Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mike Woolston and the Wallace-Bajjali land grab scheme

The role of Councilman Mike Woolston in the development of the Joplin Tornado was something that concerned Melodee Colbert-Kean when she was mayor (and most likely still does today).

The mayor asked then City Attorney Brian Head to check into Woolston's dealings with real estate sales in the 20th and Connecticut area. She had reason to worry. Her fellow council member Ben Rosenberg had attended a meeting of the Parr Hill neighborhood group where Woolston was accused of everything from using his influence to force property sales to cashing in on insider information.

At that point, Head, while concerned, did not see anything that Woolston was doing that was illegal. The councilman insisted, and no record has ever been shown otherwise, that he received only one commission from the sale of real estate and during council meetings he was abstaining from all votes having to do with that area.

Brian Head later told investigator Tom Loraine that he might not have given Woolston a pass had he been privy to information he later came across. "At the time this (his opinion) was written," Head said, "I did not know there was any conflict."

To put it simply, Wallace-Bajjali was working with Joplin developer Charlie Kuehn to buy land in that area. Woolston was helping Kuehn buy the property, but he was not working directly with Wallace-Bajjali. Woolston was not taking commission for any of the property and not voting on anything concerning it, but all indications from Woolston's own testimony in the Loraine Report is that Kuehn wanted to make sure Woolston was making money, so he increased his involvement in Kuehn's other local projects.

Loraine suspected, and it appears state auditors are checking to see if it is true, that Kuehn bought the property for Wallace-Bajjali, which then sold it at a marked-up rate to the Joplin Redevelopment Corporation. The increased amount also increased Wallace-Bajjali's finder's fee even though essentially the company had done nothing and turned out be nothing but profit for Wallace-Bajjali since the company abandoned Joplin having only paid for one piece of property, the Coca-Cola Building.

With a deadline looming, Loraine wanted to know who was making a profit and how much. Kuehn might know, but he cut his interview with Loraine short, refusing to answer questions. David Wallace refused to meet with Loraine, though he says he just couldn't make it on any days that Loraine had available. City Manager Mark Rohr would not provide Loraine with what he needed. Brian Head had never been involved in much of the city's dealings with Wallace-Bajjali.

That left Mike Woolston.

"I don't think I'm going to be very helpful because I wouldn't be privy to any of the Wallace-Bajjali workings, because I wasn't involved in any of that," Woolston told Tom Loraine. The fees from the property sales for Wallace-Bajjali at that point amounted to $417,900.

Woolston says he and Kuehn talked with Brian Head, though Woolston is never specific about what exactly he asked the city attorney. "Essentially, we just talked about what we were going to be doing and I just wanted to protect myself in terms of the conflict of interest. I got his input, his perspective on it, and I don't remember his exact words, but something to the effect that we would just have to be careful in how we went forward to make sure that I didn't do something to cross the line ethically.

"I attempted to keep myself out of hot water. I don't think that anyone who does their homework can think there's an appearance of impropriety."

Woolston says his business arrangement with Kuehn began a couple of months after the tornado when he was still serving as mayor. The only piece of property on which he made a commission did not involve a conflict of interest because it happened before there was talk of the library-theater complex, he said.

Other property sales did not involve conflicts of interest, he said, because the plan on what to do with the property "hadn't been formalized in writing."

At one point, Woolston said, he was working for Kuehn to buy property to be used for a loft-over-retail project. He knew that "there was the possibility it may be in partnership with the Wallace-Bajjali folks, but again I didn't know of any formalized written agreement."

His only motive in not accepting commissions and doing his work for no money, Woolston said, was that he wanted to help rebuild the city. "We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape to a large degree what a community looks like 10 or 15 ot 50 years and I wanted to have a part in that."

Anyone who would see anything unethical in that is just ignorant, Woolston indicated. "An uninformed person who didn't pay a great deal of attention to details might think there was something underhanded going on.

"I have taken very careful steps to ensure that I don't cross the line ethically."

Loraine challenged Woolston about the "appearance of impropriety," including the idea that a city councilman and former mayor was working to make property deals in the area of town that had been hit by the tornado or by Woolston checking with the Zoning Board about matters of interest to Kuehn.

While Woolston acknowledged that someone might think something was wrong, he indicated that in his dealings with the Zoning Board he always let them know he was talking to them as "a private citizen" and not as a member of the Joplin City Council.

"I'm sure that we as council members get treated a little differently than any other private citizen who would go in and make essentially the same request." he acknowledged when pressed by Loraine.

Woolston also talked about the importance of ethical behavior.

"The public needs to have confidence that there's nothing underhanded going on at the Council level."


Anonymous said...

Photo on front page of Joplin Globe shows Woolston with his head bowed looking very dejected.
Also a photo of CJHuff on the same page that must have been taken when he was in high school. It sure doesn't look like him today

Anonymous said...

