The county bought the corridor from Union Pacific in 2016 with the financial assistance of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority.
With the purchase complete, legislators wondered why the county would need to keep up its Washington, D.C., lobbying work.
Tarwater said White agreed to take it out of the budget.
“Then, unbeknownst to any legislator in April of 2017, they entered into a contract with Polsinelli for the lobbying contract again,” Tarwater said. “They did not come before the Legislature, which is required.”
Indeed, the Polsinelli contract never came before the Legislature for approval during its seven-year run, records show. Instead, it was administered and approved by both the county counselor and county executive’s office as a legal service agreement.
Levi, who declined comment, was the lead co-counsel for Polsinelli in Kansas City, while another attorney worked out of Washington. Travel records obtained by The Star under an open records request show that Levi signed off on thousands of dollars of travel, accommodations, meals and other expenses for elected officials and other county employees in 2015 and 2016.
Chief among them was Williford, who until his resignation in 2017 was executive director of the Rock Island Rail Corridor Authority and before that chief of staff to both White and Sanders. Records show that Williford racked up large bills on expensive hotels and air travel.
White ended the practice of Polsinelli paying for employees’ travel when he became aware of it in 2016, according to White’s office.
“When the County Executive became aware he informed staff that this was not a practice that he wished to continue and directed that the practice cease,” White said in a statement Wednesday. “In addition, representatives from Polsinelli were contacted and agreed to remove that provision from any subsequent contract and reduce the contract cost accordingly.”
The next year’s contract was for $150,000, which was $40,000 less than 2016.
White’s administration flagged some of Williford’s trips in an analysis of his expense reports conducted after Williford resigned. In a series of emails with the county counselor’s office, Williford denied any wrongdoing and none was alleged.
His guilty plea and that of Sanders’ were not connected to the lobbying contract, but rather centered on the theft of political campaign funds.
Sanders was sentenced to 27 months in prison. Williford got six months, in part because of his cooperation with federal prosecutors, which included providing information on the lobbying contract Ketchmark referred to in court.