Should taxpayers cover criminal defense legal fees?
Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston verbally sparred last week with a resident who criticized her management style, which he claimed is wrought with “illegal activity” and blatant and willful hiding of public information.
The terse exchange occurred during the Jan. 18 Parkville Board of Aldermen meeting in which resident Brett Krause accused the mayor along with City Administrator Joe Parente and a “complicit” board of aldermen for covering up of a pattern of illegal activity that led to more than $450,000 in costs to the Parkville taxpayer due to the city’s mismanagement of responding to Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
Krause asked for an investigation by the city police department into alleged illegal activity at City Hall. He also called for the immediate resignation of Johnston and Parente (who recently announced he will retire effective in March). He also stated that Parente should not be paid “severance, retirement or any other payment.” for his role.
The Platte County Sheriff’s Department announced a few months ago it is investigating the city’s actions for possible illegal destruction of evidence and public records.
In Krause’s remarks at last week’s meeting, he argued that alleged violations of state law have placed taxpayers in the position of paying legal fees for city officials defending themselves for alleged criminal activity.
Krause alleged the abuse that led to the lawsuit, thought to be the largest Sunshine settlement in Missouri history, continues today. Krause said his recent Sunshine request for information regarding taxpayer-paid legal fees defending city officials’ actions, was so heavily redacted it was rendered “useless.”
Johnston argued the actions of herself and other officials were wholly appropriate and did not signal guilt.
“Anyone can ask for an investigation or file a complaint,” Johnston claimed at last week’s meeting.
Resident Elaine Kellerman recently filed a complaint with Parkville Ethics Commission to investigate and recommend to the board of aldermen that Johnston be removed from office for violating the city’s code of ethics.
Johnston continued: “I’m not aware of any records that were withheld,” she said.
Maki responded to Johnston’s latest comments in a letter he sent to the Parkville Ethics Commission, stating that the mayor had “violated the terms of the settlement by making false statements of fact through her claims that no records have ever been withheld from me,” he wrote. “Her statement is completely, absolutely and without question untrue.”
Maki’s letter continues, referring to a “voluminous amounts of documents and communication in possession of the city and me that demonstrate the falsity of her comments.”
Previously, in November, the mayor referred to the use of the Sunshine Law to obtain public records as “harassment,” which triggered a notice of settlement breach regarding the Maki v. Parkville lawsuit.
The city, in response, posted a notice on the city’s website recognizing Maki’s notification of a breach and distancing the city from the mayor’s “harassment” comments.
Both of Maki’s letters to the city note that Johnston’s statements have “added to the likelihood of further litigation.”
The letter continues “Unfortunately, that will require further litigation, taxpayer resources and money resolve. Any future litigation could have been avoided if the mayor chose to honor the settlement, placing public interest as her primary concern versus (her own) reckless, self-interested efforts.” Maki said that the mayor has “now placed the city and its taxpayers at risk of further legal action and its associated costs.”
When asked in a telephone interview if he plans to again sue the city, Maki declined to comment.
During last week’s meeting, the mayor continued with her rebuttal to Krause’s claims: “I think you are jumping to a lot of conclusions here,” Johnston said, and added that her actions are being defended by attorneys paid for with taxpayer dollars since the actions occurred in her official capacity as mayor.
“Criminal behavior has not been proven, so why wouldn’t the city defend us?” Johnston asked.
The city’s legal representation includes city attorney Chris Williams, the firm Baty Otto Coronado, who represented the city in the Maki lawsuit, and Mark Ferguson, a criminal defense attorney.
City officials also hired former Platte County Assistant Prosecutor Joe Vanover to represent the Parkville Ethics Commission in its process of evaluating the ethics complaint against Johnston.
In an interview following last week’s meeting, Krause said Parkville Police Chief Kevin Chrisman told him an investigation of the mayor and Parente by the city police department would constitute a conflict of interest. Chrisman told Krause he was hired by the board in his role as head of the city’s police department.
Johnston accused Krause of grandstanding in an effort “to get headlines.”
During a telephone interview following the Jan. 18 meeting, Krause reacted to Johnston’s argument: “I am shocked she took the position that the city has to pay for her criminal defense and legal fees,” he said. “That’s so warped. I can’t even believe it.”