The lobbying contract with the city of Independence, which Phil LeVota claims disgraced former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders steered away from LeVota in 2016 through dirty tricks, was put back for bid that year by the city, and LeVota never responded with a bid.
LeVota is a longtime political rival of Sanders, who is heading to federal prison in a few days for wire fraud. LeVota sued Sanders and others this week in Jackson County Circuit Court for allegedly interfering with the lobbying contract.
According to the suit, Sanders directed people to contribute thousands of dollars to the campaigns of several Independence City Council members “in an effort to gain political favor or leverage … to terminate the contract” with LeVota. Also named as defendants in the suit are two campaign committees, Sanders for Jackson County and Integrity in Law Enforcement, and their respective treasurers, Sanders' wife Georgia and Independence attorney Martin Kerr.
Some of the funds came from the two campaign committees that were part of Sanders' federal corruption case. Integrity in Law Enforcement was terminated last year, and Sanders for Jackson County is still active. This week a Jackson County judge granted LeVota a temporary restraining barring any spending from the latter account (there is $435,000 remaining) until litigation is completed.
LeVota seeks a judgment of at least $1 million.
In a signed statement this week, Mike and Georgia Sanders, Kerr, Independence attorney and County Legislator Dennis Waits and Georgia Sanders' father Jack Cardwell said “there is not one shred of truth to any of Phil's outlandish allegations” and that they plan to file a countersuit given LeVota's “reckless and deceitful conduct.”
Cardwell is named as having contributed at Sanders' request. Waits is not named in the suit, but is identified through campaign finance records described in the petition. Independence council members also are not named but can be identified the same way.
One of the council members mentioned, Scott Roberson, called the lawsuit “ludicrous, frivolous.”
“His contract wasn't terminated. It expired, and we put out the bidding process like before,” Roberson said. “He didn't bid, and he didn't bid two years later.”
“It's posted publicly; anybody can bid that's a registered lobbyist.”
Roberson said there had a strong desire to re-bid.
“The whole council knew we weren't getting any lobbying effort,” Roberson said, adding that then-Council Member Chris Whiting, a longtime LeVota friend who has shared office building space with Phil and Paul LeVota, “never voiced anything to keep him.”
LeVota began lobbying for the city in 2010. According to the lawsuit, after Sanders left his county executive post and joined the firm Humphrey, Farrington & McClain in 2016, he tried to wrest the city's lobbying contract away from LeVota and into the hands of Sanders' firm or John Bardgett & Associates out of Jefferson City, which ultimately received the $90,000-a-year contract
In the suit, LeVota alleges that Bardgett would then “kick back some of the fees” to Sanders and/or his firm, but he listed no evidence of such a scheme and said he doesn't believe Bardgett participated “in this criminal conspiracy.”
According to the suit, some council members said told LeVota about conversations with Sanders and said they wouldn't terminate LeVota's contract. One council member allegedly told then-City Manager John Pinch he had several votes interested in terminating the contract – all votes from those who had received contributions.
When the city sent out requests for proposals for lobbying, the suit alleges, it did not send one to LeVota or inform him of the new RFP. The council later voted for Bardgett, then added Steven Tilley's Strategic Capital Consulting a short while later after another RFP, to which LeVota also did not respond. His one-year renewal option, which had been for $61,000, then expired.
Independence City Manager Zach Walker, who was assistant city manager at the time, said many lobbying contracts are for single years with renewal options by the year.
“After a certain number of years you want to put it back out to bid to see if it's competitive. It came time to put it out for bid.
“We had a rocky year legislatively in Jefferson City,” he said. “The tenor had really shifted from a collaborative effort between state and city to the state sometimes squeezing the city. John said let's put it back out to bid and make sure we're getting the best.”
LeVota and Roberson have filed complaints against each other with the Missouri Ethics Commission in recent years, and the MEC dismissed LeVota's complaint and ruled against him from Roberson's complaint, though Roberson said LeVota is now appealing after signing a consent decree.
In addition to planning a countersuit, Sanders and others said in the statement they plan to eventually take the matter before the Missouri Bar Association for formal disciplinary proceedings.
“Simply because Phil has access to a word processor and knows how to file a petition does not make anything that he has typed remotely truthful,” the statement reads, in part. “It is very instructive that Phil could not find a lawyer to represent him, thus he has to file this by himself.
“No one should be allowed to abuse the court's civil process as a method of extortion, bullying and harassment, and to drag everyone into what constitutes little more than an unmeritorious contract claim by Phil against the city of Independence. We look very forward to letting the judicial process proceed and expose this for what it is.”