by Bill Barton
In April 2019, Clay County Sheriff Paul Vescovo sued the Missouri county’s three-member commission, claiming that it slashed his operating budget by over 40 percent “in retaliation for a criminal referral made two years ago.”
That referral involved assistant county administrator Laurie Portwood, who was accused of directing a subordinate to tamper with public records by removing the name of Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte. Sheriff Vescovo passed the investigation of the allegation to the Missouri Highway Patrol. Portwood, the county’s top budget official, then entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement to resolve the criminal investigation. She retained her job and later received a salary increase from $107,000 to $140,000 annually.
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s department ran out of money to pay contractors that provide food and medical services to some 300 prisoners at the county jail.
Vescovo requested $2.8 million in 2018 to fund the jail and administrative costs but received only $1.79 million upon a recommendation by Portwood, down from $2.58 million received in 2017 when the sheriff had requested $3 million.
When Vescovo’s lawsuit went to trial in August 2019, Portwood struggled to defend her budget recommendation to state Circuit Court Judge Darren Adkins. The county’s other two commissioners, Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen – who voted to approve the reduced budget for the sheriff’s department – did not testify. The litigation drew an expression of regret from Nolte, Vescovo’s lone ally on the county commission.
“Like many citizens, I am frustrated by the enormous drain on county taxpayers’ money over such a large volume of litigation on issues like the state audit and others,” Nolte said.
Clay County citizens collected more than 9,000 signatures on a petition to have the local government audited. After the signatures were verified, State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office attempted to conduct a performance audit, but was forced to seek court orders to obtain financial and meeting records from the county. Audit officials cited an “unprecedented level of obstruction.”
Often the lone dissenter in 2-1 votes on the three-member county commission – whose “reputation for dysfunction and political backbiting” was decried in an August 20, 2019 editorial by the Kansas City Star – Nolte deemed the sheriff’s 2019 budget too low and voted against it.
“I believe many of the actions taken by the County Commission are not in the best interest of the people we serve,” he declared. His attorney, Jerry Reddoch, added that “the system in this county is in need of some help.”
In August 2019, Judge Adkins agreed that the underfunding of the sheriff’s department was deliberate, finding Portwood’s testimony “was at best not credible.” He ordered the county commissioners to provide Vescovo with nearly $1 million in additional funding to cover operational expenses through the end of the year.
In another 2-1 vote that sidelined Nolte, the county commission voted in September 2019 to appeal the judge’s ruling. Through an attorney, both Ridgeway and Owen ridiculed Vescovo’s lawsuit as “expensive and unnecessary,” but justified their appeal by asserting the effort “will cost less than 5% of the legal expenses” incurred in defending against the suit.
Sources: kansascity.com, fox4kc.com, excelsiorspringsstandard.com
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