Sunday, July 06, 2014

Mike Woolston, Wallace-Bajjali and the co-opting of Joplin's tornado recovery

One of the more remarkable journalistic accomplishments of the past year is what the Joplin Globe was able to do with the Loraine Report.

That report, as you recall, led to a 5-4 vote to fire City Manager Mark Rohr. When the report was initially released, there were 10 blank pages, the pages in which the allegations against Rohr were spelled out.

The Joplin Globe Editorial Board made a solid argument that the people, the ones who actually paid for the report, had every right to know its contents. The Globe went as far as to take its case to court and won what was described as a victory for open government and even had one journalist (admittedly a former Joplin Globe reporter) tweeting that the Globe should be considered for the Pulitzer Prize.

The court's decision was handed down just four days before the April election, but in time for the newspaper to print a considerable amount of the information, since the decision not only gave the public access to the report, but also all of the transcripts of Loraine's interviews with witnesses.

That never happened.

The Globe confined its reporting, for the most part, to the allegations against Mark Rohr and devoted even more space to Rohr's responses to those allegations.

That played in with the portrait the Globe was trying to paint of the whole Loraine investigation being a witch hunt spearheaded by the so-called Gang of Five or Bloc of Five who voted to fire Rohr or by City Attorney Brian Head.

To its credit, the Globe put the entire report, complete with depositions and exhibits, online, where as far as I can tell, most of the items have been viewed by slightly more than 500 readers, far less than would have seen it if the items had been featured in the newspaper.

Except to the 500 or so readers who examined the documents, the entire Loraine investigation was about Mark Rohr.

Certainly a great deal of space was devoted to the former city manager, but to this day, the Globe has ignored the most important news that was contained in the report- the way in which Joplin's tornado recovery has been taken out of the hands of elected officials and placed under the control of people who do not answer to the voters.

It also completely ignored, an unusual decision given that he was up for re-election at that point, the damning evidence that was collected against City Councilman and self-styled "Tornado Mayor" Mike Woolston.

For some reason, the idea has been foisted upon the public that Woolston did not do anything wrong because he was not collecting commissions on the property that he was steering to his friend Charlie Kuehn of Four State Homes.

What was ignored and was pointed out by Loraine was the secretive way in which Woolston was working with Rohr and master developer Wallace-Bajjali to convince people to sell their property, even ones who had already rebuilt after the tornado.

The depositions of William and Dana Parker detail some of Woolston's activities. They talked of people "who were concerned because Mike Woolston kept knocking on everyone's door wanting to sell their property, even if they'd already rebuilt, sell it, so we can tear it down.'

They talked of an October 2012 neighborhood meeting in which Woolston became upset by questions that he was asked. Dana Parker told Loraine, "He (Woolston) told us at that time we were stupid for rebuilding, that we had no business rebuilding." They were told the properties were needed for commercial development.

Mrs. Parker said, "We asked why they couldn't put a grocery store out on the area of Sunset Ridge, which was more where the storm started and he told us at that time that those people were too important- we couldn't do that to them."

"Exact words," William Parker said.

The question that should have been asked and has not been is what business was it of Woolston's whether these people wanted to rebuild and stay in the tornado zone? The City Council had made no decisions. The Zoning Board had made no decisions. At some point, Woolston and others had decided what was going to be done with that area.

The report details the steps that were taken by the city government, in the person of Mark Rohr, to convince people it would be in their best interest to sell, including condemning a driveway on a property where rebuilding had not begun as an "unsafe structure" and putting in a sidewalk running path.

Woolston mounted a door-to-door campaign that was outlined in the depositions to convince people to sell, something that was not included in his job description as a city council member. When he was asked who he was working for, he responded, "I am not at liberty to tell you," though later he confided it was Four State Homes, a company that has done quite well with buying up to the properties and selling them to the Joplin Redevelopment Corporation so they can be used as part of Wallace-Bajjali's development plan.

The impression that is given throughout the depositions is that Woolston was using insider knowledge to benefit a friend's business and also to push a redevelopment plan that had not received the approval of any governmental body.

The report was ridiculed by its critics because of Loraine's insistence that Woolston was hurting the City Council and not representing his constituents properly by abstaining from voting on issues that concerned the development.

Loraine was critical of Woolston because at a time when he should have been using his considerable knowledge of real estate to benefit the council and constituents, he was abstaining because he had become so greatly involved in the project.

In the deposition of Tim Parker (no relation to William and Dana Parker), the issue is clearly stated. "Why aren't other realtors coming to our door saying I want to buy this? Why is it that only  that one that had the inside knowledge?"

Tim Parker also told of a conversation with an employee of Four State Homes. Parker told him he expected him to be quite busy since Four State Homes had bought all of those plots. At that point, Parker believed that the company would be building houses on the properties.

"He said, 'No, my boss bought these for investment purpose,' which struck me as odd because it is just a residential area just like mine. I realized later in the paper that those properties had sold to the City of Joplin through the Redevelopment Corporation for about three times their appraised value."

There is much, much more information contained in the Loraine Report that the Joplin Globe has decided to leave buried in its online archives.

To this day, Globe readers who have never looked over the documents have every reason to be convinced that the Loraine Report was a hatchet job against Mark Rohr. It wasn't. The firing of Mark Rohr was not the major step that was suggested by Loraine. He found evidence of behavior that was at least bordering on the unethical from Mike Woolston and he strongly suggested the city cut all ties with Wallace-Bajjali.

