By Max R. Weller
No, it didn’t come about because of my disappointment with President Nixon and Watergate during my high school years. It stems from my brief experience as a city council member in my small hometown of Lexington, MO — which happened much later.
I had first run for the 4th Ward seat on Lexington City Council in April of 1991, and I lost to another first-time candidate. This race was to fill the unexpired term of the council member who had resigned for health reasons, and would only be for 1 year. So, not having learned my lesson, I ran again in April of 1992 against the same individual; she had moved to Arizona, and was not legally eligible to be a candidate again, but the powers-that-be at Lexington City Hall were determined to keep me out of office by any means (I’d been giving them a very hard time with my criticism in letters-to-the-editor and paid advertisements in the local newspaper for years). Had Ms. Arizona won in ’92, she would have promptly resigned and the mayor could then have appointed someone to fill that council seat. Their crooked plan was foiled by the voters in the 4th Ward, who elected me by a margin of 75-68 (if memory serves). The day before the election I’d knocked on every single door in my ward, while my opponent was basking in the AZ sunshine; still, it was close.
At my very first city council meeting, where I was sworn into office, I proposed that every other city council member should do as I planned to do: donate my $20/month salary (a mere pittance, after all) towards the purchase of tornado sirens for the city. Funds had already been raised for this purpose by a civic group, in an effort led by the city marshal, but the issue went nowhere at City Hall. You’d have thought that I was trying to rob the other council members, judging by their negative reactions! Bear in mind, I was the poorest member serving, but still willing to do something for the greater good. Eventually, Lexington did get an early warning system, but as far as I know I was the only city official besides the marshal to donate to that worthy cause. A couple of other council members were favorably impressed by my gesture at the time, but the remaining five became enemies at once.
The City Marshal asked me to come into his office a few days later, to discuss a matter which absolutely floored me when I heard about it. Apparently, the mayor and city administrator were secretly working together with the former manager of Lexington’s privately-owned water utility to obtain proprietary info which could be used to the city’s advantage in a condemnation proceeding. Negotiations between the city and this private water company concerning its sale had not been successful, so these two city officials determined that they would pursue a hostile acquisition and employ devious means to do so. It gets worse: the former manager had been fired in December of 1991 for embezzling an estimated $500,000 from the water company, and was the target of an FBI criminal investigation. Worst of all, this crook was involved in an intimate relationship with the city attorney at the time. He’d also dated Ms. Arizona, my predecessor in the 4th Ward council seat, when she worked at the water company (she had also been fired). BTW, Ms. Arizona and the city attorney were aunt and niece — so the former manager/embezzler liked to keep it in the family. I asked the marshal for the name of the FBI special agent investigating this rotten deal at the federal level, and I made a phone call to confirm what I’d just heard. I’ll never forget what that FBI agent said to me, “Mr. Weller, you’ve just become a part of the most corrupt municipal government I’ve ever investigated.”
Quid pro quo. The FBI believed that the water company’s former manager/embezzler was fully expecting to be rewarded for the proprietary info he was giving to the mayor and city administrator, to aid in the city’s condemnation proceedings. His reward? The job of manager of a city water department; of course, this would have put the crook in a position to steal city funds. He was extremely clever at devising schemes to pocket money which should have gone into the water company’s business account at a local bank, even stamping checks received from water customers with the company name and “For deposit only” — but with the number of his personal account at the same bank. He used water company crews and equipment to perform jobs not related to the water company’s business, and pocketed the profits. There were about two dozen different scams he ran on the water company’s owners, until he was caught.
One day, one of the company’s owners was visiting the neighboring small town of Wellington, MO. That city’s residents also received their water from this private company, which of course had a franchise granted by the Wellington city government. The city clerk happened to remark to this company owner, when he stopped by City Hall, that they were very pleased with the new computerized billing services his company was providing to the city for a variety of purposes not related to water usage. The owner’s jaw dropped, because he had never heard of such a service being provided by his company nor had he seen any accounting of the fees received for it from the city. The owner took prompt action that day in December of 1991. He returned to Lexington, walked into the manager’s office at the water company he owned, and fired the crook on the spot. Then, he began the very complicated process of examining business records to determine exactly what had been going on; luckily, the crooked manager was unable to destroy the evidence of his wrongdoing. A rough estimate of his ill-gotten gains was over $500,000 during the preceding couple of years. The FBI began investigating because the crime of Bank Fraud was involved.
The Lexington mayor and city administrator seemed to be turning a blind eye to the former manager/embezzler’s crimes, so anxious were they to gain whatever advantage they could in a hostile acqusition of the water company using insider info. They apparently thought it was okay to secretly meet with this thief, and to offer him a position as manager of a city water department. This cozy arrangement was termed “a felonious conspiracy” by the FBI agent I spoke with on the phone.
