- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Kansas City Star, April 14

Self-dealing. Conflicts of interest. Taxation without representation.

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway pointed to all those problems this week in a scathing review of an obscure governmental entity called transportation development taxing districts. Basically, state law allows district board members to approve sales taxes for construction projects.

But they’ve been abused for years.

As Galloway put it this week at a news conference, developers can create the taxing district, elect a board, impose a sales tax on citizens without a vote, then go out and seek bids for the work.

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the person winning the bids often is either the developer who serves on the board or a related party.

“Outrageous” is the word Galloway repeated over and over again.

“A lot of this isn’t illegal, but it should be,” she said.

These transportation districts are everywhere across the state. In fact, there are 205 of them, including 21 in Jackson County that generated at least $14.7 million in sales taxes in 2015. One covers the Country Club Plaza, where it’s used primarily to fund parking garages. Several dot the intersection of Interstate 70 and Adams Dairy Parkway in Blue Springs.

Platte County had eight districts, according to the audit, while Clay County had five. The amount of sales taxes generated by each was difficult to determine in some cases because of restrictions on what can be reported.

Galloway has rightly called for an overhaul of the transportation district law. For some reason, the districts are the only political subdivisions in the state in which Missouri law doesn’t prohibit conflicts of interest. In 2015, the state collected $73 million in sales taxes that wound up being remitted back to the districts.

“The average citizen is getting taken advantage of here,” Galloway said. “It’s outrageous that there’s almost $1 billion in project costs that taxpayers are on the hook for. They don’t know about it, and they didn’t vote for it.”

The districts have been around since the General Assembly passed a law creating them in 1990. It requires that at least 50 percent of residents file a petition with the courts to set up a district. Problem is, the districts often have no residents within their confines. So a property owner or developer can set one up.

Galloway’s office found that 94 percent of the transportation districts in the state were formed by either a property owner or developer. Registered voters filing a petition did not create any districts.

In other words, the districts have become another tool of developers, along with tax-increment financing, community improvement districts and the like.

Galloway uncovered something else: State law requires businesses within the districts to post at cash registers that an added sales tax is being charged. But many businesses don’t comply.

If lawmakers are as outraged as we are by all this, they could push legislation through before adjourning next month. They should consider more rigorous standards for creating the districts. A conflict-of-interest provision should be included.

This is the second notable audit in recent weeks that spotlighted legitimate issues within state government, the first being $1.2 million in incentive payments to top University of Missouri administrators.

It’s a sign that Galloway, who was appointed to her post by then-Gov. Jay Nixon almost two years ago, is hitting her stride.

___

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 16

Federal Judge Howard Sachs is expected to block Missouri’s abortion clinic restrictions soon, the logical next step to June’s momentous U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down provisions of a Texas abortion law that justices said imposed unconstitutional burdens on women’s access to abortion.

Missouri’s two Planned Parenthood affiliates sued the state in November, seeking to overturn a pair of highly restrictive state laws on abortion similar to those that were found unconstitutional in Texas. Sachs wrote a “Memorandum to Counsel” in the case on April 4 saying he would grant a preliminary injunction requested by Planned Parenthood but would give state authorities additional time to avoid “unintended damage” to standard medical regulations.

Sachs plans to issue an injunction against state laws requiring hospital admitting privileges for doctors who perform abortions and requiring clinics to meet hospital-like standards for outpatient surgery.

The Supreme Court opinion could not have been clearer in its message that it is time for states to stop erecting barriers to abortion access with phony claims of protecting women’s health. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer said, “In the face of no threat to women’s health, Texas seeks to force women to travel long distances to get abortions in crammed-to-capacity superfacilities.”

Missouri’s current restrictions have forced the closure of all licensed Planned Parenthood abortion providers except for the St. Louis affiliate. The organization says there are 1.2 million women of reproductive age in Missouri, and if Sachs bars the regulations, Planned Parenthood health centers in Kansas City, Columbia, Joplin and Springfield could begin providing some abortions.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt did not automatically strike down similar laws nationwide, which is why Missouri’s Planned Parenthood affiliates sued. In Texas, opponents argued the regulations would have shut down three-quarters of the clinics where abortions were provided, and Justice Breyer wrote that “these effects would be harmful to, not supportive of, women’s health.”