Mike Woolston was re-elected to the City Council. The Globe is still making excuses for Wallace-Bajjali and the co-opting of Joplin's tornado recovery continues unabated.
SUBSCRIPTION- What the Joplin Globe won't tell you, you can find in the Turner Report.


Anonymous said...

Woolston, Rohr, and their fellow superhero, Huff, have all seemed to profit greatly in their roles as caped crusaders, haven't they? They have fleeced the public without repercussions. At least their scum bag associates, Wallace-Bajjalli, don't pretend to be superheroes. They're just plain old opportunists after a buck. Or several million of them.

Joplin better watch out--Wallace-Bajjalli has no intention of doing anything here but making as much money as they can before they run to the next opportunity. They have no long-term ties to the town. If you're not careful, they'll own way too much and have too much power. It might be worth the loss to go ahead and pay them off. It's not like they're in the middle of a construction project. Not so much as a spade of soil has been turned yet.

Yes, birds of a feather flock together, and this flock of starlings needs driven off.

Anonymous said...

I hope CJ hasn't sold W-B the naming rights to the new JHS. No one wants to go to Wallace-Bajjalli High, or any other school with their name attached to it.

Anonymous said...

12:18 and 12:19 are right!!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else see Wallace-Bajjalli being featured on an episode of American Greed on CNBC? I can just see Joplin being featured as one of the dimwitted clients being bilked for millions by this ponzie scheming duo.

Anson Burlingame said...

OK, I will waate my time rebutting this blog, for what it is worth.

First of all, I was on the fence in terms of Woolston's reelection for a while. I read the released Lorraine report and then the "missing pages" as well. Bottom line I saw no substantial evidence, evidence needed in a court case to show unethical or illegal behavior in Woolston's conduct.

Any idiot dealing in real estate could read the CART advice, look at a map showing the zone of destruction and make reasonable assumptions about what might be rebuilt and where. It took NO "insider knowledge" to make such decisions, decisions that could be "risky" from an investment standpoint.

There was zero evidence shown by Lorraine that Woolston in fact used "insider knowledge" from his job on council or contact with city staff as a council member to gain such information. It was all shown as concern by a few property owners about what Woolston might have been up to. Any proof that would stand up in court? None that I saw, and still don't see.

Then the voters spoke, with authority is seems to me. Now Turner blames uninformed voters for making the judgment made, in the voting booths. As well he blames the Globe for lack of making information available. Well I had all the information I needed and voted accordingly and with no help from the Joplin Progress Committee, either.

If you belive Woolston acted illegally or even unethically well the voters disagreed with you. Now your only option is a court of law or the Missouri Ethical Commission I suppose.

Oh, I failed to mention that even the Lorraine report showed Woolston seeking and receiving legal advice, informing council of what he was doing and why he was doing it, followed that legal advice and believed, then and now, that he acted within the law and any ethical requirements placed on him.

I like it when voters decide such matters, which they did in this case. But if you still disagree then put your money where your mouth is and take it to another court. You sure as hell cannot sue voters however.

Anson Burlingame

Anonymous said...

So since you took the time to opine, what is your .02 about Wallace Bajjali?

Are they really the greatest thing for Joplin since sliced bread?

Were the citizens of Joplin properly informed about the various controversies surrounding Wallace Bajjali before they found themselves partnered with them?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Burlingame, I read the entire report. You are an investigative reporter, how much were the properties in question sold to four states homes for and then how much were they sold to the redevelopment corp for? Woolston spearheaded many of the sales, why were they not directly sold to the redevelopment corp? Were improvements made on the property if the price is higher than the original sale? Did Woolston or pro-100 accept a commission on both or either the buying or selling of any of these properties? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, the public has the right to know. And yes it is unethical. The globe neither investigated or reported to confirm or refute the allegations against Woolston.

Anonymous said...

Oh and by the way, I tried to educate as many people as possible about the Lorraine Report. But most voters knew nothing about what was actually in it. I own commercial property in city limits, but live outside so I don't get to vote on what affects my livelyhood. I'm constantly amazed at how many people only get their information from news headlines and comments on Facebook rather than actual research. We are depending on you and responsible journalists to inform us. I have a business to run and two teenage boys to raise. I can't go to the county courthouse and research the facts for myself so I look to multiple news sources and try to decipher the truth through the bias and find as many factual documents as I can. I know Randy is biased, but I see more factual documents on his blog than I do in the Globe or other news outlets in Joplin. I actually had one of the TV stations arguing with me about what was in the Lorraine Report. It was obvious that the person hadn't actually read the report. So, if you want credibility, report more facts and research in your stories, rather than stating your personal opinions clouded by your bias. I don't give a rats (you know what) about your interpretation of a paraphrase. Post your facts on which you base your opinion.

Not one of Ants-son's tards said...

Ants-son has an opinion and Ants-son has an agenda and Ants-son has interests and Ants-son has a blog.

What the "facts" are take second place to Ants-son's perceived interests.

What is best to do is to read both sides and then come to a decision. Knowing in advance that neither side has an interest in providing all of the facts. Just those facts that justify their own interests.

When has it ever been any different?