Politics & Government

Kansas racial-profiling task force's spending under investigation

TOPEKA — State officials whose job was to fight racial profiling spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on banquets, travel, concert tickets and no-bid contracts for a website that never went online, The Eagle has learned.

Both the Kansas and federal bureaus of investigation are looking into whether the spending was misuse of public funds.

At issue are expenses of the Governor's Task Force on Racial Profiling and two sister committees, the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and the Kansas Hispanic and Latino American Affairs Commission.

Records are fragmentary and it is possible the public may never know exactly where the money went.

But an Eagle review of thousands of invoices and receipts obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act found numerous questionable expenses, including:

* A $10,000 town hall meeting featuring $1,400 worth of steak dinners, $3,200 in refreshments and a four-piece band.

* More than $36,000 paid to two unincorporated companies for work on a website that never went online and speaking fees of as much as $750 an hour to address small groups.

* A $7,000, three-person trip to a Washington political conference, including about $1,000 to attend a gala dinner with President and Mrs. Obama and $400 for VIP tickets to a rap-music party.

Most of the money came from a $643,000 federal transportation grant given in 2007 to reduce racial profiling, the practice of subjecting minorities to excessive police scrutiny because of their skin color or ethnic background.

In response to an Eagle inquiry, Gov. Mark Parkinson confirmed that the spending is under investigation for possible misuse of public funds.

"We became aware of some possible spending problems that are very similar to what you've just outlined and once we became aware of those, we did an internal investigation to verify that there was a problem," Parkinson said. "We convinced ourselves that there was sufficient likelihood of a problem, that it was serious.

"We turned everything that we had on the matter over to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and it is my understanding that it is under investigation right now."

Records show that almost all the expenditures were arranged and/or approved by three former state employees: Michael Waters, the administrative specialist to the task force; Steve Cisneros, who was executive director of the Hispanic commission; and Joshanna Stone, an attorney and special assistant to the African-American commission.

Waters and Cisneros have apparently moved and could not be reached for comment. Stone did not return phone messages to her home seeking comment.

State payments for unused website work and speaker fees went to two vendors, Anthony Morris of Morris Media and Web Design, and Anthony Pollock of Polar Media.

Morris did not respond to phone messages and a card left at his door seeking comment. Pollock is deployed on military duty in Kuwait and could not be reached.

The questionable spending occurred mostly in 2009.

Parkinson said he thinks it was an isolated incident.

"I don't think it's as widespread as the public might feel, but when it happens, it's such an egregious use of power, it's so disappointing, that it tends to taint the other 20,000 (state) employees," Parkinson said. "And the public gets upset, frustrated, fed up and I totally understand that. But I think it's a small minority."

Whistleblower fired?

Shala Perez of Wichita, who followed Cisneros as executive director of the Hispanic commission, said she noticed the spending shortly after she joined the office on Aug. 31, 2009.

Perez, a former Wichita State University police officer, said she reported it to the KBI after getting stonewalled by officials in the governor's office, who urged her to sign off on what she felt were fraudulent audit reports. That, she said, led to her being threatened and then dismissed from her job.

Perez said she was called out of a meeting with KBI agents to meet with three executives in the governor's office, who forced her to agree to mediation with another official whose expenses she was questioning.

Last month, she said, she was ushered out of her office by an attorney on the governor's staff, within minutes of meeting with FBI agents looking into possible misuse of the federal grant funds. She said she was called to the governor's office and presented a resignation letter — that was being typed as she arrived — and ordered to sign it.

She said officials would not explain why she was being terminated, other than the governor had "lost confidence" in her.

Her resignation became final Saturday.

Parkinson denies that his office, which appointed her to the job, fired her because she blew the whistle on questionable spending.

"I'll just say two things," he said. "The first thing is that I don't comment on personnel matters. It's not fair for me to publicly do that.

"But the second thing I will say is if there's any implication that she's being terminated because of this other fund situation, that's completely untrue."

A $10,000 meeting

Records show that the state paid various vendors $10,738 to put on a 3 1/2-hour town hall meeting on Aug. 20, 2009, at the Ramada Convention Center in Topeka.

A report in the Topeka Capital Journal estimated that about 70 people attended. Organizers estimated about 112.

Among the meeting's expenses:

* 45 KC strip steak dinners, at $23.95 each; a total of $1,413, with gratuities.

* Cheese, fruit, vegetable trays, pinwheels, sweets, iced tea and coffee, $3,195.

* A $1,300 speaking fee to the keynote speaker, former Kansas City Council member Alvin Brooks. Brooks did not return a phone message seeking comment.

* A $1,300 speaking fee to Pollock. There is no record that Pollock actually spoke at the meeting. His name does not appear on a list of speakers published by the community group that hosted the event and he was not among speakers shown in a photo book commissioned by the state.

* A $400 payment to the moderator, former Topeka mayor James McClinton. McClinton said he was invited because he is familiar with the issue but far enough out of local government to be seen as a neutral party. He said the payment barely covered his gas and meals to drive in from Texas, where he now is a consultant.

* Payments of $900 to a wedding planner who helped arrange the event.

* An $800 charge to record the meeting on video.

* Charges of $270 for a photographer to take pictures and prepare a hardbound photo book commemorating the evening.

State records show it wasn't the first time Pollock got a substantial check from the state for public speaking.

Pollock and Morris were paid a total of $13,150 to speak at 10 grassroots meetings for small groups.

Fliers indicate the meetings ran about two hours and spending records show Morris and Pollock were paid $1,250 to $1,500 each per meeting in speaking fees.