When the Details of Woolstons land deals come out and how he bought the 20th st properties from the very citizens he represents for a fraction of what he sold them to the city for he will be held accountable. Now he and Mr Keuhn are asking the city to proceed with the 20th st project and give them over 4 million dollars. This is the Wallace Bajalli deal that did more to undermine public trust than any other.

Anonymous said...

Woolston was not taking commission for any of the property and not voting on anything concerning it, but all indications from Woolston's own testimony in the Loraine Report is that Kuehn wanted to make sure Woolston was making money, so he increased his involvement in Kuehn's other local projects.

If this reading is correct, it most certainly would cross the ethical line, the difference between Kuehn having a big heart or it being a quid pro quo is razor sharp.

Pity that unlike Lorraine, the state auditors have subpoena power---I keep wondering if perhaps your book that coming out right now is premature, will need a serious update in a while, or is superbly timed to help arrange some justice.

I worry that the local establishment is too solicitous about its own. I can't help but notice that Rita Hunter was only prosecuted by the Feds for issues with Federal money, and escaped what should be more severe state charges for her many abuses of the county's most vulnerable people.

Anonymous said...

I'm beyond sick of people like Woolston always pulling out the "uninformed person" (aka ignorant) who doesn't pay attention and doesn't understand their grand schemes. Well, Mr. Woolston, I'm not an "uninformed" person and your behavior has been unethical. You've been caught. Time to fess up. The only ignorant person here is the one staring back at you in the mirror.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it odd that the former Mayor Colbert-Keen was so concerned that her nephews (who is a felon) is a huge land owner around the ballpark for the Blasters?? Who arranged the sale of those properties? Who paid for them in cash (because a felon can't get a loan)? Who disclosed inside information regarding the incoming baseball team, so as that someone outside the council would know to buy up those properties because of the increased value? Who on the council is involved in real estate?

They were all in it together and now want to point fingers at each other just like Wallace and Bajali. The auditors are getting too close and someone is about to go down for this whole mess. I just wonder who's going to roll over first?

Dusty Roads said...

Woolston is one of these guys that is so arrogant that he thinks he is smarter than everyone else, not even realizing that a lot more people are smarter than him, what a joke, resign right now Woolston.

Anonymous said...

Did someone say Mayor Keen or a family member bought property around the ball park? Can anyone confirm that? Reading the Loraine report I thought it was interesting he ask her about loans or grants she received from the Joplin Chamber of Commerce.

Anonymous said...

I believe that in the final analysis it will be determined that Mr. Woolston was indeed acting inappropriately, but he is just one of several individuals and entities that are complicit in this whole mess. Let's start at the beginning with Mr. Rohr who was allowed to operate with impunity for such a long time simply because he was doing the bidding of certain special interests. Mr. Rohr single handidly created an "us" (the privileged few) vs "you" (the average citizen) culture that destroyed the essense of our community culture.

Then there were the members of the Council (Woolston, Seibert, Glaze, Shaw, and for the most of Rohr's tenure, Colbert-Kean) who allowed Mr. Rohr to destroy our community culture because it benefited the few special interest that were important to their personal interests.

How about the CART committee and many of the other city boards and commissions? I cannot believe that I am the only one who realizes that most of the people on these committees are the same people who have direct special interest projects.

And then there is the Chamber. How is it that the Chamber is allowed to have so much influence and involvement in all of the City's activities when their contract is only for economic development services? Take a look....I am guessing you will see the same names again. I personally believe the City and the Chamber have too close a relationship and has been allowed to exercise too much influence on the City's direction. I for one would like to know, in facts and cents, what the Chamber has actually produced in return for what they recieve in citizen's tax dollars. And where was the Chamber while all of this was going on? Seems to me that redevelopment would have been important enough to "economic development" for them to have been in daily or weekly contact with the master developer.

And what about the PAC group? Take a look.....I think you will find the same names again....not to mention the same special interests being represented.

At the end of the day, we can either blame Wallace & Bajjali and ignore the real problems that allowed this to happen or we can take responsibility for shaping our own future and take the necessary steps to rid our City and its leadership of the rot that began several years before there was ever a need for a master developer. I for one would like to see our local government really become a government for all citizens and not just the privileged few.

Anonymous said...

You are not the only one that sees who is on theses committees. There is a definite pattern that is undeniable. If you read the top of the CART WEB page it says this...

The members of CART are a diversified group of local Citizens. They have been selected to help guide the way for the Joplin Area Citizens on this journey of recovery. Their job is to assist in obtaining citizen input, analyze the input and formulate ideas and/or projects which can be presented to the appropriate organization(s).""

In what world is the list of CART committee members diversified? Where are the real business owners? These are the CEO's, COO's, CFO's, etc of every high profile bank, employer and retailer in Joplin...and CJ Huff. That does not qualify as a group of diversified local citizens.
No, you are not the only one that sees.

Anonymous said...

oh my oh my, you people just don't comprendo. Where were you all when this was being mapped out...eating your ice cream... Did any of you attend meetings or hearings or get involved, no. Hindsight is 20/20 but none of you were in the trenches trying to help this city I'll bet. Just posers now the lot of you.