Editorials

County Executive Frank White misused anti-crime tax dollars. And now he’s hiding?

Jackson County Executive Frank White was nowhere to be found after the results of an audit released by Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker’s office detailed the misuse of millions of dollars from the county’s 30-year-old voter-approved Community Backed Anti-Crime Tax program, commonly known as COMBAT.

The COMBAT sales tax, which yields $22 million per year, is supposed to pay for programs aimed at reducing illegal drug use and violent crime. Money is divided between the Kansas City Police Department, the Jackson County prosecutor and the county drug task force. Anti-drug and crime reduction organizations also benefit.

But White apparently sees no reason to be constrained by the intended purpose of the tax — he’s been spending surplus funds as he sees fit, sometimes without seeking approval from the county legislature. White also has not felt compelled to explain this misuse of tax dollars.

White’s office sent out a statement saying the county executive’s office was not provided an advance copy of the report prior to its public release, so he was unable to address its contents.

Days have passed now, though, and White still has provided no answers to legitimate questions about why, exactly, he used tax dollars intended to reduce drug abuse and violent crime on an array of other expenditures.

White and his predecessor, Mike Sanders, both used the surplus from the tax as a personal slush fund, according to the audit from BKD, a national accounting firm.

The audit found that the current county executive used $4,869 from the fund to help pay for a $34,000 county-owned 2016 Chevy Colorado pickup truck used exclusively by White’s chief of staff, Caleb Clifford.

The purchase, made without the county legislature’s approval, prompted a change in the rules governing which agency would administer the program.

White also used $750,000 in COMBAT funds to buy two vans and make repairs to the jail’s elevators and showers, the audit revealed. He spent another $2.1 million in COMBAT funds to fix broken cell doors at the Jackson County Detention Center without COMBAT officials’ knowledge or approval.

Sanders, who is serving a 27-month prison term for wire fraud, used COMBAT money to finance a home giveaway program.

The county legislature voted in late 2017 to transfer authority over COMBAT to the county prosecutor’s office. White fought the transfer until a Jackson County judge banned White and others in his administration from interfering in the management of COMBAT. The judge ruled that the legislature was within its power to give Baker authority over the program.

It’s still unclear how much the county executive’s office spent on the legal challenges, but Baker estimates that more than $200,000 was spent on legal fees related to the case.

In a county where the largest city’s murder rate has made national news, the fact that White misused anti-drug and anti-violence funds is indefensible.

“That money belongs to the taxpayers,” Baker said. “We are stewards. That is not good stewardship.”

Other concerns highlighted in the audit include:

Of $1.28 million in COMBAT reserve funds in 2017, only $131,946 was spent on COMBAT anti-drug and anti-violence programs.

BKD requested information on 60 county employees, but county finance officials would only supply the firm with information on 10 employees.

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway is also reviewing the COMBAT program and other aspects of the county’s finances.

The audit wisely recommends that all agencies receiving COMBAT funds should be required to detail how the money will be spent.

White’s office put out a defiant press release late Friday afternoon expressing shock at the findings in the audit, and requesting its retraction. The release included a letter to the managing partner of BKD, the national accounting firm that compiled the audit, whose staff met with Jackson County officials that morning. “County staff provided numerous examples of inaccuracies, omissions, and misleading statements,” it read, “but were careful to state on numerous occasions that they were confident that more errors existed.” However, the release contained no details about the alleged mistakes.

Baker has instituted several recommended changes to COMBAT, including eliminating the spending on salaries and perks of county employees with no ties to anti-crime work. The prosecutor has asked the county legislature to conduct hearings that will track progress on implementing recommendations from the audit.

Legislators should move quickly to schedule those hearings and update COMBAT’s funding formula, which was last approved by the legislature in 1995.

“We want to deliver a good product,” Baker said.

That should be the first priority, and the audit makes clear it isn’t happening now. Beyond that, Frank White must answer for misappropriating taxpayer dollars.

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