People give money to help politicians get elected. But what if a Missouri politician used those campaign donations to, say, pay legal fees to defend himself against criminal charges that he spent donors’ money illegally?
The particularly ironic — some have called it appalling — legal interpretation that the money could be used this way was established after former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders hired an attorney to look into it. The Missouri Ethics Commission’s advisory opinion giving the OK arrived in late October, 10 days before Sanders arrived at the federal prison camp in Yankton, S.D., to become federal inmate 32936-045.
At the center of this previously untold story is a certain $435,000 plus change that is sitting idle in the bank accounts of the Sanders for Jackson County campaign committee.
According to Missouri campaign finance laws, the committee should have been terminated in December because Sanders was no longer seeking public office. Its funds should have been donated to any number of authorized recipients, such as a political party or a charity.
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But Sanders for Jackson County lives on for now in a legal limbo, and almost no one is getting any of its money for the time being.
Not Sanders’ defense attorney, J.R. Hobbs, who is owed plenty but says he wants no part of the campaign funds that are now tied up in court.
Not the state Democratic Party Sanders once chaired. Nor any of the charities that Sanders is said to have been considering before beginning his 27-month prison sentence on Nov. 5. With good behavior he’ll be back on the streets by April 20, 2020.
No, the only one getting paid for now is Ron Holliger. He’s the lawyer Sanders hired last spring to seek the Missouri Ethic Commission’s opinion on his legal fees.
Holliger’s role has expanded since then due to a lawsuit filed shortly before Sanders began serving time. His clients include Sanders and Sanders for Jackson County; the committee’s treasurer, Georgia Sanders, Sanders’ wife; as well as a now-defunct campaign committee that Sanders controlled called Integrity in Law Enforcement and its treasurer, Martin Kerr.
The guy who filed suit is Sanders’ sometimes foe and fellow Democrat, attorney Phil LeVota. He thinks he is as entitled as anyone to that $435,000, accusing Sanders of using money from the two campaign committees to undermine his business.
“I’ve been wrong before,” Holliger said, “but Phil LeVota’s lawsuit may be worth all $435,000 of it. How do you know?”
That would be for a jury to decide, should the case ever get that far. LeVota claims Sanders caused his firm, Midwest Mediation & Consulting LLC, to lose an $80,000-a-year lobbying contract with the city of Independence three years ago.
LeVota was the city’s lobbyist from 2010 until 2016, which was the same year Sanders resigned as county executive, supposedly to spend more time with his family and make better money in private law practice.
While out hustling for clients, LeVota alleges, Sanders convinced members of the Independence City Council to dump Midwest Mediation in favor of another lobbying firm who’d worked for Jackson County while Sanders ran county government.
He not only sweet talked the council members, LeVota claims in the lawsuit, Sanders directed his wife and Kerr to support their re-election campaigns with checks from Sanders for Jackson County and Integrity in Law Enforcement.
“It’s not that he took the contract away,” LeVota said in a phone interview from Mexico on Thursday, “he interfered with it.”
Sanders denied in court records that the contributions were made with the intention of interfering with the Midwest Mediation contract. He also denied that he instructed two others defendants — his father-in-law, Jack Cardwell, and former county legislator Dennis Waits — to make campaign donations in furtherance of the alleged scheme.
The timing of LeVota’s litigation was no coincidence.
His initial request for a temporary restraining order came just four days after the ethics commission ruled that a 20-year-old state statute would let Sanders for Jackson County pay Hobbs for working the criminal case. Previously, the legislation was generally interpreted to cover only legal fees in actions involving alleged violations of state campaign finance laws, not federal felonies.
LeVota said he found it grotesque that someone in Sanders’ shoes could pay those legal fees from the same campaign fund he’d stolen money from to underwrite vacations to California wine country and pay federal income taxes.
“I’m so surprised and appalled,” he said, and he thinks the law should change.
Plus, he’d like some if not all of the $435,000 for himself. His suit asks for $1 million in actual and punitive damages from each defendant.
A jury trial is set for 9 a.m. July 8 in Jackson County Circuit Court before Judge Joel P Fahnestock.