Mike Sanders, once Jackson County’s prosecuting attorney and then for nine years its county executive, stood before a federal judge on Friday and pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He admitted taking campaign money for personal use.

Hours earlier, his former chief of staff, Calvin Williford, pleaded guilty to the same charge before the same judge, though he admitted to taking more money than Sanders. Among other things, they took money to pay for a trip to Las Vegas in November 2014 days after Sanders was easily elected to a third term as county executive.

Prosecutors said Sanders and Williford directed political committee funds to people who did little or no campaign work but cashed checks for that, kept a portion and gave most of it Williford and Sanders. Also, that money was left off campaign finance documents that have to be filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

“I plead guilty, your honor,” Sanders told U.S. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark in the Federal Courthouse in Kansas City.

Both Sanders and Williford face the same possible range of sentences later this year – up to five years in prison, up to $250,000 in fines and having to pay up to $50,000 in restitution – though Sanders admitted to taking from $15,000 to $40,000 while Williford admitted taking more, $40,000 to $95,000. Williford was described in court has having cooperated in the federal investigation; Sanders was not.

Neither Sanders, 50, of Independence, nor Williford, 60, now of St. Joseph, took reporters’ questions Friday. Williford appeared shaken after his court appearance.

Williford acknowledged collecting checks for political action committees controlled by Sanders, who was the county executive from 2007 through 2015. Sanders also was the Missouri Democratic Party chair for two years in 2011 to 2013.

Prosecutors said the scheme started around March 2006, when Sanders was first running for county executive. Sanders and Williford ordered a company to submit fake or padded invoices in order to funnel money to several people who did little or no campaign work and who Sanders didn’t want to disclose on Missouri Ethics Commission financial reports. The company – simply “Company A” in court documents – “provided no actual services,” according to the complaint against Williford, and would keep 15 to 20 percent of the money.

Williford would sometimes drive these “strawmen” to their banks to cash the checks, and they would hand over to him all or most of the money. Sometimes Williford would spend it on campaign expenses, sometimes he would give it to Sanders, and sometimes Sanders would give him some of the money.

Specifically, the Williford complaint says, just after Election Day in 2014, Sanders directed one political committee he controlled to give another $10,000, and that second committee wrote two of the “strawman” checks for about $2,000 each. Most of that money went back to Williford, and days later he and Sanders took a trip to Las Vegas.

Altogether, Sanders admitted in court, there were 17 checks of about $60,000 total, thought not all of that came back to him.

 

‘Knew better’

After Sanders’ court appearance, attorney J.R. Hobbs read a statement saying, in part, that Sanders “sincerely apologizes to his family and the residents of Jackson County. … Mike knew better then. And he knows better now. He also knows that mistakes come with a price. Mike hopes that over time, his family, his friends, and the people of this community, will forgive him, and afford him an opportunity to make amends.”

Williford also expressed remorse. “I will not make excuses for my stupidity and fully accept responsibility for my actions. … I am grateful to have been a public servant and help on a range of community initiatives. Service to others has been the greatest honor of my life.”

Williford and Sanders worked closely together for years. When Sanders was the county prosecutor, Williford was his director of public affairs. Later, when Sanders was elected county executive, Williford was his chief of staff and was highly visible in promoting Sanders’ plans – which never came to fruition – for a commuter rail system serving most of the metro area. Later, to advance that plan, Williford headed the Rock Island Rail Corridor Authority under Sanders and his successor, Frank White Jr. Williford resigned from that job last August.

Sanders quit as county executive in late 2015 – a year into his third four-year term – saying the job was taking too high of a toll on himself and his family. The sudden passing of his father had shaken him deeply, he has said. An attorney, he went to work for the Independence law firm Humphrey, Farrington & McClain, which has confirmed that Sanders no longer works there. In that capacity, he had been the city attorney for Sugar Creek; Joseph Gall now serves in that position.

The Williford and Sanders cases were prosecuted by the Department of Justice Public Integrity Section out of Washington, D.C. The office of the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri had recused itself. The plea deals on Friday also mean Sanders and Williford are not to be charged further in the case. The Justice Department late Friday would not comment on whether the investigation continues.