PART 1: The Shannon Thompson / Lore Meyer / Mayor PR Issue
During my historic run at Turner Broadcasting, I once asked my producer why we overdubbed in English the comments of the indigenous people we were covering. Why didn't we use subtitles?
She turned to me, head cocked to the side and eyes narrowed as if she was wondering if everything she ever thought about me was suddenly wrong.
"Because we speak English, man," was her reply. She was a photojournalist and film director who took great pains to make every shot count...why would she want people reading during her film?
Years later, after reading over a series of articles about pollution I had written, she shook her head.
"Too many numbers," she said. "MEGO."
When I asked what that meant, she said it had dual meaning. As an acronym it meant "my eyes glaze over," and as a viewer or, in this case reader, "me go (onto the next channel or story)."
A few weeks ago, an outside reporter told me that I would be very surprised to learn about what his investigation would uncover. I responded that he would be very surprised to learn that I would not be surprised. In the end, we complemented one another in the fact that while he came in dropping bombs and did some good reporting and affected change, he affords The Luminary to provide deeper context -- which we will do here, in this three part series.
But beware all ye who venture past this point...there be numbers past the break...don't say we didn't warn you.
-- Mark Vasto
What's going on at City Hall?
Rumors have abounded for quite awhile that there was a personnel problem at City Hall involving the accounts payable clerk Lore Meyer, the city administrator Shannon Thompson, Mayor Gerry Richardson, and perhaps a few aldermen.
This situation was compounded by persistent allegations that Ward 3 alderman Jeffery Bay was not a resident of the city when he filed for office, which he subsequently won.
The two issues appear to be unrelated but they did seem to paint a picture that things weren’t moving as smoothly as could be expected at City Hall.
The situation was exacerbated when The Luminary broke the story that Mayor Gerry Richardson hired former Fox correspondent Heather Claybrook for $2,500 worth of public relations advice. When asked why the city was doing that, Richardson said it was because of a lawsuit dealing with a wall collapse on a largely uninhabited stretch of road on the city's West Side and the possibility of media coverage pertaining to natural disasters.
When asked by The Luminary – whose staff were well aware of a Channel 41 investigative reporter’s presence at City Hall of – if he was sure of this, that there was nothing else going on in the city, Richardson stuck to his story. We went the story “Mayor Seeking Relations.” The next week, we broke the news that the City had, indeed, a few internal issues.
The next Tuesday, Channel 41’s Russ Ptacek went with his story on TV. His reported on fishy accounting procedures and reimbursements made to City Administrator Shannon Thompson in the range of $6,800. The Luminary did not come to the same conclusion (and we're right, natch) but there was some "there" there in Channel 41's report.
What was Meyer's complaint?
Nobody knows for sure. She settled with the city for an as yet untold sum and part of the agreement dictates she and the city not speak on the matter. Sources confirmed it was a personnel matter.
In the past, Meyer was considered a whistleblower for misconduct on the part of Deborah Hammond, Parkville's former administrative assistant. Meyer alleged Hammond kept her fingers on the scale when it came to filling out her hourly time sheets. Hammond, who has since gone on to cover the Parkville city hall beat for a massive, huge, gigantic Wathena, Kansas based media behemoth -- Hammond vigorously fought off the charges and resigned on amicable terms with the city.
Sources have told The Luminary that Ms. Meyer did, in fact, complain about reimbursements to the Administrator’s office.
It's not unreasonable to infer that Ms. Meyer, since Mr. Ptacek's investigation has focused on spending in the city administrator's office and the city has since provided The Luminary with documentation regarding her expense reports, questioned them.
Sources at city hall confirm this and say the financial issue largely surrounded the purchase of alcoholic beverages and mileage reimbursement to out of town functions.
Was there any wrongdoing in the Meyer deals?
The Hammond matter is settled, but the sheer amount of closed meetings the imbroglio seemed to create raised a flag. Insofar as the latest matter, when questioned by The Luminary regarding the nature of the closed meetings surrounding the latest Parkville dustup, city officials said no matter ever came to a vote.
This would appear to be inconsistent with agreeing to any settlement and that would be a clear violation of the Sunshine Law which stipulates that even if a meeting is closed, any matter brought to a vote must be recorded in the minutes. A role call vote and the exact verbiage of the vote is required.
In simpler terms, The Luminary is calling bull*&%$ on that.
What about Ms. Thompson's expenses?
The Luminary's investigation into the matter shows that Ms. Thompson compensated the city for any remotely questionable funds, a sum that came to $858.90. Under her employment agreement, she was entitled to expense the items in question, as they were not against city policy at the time.
Specifically, her reimbursements went towards mileage “outside of Parkville” for the total of $658.35. Another $200.55 was for approved conference per diems. Channel 41 alleged she had not paid the final amount back but it looked to us that it had not hit the register at the time of his report.
What is her expense account?
According to her employment agreement, Thompson does not receive an expense account – she is reimbursed on an as needed basis for mileage and conference per diems. All authorized personnel on the city use a Visa that is coded for their individual departments.
She does, however, receive a monthly car allowance of $420 – an increase of $170 over her predecessor’s allowance. The raise was used as partial compensation for opting out of the city’s health insurance plan. There is a precedent for this arrangement: our former police chief opted for a similar plan. The difference in the car allowance and insurance savings saves the city thousands of dollars annually.
Is the purchase of alcoholic beverages unusual in a per diem situation?
No, in fact, most private companies insist on it during the course of business and networking. Who or what entity pays the bill depends on who wants what and concern over perception. Typically, the one buying is the one that’s trying to gain something or because it’s their turn to pay. At the governmental level, it gets trickier. Social expenses are usually frowned upon. Recent dust-ups over private plane use by Missouri politicians are a good example.
You would hope the city wouldn't hire somebody who would sacrifice a $80,000 salary for a few garlic stick receipts but for some, it raised eyebrows due to the purchase of alcoholic beverages during social functions surrounding city business.
Final analysis? Corruption in theThompson situation?
No. The city is audited every year by an independent outside firm. Thompson’s office was audited twice since the story broke. She came back clean.
From 2008-2010, Thompson received $4,729.67 in expense report reimbursements. Prior to 2009, detailed expense reports were not required by the city, receipts were even approved without city approval. In 2011, the city changed its policy to disallow alcohol purchases and defined “outside of Parkville” in terms of mileage reimbursement to be a 30-mile radius. That is why she repaid the $858, to end the matter.
A line item change to “miscellaneous expenses” has created confusion. For instance, Channel 41 claimed Thompson received $6,800 in payments. She did not.
All miscellaneous payments are sent to this line and then coded to their appropriate department by the accounts payable, a reversal of procedure that led to inaccurate reporting (i.e. a birthday cake for someone who helped pave a road could be expensed to the road budget).
Thompson was accountable for, but not personally responsible for all the charges.
Though it wasn’t “corrupt,” the mayor miscalculated badly in his treatment of The Luminary and Channel 41.
He should have came clean from the beginning. While I thought the paparazzi-like treatment of Thompson was absurd – she earned her degrees and her employment contract – it was to be expected when you consider who Channel 41’s sources were. (More on both later...)