Although she wouldn’t say if she had been contacted by the FBI as part of an investigation regarding some city utility projects, Independence Mayor Eileen Weir said Tuesday there was no connection between her decisions on those projects in 2017 and contributions her campaign received.
Two Independence City Council members, Karen DeLuccie and Scott Roberson, confirmed last week that they have talked with the FBI this month about a July 2017 contract to demolish the shuttered Missouri City power plant and the city's purchase of the former Rockwood Golf Club a few months later for a solar farm.
“Obviously, there is an investigation,” Weir said, but she declined to comment about “who has or has not been contacted.”
DeLuccie and Roberson were the only no votes with the Missouri City contract, and DeLuccie was opposed to the Rockwood purchase due to price. She said she knew the FBI had talked to at least one other council member, a city employee and a private citizen, though she would not name them.
In October 2017, Weir's campaign received contributions of $2,600 from each of four Missouri political action committees with some connection to city lobbyist Steven Tilley. A couple of the PACs had earlier received thousands of dollars from Springfield firm Gardner Capital, which has partnered with Lee's Summit firm MC Power in constructing the city's community solar farm.
The contributions came just a few days before the council voted to authorize the Rockwood property purchase for the solar farm.
That purchase for $985,000 became final in November, though the city bought it from an investment firm that obtained the land for $550,000 just a few months earlier. Council Member Tom Van Camp claimed the city couldn't get any lower than $650,000 in its discussions with the original owner.
The council in June 2017 had authorized working with MC Power on expanding the solar farm after the initial installment on Bundschu Road quickly sold out. MC Power paid a half-million-dollar upfront lease as part of the Rockwood deal.
The timing between the contributions and ultimately the votes happened to be just that, Weir said, and she said she's never pledged a vote in exchange for a contribution. Her campaign finance reports show she traveled to St. Louis on a fundraising event earlier in October, shortly after candidates for the 2018 council elections could start gathering signatures to file for office.
“Yes, I received those contributions, and we had the executive session shortly after that,” Weir said. “There were two motions, one to purchase Rockwood and two to expand solar farm, but that wasn't the first time I'd heard of it. There was discussion (earlier) because there was demand for more.”
“The solar farm decision had been made, We just needed to figure out where. We had a waiting list” of solar customers.
Weir said she received a contribution from Mark Gardner of Gardner Capital in 2018 but did not receive any direct contribution from Gardner or his company in 2017.
“When I receive contributions, I report them,” she said. “I certainly have never taken any contribution in the expectation that it would result in a vote.”
The four political action committees – MO Majority PAC, Missouri Growth PAC, Missouri C PAC, Missouri Leadership Committee – have a family or business connection with Tilley, the former Missouri speaker of the House whose firm, Strategic Capitol Consulting, counts Independence Power & Light and Gardner Capital among its many clients. The city hired Tilley for Power & Light in 2016, and he's lobbied for Gardner Capital since 2013. A couple months ago he added Titan Fish, the firm that sold Rockwood to the city of Independence, to the company’s portfolio.
MO Leadership Committee's treasurer Tom Burcham helped start Tilley's firm, SCC, and Missouri C PAC was organized two years ago by SCC colleague John Burcham, Tom's son. Missouri Growth PAC's treasurer is Tilley's father, Everett. MO Majority PAC was started in 2015 with $560,000 in funds from Tilley's former campaign committee and has contributed to the other PACs.
Also, in June 2017, Council Members Van Camp and Curt Dougherty received campaign contributions of $500 from Gardner and $300 from Missouri AG, another PAC similarly connected to Tilley.
Weir said none of the PACs have any involvement with Rockwood, and she never discussed Rockwood with Tilley and had not met Mark Gardner until he came to Independence for the solar farm groundbreaking.
“He wasn't involved with Rockwood,” Weir said of Tilley. In discussions with him, she added, “there was never any reference to Rockwood or any other project the city was working on.”
Weir said she doesn't necessarily look at contributors to every PAC from which she receives contributions, and under Missouri ethics laws she's not required to research that.
“None of contributions came with conditions attached to them, or even any connection to purchase Rockwood,” she said.