Missouri’s laws on admitting privileges and clinic standards, combined with another law requiring women to wait 72 hours before receiving an abortion, pose undue financial and emotional burdens. The restrictions force women to take time off work, lose pay, travel hundreds of miles and pay for accommodations.

Undoubtedly, some Missouri legislators and social conservatives will continue to try ruses to restrict or block women’s access to legal abortions, but they won’t get away with it by claiming they are protecting women’s health. State lawmakers have a responsibility to allow women to exercise their reproductive rights and to access a procedure that recognized medical authorities say is among the safest available.

Preventing unplanned pregnancies and lowering abortion rates is the right goal, but denying women their legal rights is the wrong way to get there. Better reproductive education and available contraception are smarter tools to use.

___

Columbia Daily Tribune, April 16

By now most of us know Judge Frank Conley died early last week after a series of strokes. It was a blessedly quick finale. I have seen other friends lingering too long after debilitating strokes. Frank deserved and received better.

Others who knew him professionally as well as personally can make more informed remembrances. I can speak as one who knew him as a friend and valuable influence on the local community and beyond.

I always heard Conley was a wonderful judge. One time I had a chance to see first-hand.

I was chosen to serve on a jury in Judge Conley’s courtroom. The defendant was a man charged with car theft. We heard testimony and went into seclusion to discuss our verdict. The evidence was persuasive but, as usual, we had to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and there were doubts to discuss. We knew nothing about the defendant beyond what we had discovered during the trial, which proceeded under the competent and fair management of the judge.

After due discussion lasting more than an hour, we returned to the courtroom to announce a guilty verdict, at which time Judge Conley delivered a lesson in proper jurisprudence I remember like it was yesterday.

Once the case was decided Conley revealed to us the defendant’s past record, full of similar infractions and findings of guilt. He explained why we were not shown this information during the trial. All we were allowed to consider were the facts of the current case, not prior episodes that surely would have prejudiced our thinking. I can still remember Judge Conley’s lesson, more powerful under the circumstances than any lecture we could have gotten in a classroom.

I think some of the jurors wondered at first why we were not shown what a bad actor we were judging so we could take that into account, but the lesson of innocence before guilt hit me hard. Even though our man had often misbehaved before, we needed convincing proof he had done so this time and Frank made sure that was the way the trial proceeded.

If Frank holds court in some nether realm all will rise and all will be obliged to proceed properly.

___

St. Joseph News-Press, April 13

Complaints over alleged ethics violations in Platte County are muddying the waters about what it means to be a witness in our state courts.

When this is sorted out, we trust it will remain clear a character witness is someone who is willing to come forward and testify - publicly - to their knowledge of an individual.

Character witnesses typically submit letters of support for a person who already has been found guilty of a crime and is awaiting sentencing. Letter-writers can be helpful in filling in the blanks about a defendant’s background while they point out positives they would like the judge to consider.

But it can’t be just for someone to seek to influence the court system - and the course of justice - while also remaining anonymous.

The courts have said plainly a true character witness should be subject to examination to verify their good faith in writing a letter and their knowledge of a defendant. This is why these letters and the identities of these writers must be part of the public court record.

These issues have arisen due to complaints lodged against Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd and his assistant, Christopher Seufert. They are alleged to have intimidated character witnesses for a Dearborn man who admitted sexually abusing a child starting when she was 5 to 6 years old and continuing until she was 12 to 13. Darren L. Paden was sentenced in 2015 to 50 years in prison.

The Kansas City Star reports the complaints against the prosecutors were made by Paden’s defense attorney, John P. O’Connor, and by retired Platte County Judge Abe Shafer. The newspaper says the sealed complaints are under review by the Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel but public court documents provide insights.

In the documents, O’Connor accuses Zahnd and Seufert of threatening to publish the names of character witnesses in local newspapers if they did not withdraw their support. Zahnd says he can’t discuss specifics of the matter, but contends he did nothing improper.

“I fully appreciate that people who want to provide character evidence for a convicted child predator would prefer to argue for leniency outside the public eye and without being confronted with challenging facts,” Zahnd said. “But that’s not the way our system of justice works.”

It may be that these ethics complaints will turn on whether the prosecutors crossed the line in seeking to call attention to the names of the letter-writers. But that must be seen in a different light than requiring the names to be public in the first place.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide