Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Mike Woolston and the Wallace-Bajjali land grab scheme
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."