Government & Politics

Ordered to break the law, Jackson County official refused and lost his job, suit says

Frank White sworn in as Jackson County executive

Former Kansas City Royals great Frank White was sworn in on January 11, 2016, as the Jackson County executive in a brief ceremony at the historic Truman Courthouse in Independence. White will serve in the position for the remainder of 2016.
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Former Kansas City Royals great Frank White was sworn in on January 11, 2016, as the Jackson County executive in a brief ceremony at the historic Truman Courthouse in Independence. White will serve in the position for the remainder of 2016.

A former top official in Jackson County’s finance department was put on paid leave for nine months, then fired last fall for what he says was his refusal to spend taxpayer money illegally.

Scott Jacoby claims in a lawsuit that his 15-year career at the courthouse ended after he was caught in the middle of a power struggle between Jackson County Executive Frank White and the county legislature.

At issue was control of the Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax program, commonly known as COMBAT. Funded by a county sales tax, the $22 million that COMBAT collects each year is supposed to pay for programs aimed at reducing illegal drug use and violent crime.

But at the end of 2017 and the first weeks of 2018, top officials in White’s office ordered Jacoby to use COMBAT funds to pay the salaries of staffers in White’s office whose jobs the legislature had defunded when approving the 2018 budget.

Jacoby was deputy finance director at the time, earning $98,000 a year. Aware that the legislature had stripped White of his authority over COMBAT, Jacoby balked when ordered to use COMBAT money to pay the salaries and expenses of White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, and others. He couldn’t, he told his superiors, because the new head of the COMBAT program, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, had told him not to.

A day later, Ed Stoll, chief administrative officer, placed Jacoby on paid administrative leave pending an investigation for being “unwilling to perform the essential function of your position, which would result in violation of federal law.”

Jacoby says he was never provided a copy of that investigative report and only learned he was being fired when the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office delivered “notice of discharge” papers to his home on Sept. 24, 2018, which were effective that day.

“Budgetary layoff” was the reason given. His was the only position in the finance department eliminated through a reorganization, says the lawsuit filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.

The county did not comment on the suit, as is its policy on pending litigation.

Jacoby’s attorney, Carrie Brous, argues in court documents that the suspension and firing were in violation of her client’s rights under the county’s merit system. Employees are entitled under that system to challenge disciplinary actions through a formal process.

Jacoby said he was never given a hearing and also claims his dismissal was a violation of the state whistleblower protection act.

In addition to the county, the suit names White, Stoll and three other county employees as defendants.

The court action comes as Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway is reviewing the county’s finances, starting with COMBAT. The legislature requested the audit over concerns that White’s administration had improperly spent COMBAT funds on employee expense allowances and a new pickup truck for Clifford’s exclusive use.

“The performance audit will focus on whether the program has operated in compliance with state law, local ordinances and best practices,” Galloway said in announcing the examination last fall.

Galloway’s investigators have interviewed Jacoby, Brous said in an interview Tuesday.

“The auditor has concerns about what happened to Scott and this issue of public money being misspent and the lack of transparency,” she said.

The county will pay for the audit, but the amount is yet to be determined. On Monday, the legislature approved paying the law firm Seyferth, Blumenthal & Harris LLC of Kansas City up to $127,000 to represent the county and county employees in two pending employment related lawsuits.

The plaintiffs who brought those suits won’t be identified until the legal services contract is signed later this week, but Jacoby’s is one of them, according to two knowledgeable county government sources.

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
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