With less than a week to go before he begins serving a prison term for misspending political campaign funds, former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders has been accused by a political rival of “underhanded political tricks” that denied him a lucrative lobbying contract with the city of Independence.
Phil LeVota claims in a new lawsuit that his business relationship with the city ended in 2016 because Sanders engaged in an aggressive and ultimately successful campaign to wrest the contract away from LeVota’s firm, Midwest Mediation & Consulting LLC. That effort, the suit says, involved steering thousands of dollars in donations to the campaign committees of council members up for election that year.
According to the suit, some of the money came from two of the same campaign committees that were at the center of the federal corruption case that will see Sanders serving up to 27 month in prison.
In addition to Sanders, the other defendants named are those committees, Sanders for Jackson County and Integrity in Law Enforcement, as well as the committee treasurers. Sanders’ wife, Georgia Sanders, was and still is treasurer of Sanders for Jackson County. J. Martin Kerr, an attorney in Independence, was treasurer of Integrity in Law Enforcement prior to its termination in 2017.
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LeVota is seeking $1 million in damages. He filed for and received a temporary restraining order signed by a Jackson County judge Wednesday that prevents Sanders for Jackson County from spending any of the $435,000 still left in that account until the litigation is completed.
Sanders was sentenced in September after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His former chief of staff, Calvin Williford, was sentenced to six months and will also begin serving his term next week. Both men were also ordered to pay the federal government tens of thousands of dollars in forfeiture.
An attorney representing Sanders and the campaign committees, Ron Holliger, said he had not seen the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday. Holliger said he has not spoken with LeVota about the matter since turning down LeVota’s request for a financial settlement back in September.
But his clients and two others mentioned in the lawsuit issued a written statement late Wednesday saying “there is not one shred of truth to any of Phil’s outlandish accusations.” It was signed by Mike and Georgia Sanders, Kerr, Jackson County Legislator Dennis Waits and Jack Cardwell, father of Georgia Sanders.
Waits and Cardwell are not defendants in the lawsuit, but LeVota claims that both of them contributed to the campaigns of Independence city council members at Mike Sanders’ direction in hopes those contributions would further his alleged attempt to get the city’s lobbying contract.
“It is our collective intention to file a countersuit against Phil given his reckless and deceitful conduct,” the statement from Sanders and the others said.
Both Democrats, Sanders and LeVota have clashed for years in Jackson County political battles. Each has accused the other of political misbehavior on multiple occasions.
The events described in the litigation begin around the time of Sanders’ resignation, in early 2016. After serving nine years as the elected head of Jackson County government, Sanders was returning to the private practice of law. He had gone to work for the law firm Humphrey, Farrington & McClain and was in the process of recruiting clients.
Among his prospects was the city of Independence, the lawsuit claims. LeVota alleges that Sanders approached five of the six city council members and asked them to dump LeVota as lobbyist and hire either his firm or a lobbyist Sanders had hired to work for Jackson County during his tenure as county executive, John Bardgett & Associates.
Sanders would benefit in either instance, the suit alleges, because if Humphrey, Farrington & McClain lost out, “Bardgett would kick back some of the fees to Sanders and/or HFM.”
Bardgett ultimately did win the $90,000-a-year contract, but the lawsuit offers no evidence to support the existence of a kickback scheme and stresses that in LeVota’s opinion, “John Bardgett was not a participant in this criminal conspiracy to interfere with plaintiff’s contract.”
None of the council members are named in the suit, but they are easily identified in campaign finance records based on the contributions spelled out in court documents.
The lawsuit alleges that after receiving campaign contributions from Integrity in Law Enforcement and the wife of one of Sanders’ law partners, Councilman Scott Roberson approached then-City Manager John Pinch in May 2016 and told him that he and some other members of the council were “interested in terminating” the contract with LeVota’s firm.
In an interview on Wednesday, Roberson acknowledged that he and some others wanted to rebid the contract that LeVota had for providing lobbying services on the city’s behalf in Jefferson City. But he said that was only because LeVota’s contract had been renewing automatically every year since he was first retained in 2010.
“It’s just good business to rebid it every year,” he said.
Roberson called LeVota’s lawsuit “frivolous” and said he was free to submit a bid in 2016 and the subsequent two years, but didn’t.