Mike Sanders stood before a federal judge in downtown Kansas City Friday afternoon, his back straight, his voice firm — and his reputation in shattered pieces on the ground.
The former Jackson County executive and former Jackson County prosecutor admitted his role in a scheme to divert campaign contributions for his personal use. Sanders pleaded guilty to a single felony count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
The conspiracy, the government said, went on for several years. According to papers filed with the court, Sanders and former Chief of Staff Calvin Williford would direct payments from political campaign committees to “strawmen” who claimed campaign work.
The strawmen didn’t actually perform political tasks. Instead, they cashed the committee checks and bounced most of the money back to Sanders and Williford, who used the cash for personal expenses.
Sentencing will come later this year. The one-time chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party will likely spend at least some time in prison.
Sanders’ downfall is a sad but common tale. It reflects the arrogance of a public official who apparently came to believe his personal decisions were above public scrutiny.
Sanders, 50, admitted to diverting between $15,000 to $40,000 in campaign funds for personal use.
Supporters are quick to point out that the diverted money did not involve taxpayer dollars. While true, it’s largely irrelevant. Using campaign funds for personal expenses is illegal and can only add to the skepticism of a public already dubious about the motives of politicians.
Campaign funds must always be used for campaign expenses, period. Mike Sanders forgot that fact, damaging Jackson Countians’ faith in their government.
Williford also pleaded guilty Friday to his role in the scheme and will also be sentenced later this year. He apologized for his actions.
Friday’s guilty pleas are a reminder of the importance of campaign finance disclosure. The reason campaign donations and spending must be made public is to allow voters and the press to examine the influence of money on politics.
The pleas also suggest Jackson County’s politics need a thorough scrubbing. The ongoing allegations of misfeasance at the courthouse, coupled with the Sanders plea, should prompt every voter in Jackson County to demand reform.
Mike Sanders’ political career is over, and his life is in shambles. Let that serve, yet again, as a cautionary tale for every politician who thinks his or her needs are more important than the public’s. They aren’t.