There was an executive session (closed to the public) held during one city council meeting around May of 1992, if memory serves, in which lawyers from a firm which claimed to specialize in initiating condemnation proceedings tried to tell the council members how simple and easy it would be to accomplish. I was skeptical. I asked a simple question: since Missouri state law allows a smaller class city like Lexington to condemn a privately-owned utility company, has this ever actually occurred? The answer the shysters gave was, “No, but . . .” I knew for certain then that they were just looking for a big payday themselves.
Mysteriously (wink-wink), news of the city’s plan to acquire the water company by condemnation appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. The shit really hit the fan, then — the public was outraged! Most citizens thought that the city couldn’t keep the streets in good repair, so it would be crazy to take over the water utility which is a far more challenging and vital enterprise to everyone. The owners of the water company read the newspaper article, naturally, and they indicated to the mayor and city administrator their intention to “vigorously defend” against any condemnation action brought by the city. About this time, I began to let other council members know about what I’d learned from the FBI regarding the former manager/embezzler — who was romantically involved with the city attorney (by ethical necessity, she recused herself from any involvement with the city’s plans concerning the water company).
The plan to acquire the water company by hostile means died, as did any chance at negotiating a friendly purchase of it at a fair price. BTW, Missouri state law was changed within a year, and no longer allows a smaller class city to condemn a private utility company.
Other forms of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance came to my attention at Lexington City Hall . . .
Under Missouri state law, nepotism by public officials who play any role in hiring public employees is prohibited; the penalty is forfeiture of office. This prohibition applies to any would-be public employee within the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinty (blood or marriage) to the public official. Example: I’m serving on the city council, and my cousin has applied for a job as a firefighter; I must abstain from voting on the question of his/her hiring by the city, or risk being removed from my office by a quo warranto petition to the court having jurisdiction, perhaps filed by a concerned citizen. It’s only rarely an issue, because most public officials are made well aware of the relevant state laws before they’re even sworn into office. The Lexington, MO mayor should have known all of this, before she decided to reappoint her volunteer firefighter husband as Assistant Fire Chief. (He had originally been appointed to that position by the previous mayor, who was no relation to him).
To make matters in the Lexington Fire Department ca. 1992 worse, the volunteer firefighters were insubordinate to the full-time professional Fire Chief — sort of the “tail wagging the dog” and the Assistant Fire Chief, along with his two volunteer firefighter drinking buddies, was a principal instigator of the dissent. Apparently, he thought that being married to the mayor gave him license to do as he pleased without regard to the Fire Chief’s authority.
Citizens did file a petition with the Lafayette County Circuit Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that the mayor had forfeited her office because of her action in reappointing her husband. As I recall, the judge recused himself from hearing the case, no other circuit judge in Lafayette County wanted to hear it, and the petitioners allowed the matter to drop; their decision was probably influenced by an effort which was underway to force a recall election for the mayor. (The reader won’t be surprised to learn that I was leading the effort to gather signatures on a petition to force her recall from office). Lexington is a small town of less than 5,000 residents, and the volunteer firefighters faction which loved the mayor had a lot of support to begin with, plus they spread word to some businesses that they might not be all that anxious to respond to fires which could “mysteriously” break out if the mayor were to be booted out of office. People were afraid, and the recall effort foundered for that reason.
In October of 1992, the mayor became so arrogant that she fired the full-time Fire Chief with the approval of 5 out of 8 city council members — I was one of three who opposed this action of terminating his employment. The individual appointed as acting fire chief was very much in line with the volunteer firefighters faction, and was a full-time member of the fire department — but otherwise not the sharpest mind around. The dismissed Fire Chief sued for wrongful termination; everyone on city council was sued individually along with the mayor and the City of Lexington as a body. This lawsuit dragged on into 1993, after I’d resigned from office due to my growing disgust with the whole damn mess at City Hall, but I did testify in a deposition at the KC law office representing the former Fire Chief; I told the unvarnished truth about the volunteer firefighters’ insubordinate conduct, the mayor’s act of nepotism in reappointing her husband as Assistant Fire Chief, the thinly veiled threats of arson made by a few of the more drunken volunteers, etc. You might say that I became the star witness for the former Fire Chief. Within a week of giving my deposition, the case was settled out of court. The former Fire Chief received one year’s salary as compensation along with a positive job evaluation from the city which he might use as a job reference (and I offered my personal reference to him, as well). BTW, the mayor attended my deposition, which was her right as a fellow defendant, and by the time I got through after about three hours (not including brief breaks) she was in tears.
To be continued . . .