JOPLIN, Mo. —
It could be weeks before a Joplin City Council investigation begins because qualified candidates will have to be found to conduct the probe.
City Attorney Brian Head said he is seeking out people who provide that type of investigative service “and there doesn’t seem to be a lot. We’re getting an idea of qualifications and some estimate of cost, and we’re going to try to provide that to the council, but we haven’t found very many.”
The council will select the investigator once Head presents a roster of prospects.
Councilman Mike Woolston on Sept. 26 called for a council investigation in order to obtain the record of an FBI investigation into gambling and public corruption in Joplin in which Councilman Bill Scearce was mentioned.
The Globe filed a freedom of information request more than a year ago to look into who was involved in the investigation and why and how Scearce figured into it.
Scearce in the 1990s rented an office to Kenneth Lovett, 73, one of two Joplin men who were sentenced last year for conducting Internet gambling in Joplin. Scearce has denied knowing Lovett was a bookmaker when he rented the office space and has denied any knowledge of Lovett’s activity. He also said that he cooperated with the probe. Scearce was never charged or accused of any criminal activity.
Woolston said the controversy was hurting the council’s credibility with the public and that an investigation would review the record to see if there were any violations of council rules on the part of Scearce.
At a council meeting Monday, another council member, Benjamin Rosenberg, called for Woolston to be added as a subject of the probe. Rosenberg said he has received questions from residents with regard to Woolston’s role in property transactions since the 2011 tornado.
Rosenberg said Friday he believes that Woolston’s involvement in property transactions since the tornado should be examined to determine if Woolston — a longtime Joplin real estate agent — profited in any way from inside information on city redevelopment projects.
Woolston, in an interview on Thursday, said no one has questioned him about any land deals but added: “If there are questions of what I have done — I have not been asked personally, but (Rosenberg) says he has had questions from the public, I guess — so if there are questions out there, I welcome the investigation. I’ve got nothing to hide. I’ll be more than forthcoming with the investigator.”
Scearce also was asked by the Globe for an interview regarding the FBI probe and the pending council investigation, but he declined.
Woolston, in the interview last week, said he has not taken a commission on any sale of property in the areas purchased for projects after they were outlined by the master developer, Wallace Bajjali Development Partners of Sugarland, Texas.
The City Council authorized a letter of intent with Wallace Bajjali on April 2, 2012, though specific projects and locations were not proposed yet. The vote was eight in favor, with Rosenberg abstaining. He was critical of pursuing an agreement with Wallace Bajjali, claiming there was a lack of transparency in the selection of a master developer by city administrators and others. He also said the city manager should have imparted more information to the council about the selection process and the candidate firms.
The council agreed to retain Wallace Bajjali on July 2, 2012.
Woolston, asked by the Globe if he was involved in buying and selling properties in the area of 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue, where a new Joplin Public Library and theater are proposed by the master developer, said he did take a commission in May 2012 for a transaction involving the sale of property at 1825 Connecticut Ave.
He said it was for a different client and that it was before the master developer was hired or the library project was proposed. He said that sale also was done on behalf of a client who already owned other property in the block. That client has since leased property for the library to the Joplin Redevelopment Corp., which is acquiring land for the redevelopment project.
“Once the city signed that agreement with Wallace Bajjali and the Joplin Redevelopment Corp., there was an EDA grant that was supposed to be coming in to help fund the SPARK project,” Woolston said. “The EDA then said they wanted that money spent in the destruction zone. That’s when the conversation then went to putting the library in at 20th Street and Connecticut. That was around October of 2012.
“Once the Wallace Bajjali firm was involved, I had a suspicion there may be some public funding over there, so (with) every transaction after those agreements were signed I waived my portion of the commission. Pro 100, the company I was affiliated with at the time, they got their share of the commission because they were doing their job but I waived the portion I would have collected.
“So out of roughly 20 transactions over there, I have only collected a commission on one and that was before the Wallace Bajjali agreements were ever signed and several months before any discussion of the library/theater project.”
Woolston also said he has taken commissions from deals in other parts of the city unrelated to master developer projects.
When any of the land he sold was involved in a zoning request before the council, he said, he abstained.
Rosenberg said that is another issue he believes bears scrutiny.
“I think his abstentions have been very recently, if you go back to look at 2012, maybe even part of 2011,” he said.
Rosenberg also said those are more recent than the questions surrounding what Scearce knew about Lovett’s gambling operations.
Woolston also said he has never brokered a deal involving Wallace Bajjali and now works as an independent contractor. He said he has recently represented Four States Homes and builder Charlie Kuehn in a number of property acquisitions.
“There are other projects around town where I have worked with developers that I have taken commissions in those areas, but when an issue came up, zoning or whatever, I’ve declared my potential financial interest and I have abstained on all those votes,” he said.
Kent Eastman is one of the real estate agents who has represented Wallace Bajjali. He said Woolston has not participated in any deals involving the master developer or tornado redevelopment projects.
Rosenberg said the investigation also should look at whether Woolston has used his influence as a former mayor and current city council member improperly.
“Did he use his good office on the council and the inside information he possessed as the mayor and former mayor to buy property for his employer and now partner on the cheap and having his partner and employer resell it for huge profits? I’m going on what citizens tell me,” Rosenberg said, noting he has no firsthand knowledge of any such behavior.
Woolston was asked by the Globe on Thursday if he used his title as councilman or mayor to influence property transactions or for inside advantage the last two years.
“No. I specifically do not tell people that (I am a councilman). A fair number of people recognize me because of the media attention we got after the tornado, so they recognize who I am and I acknowledge it at that point, but if somebody doesn’t bring it up, I don’t bring it up because I think that’s an improper use because I’m not there as a city representative. I’m there as a business person, an agent for a buyer, trying to put something together. It’s not a city-related effort that I am trying to carry out.”
Woolston, asked if he has been soliciting businesses to move into shopping centers and offices, also said: “I’m chasing leads for people who may need office space or whatever, and depending on their need, trying to fit the tenant into what they need.”
Asked if he had ever told anyone they should not be in business in Joplin if they don’t move into one of the buildings he represents, Woolston said, “No. I wouldn’t tell somebody something like that.
“I would welcome any business to town,” no matter where they locate. That means more employees and more residents in Joplin, he said.
“Why would anybody tell somebody they shouldn’t be in business here? From a city standpoint, the more businesses there are mean more sales tax for the city. If you tell people they shouldn’t be in business here, you’re just hurting yourself.”
IN 2008, the Joplin City Council hired Harold Wright, a former Springfield city attorney, to conduct an investigation of former Mayor Jon Tupper.