It is unclear what qualifications they had in the area of racial profiling.

Neither company has a website of its own and no resumes or statements of qualifications were found among state documents obtained by The Eagle. In a Nov. 18, 2009, letter to Waters, Morris wrote that he was working on a project in California and that he was writing on both his behalf and Pollock's because Pollock was on his way to the Middle East.

He defended the series of meetings they held.

"Working with Realizing Justice for All People and other groups, such as the NAACP and local church groups we have been able to tackle the sensitive issues of race and how racial profiling destroys relationships between minority communities and law enforcement," Morris wrote.

"As media companies, we have been skilled to produce campaigns that, in effect, change or influence the perception of our intended audience," the letter continued. "In these training and Town Hall meetings, we tried to do the same thing but with empathy and fairness to all parties."

State paid for trips

Records from the three agencies showed that their small staffs traveled frequently, around the country and around the state.

The full extent of their travels could not immediately be compiled from available information.

However, in one example, The Eagle was able to build a nearly full spending record of a trip to Washington last year for the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Three officials attended the event: Waters, Stone and Curtis Whitten of Wichita, a member of the African-American commission and owner of a business providing security services for state and federal installations.

Registration forms show that Stone and Waters could have attended all the business sessions at the conference for a $75 standard registration fee.

Instead, records show they paid $625 each for the "Ultimate" package, which included tickets to a prayer breakfast and the gala awards dinner headlined by Obama.

In addition, Stone and Waters both tapped state funds for tickets to the "Black Party Xperience 1.0," a show featuring New York disc jockey and hip-hop pioneer DJ Red Alert.

General admission was $60. Stone and Waters billed the state $200 each for VIP tickets.

The program description said the show featured "DJ battles, break dancers, air brush artists and a film projected in the backdrop," to "harness the styles and sounds of Brooklyn and Philadelphia, reminiscent of the roots and conscience of hip-hop culture."

The Department of Administration was unable to find any record of registration fees for Whitten.

Whitten said the state paid the standard rate for him, that he did not attend the Black Party Xperience, and that he was given a ticket to the gala dinner by a third party.

The state also paid $1,288 to fly the three officials to Washington for the four-day conference. Their four days at the conference hotel, the Grand Hyatt Washington, cost $3,558.

The overall cost of the trip came to at least $7,061.

Whitten said the African-American commission sends its leader every year; he was chairman at the time.

"If you're familiar with the Congressional Black Caucus ... they throw, host a seminar ... which covers various particular topics and essentially I was there for that particular work, that particular reason," he said.

Whitten declined to comment on Stone's or Waters' attendance, saying that he was not a member of the profiling task force at the time.

Bidding bypassed

The largest amount of suspect spending was on Web-design fees that were set in motion without competitive bidding.

Morris's and Pollock's companies, and a third sole-proprietor firm called CodeSoft Solutions, billed $100 to $110 an hour for Web work — about double what the state's own Division of Information Systems and Communications charges.

Of the three, only CodeSoft had a contract with the state.

CodeSoft was a one-person shop run by Shelby Frias out of her home in southeast Wichita.

Records indicate that between August 2008 and August 2009, Frias was paid about $3,000 each by the Hispanic and African-American commissions to upgrade and maintain their pre-existing Web sites.

She also got $6,000 to create a 10- to 30-page interactive website for the profiling task force and maintain it for a year.

Frias did create a basic website for the task force, which Perez said contained about three pages of information. Frias said she initially created a more elaborate site, but Waters directed her to remove much of the content.

"According to him, that wasn't the kind of product they wanted," Frias said.

No trace of the original site remains other than a single "splash page" with a picture of the Capitol and a disclaimer reading: "Thanks for visiting GTFORP.org. We are currently revising our content. Our site will be back up very soon."

Frias said Waters directed her to put up that splash page and later told her to completely remove all the other content from the Internet.

"I've never been paid for any work I did not do," she said. "I never billed for any work I did not do."

CodeSoft's contract was "sole source," meaning it bypassed the regular bidding process. The explanation came in a notation on state records by Cisneros: "The vendor is minority owned company. That will help us in a predominantly minority constituency."

One section of the contract form requires the approver to "describe the research that has been completed to insure that no other competition exists, nature of work to be completed, names of vendors contacted who are unable to perform service, etc."

Cisneros wrote, "Have not found any other DMBE (disadvantaged minority business enterprises) in this field."

Unfinished business

Records show that the state also paid $15,660 in Web-related invoices to Polar Media, Pollock's company.

Morris Media received $4,000 on Web invoices.

Frias said she was "flabbergasted" to see what the task force paid them.

After reading a list of their charges, including line items such as "Web optimization" "Web maintenance" and "transfering Web site data from CodeSoft Solutions," Frias said they never did a minute's work on any of her websites.

"They couldn't have touched that," she said. "They had no access.

"How could they hire all these people to say they were doing all this stuff?" Frias added."... I don't understand how they got paid."

There was no record of how Morris and Pollock landed their work — either as Web designers or expert speakers — other than two e-mails from a state accountant asking that they be added to the vendor-payment system.

Perez said she discovered that both Pollock's and Morris' companies had used fake federal tax identification numbers, which are required for government payments to vendors — and that Waters was hand-delivering their checks.

An Eagle search of tax-ID databases did not find valid entries matching the numbers that Pollock and Morris used.

Shelley King, a lawyer with the Department of Administration, said a new accounting system implemented July 1 now requires vendors to file actual federal tax forms verifying their ID number.

Shawnee County District Court records show multiple bad-debt judgments against Waters and Morris.

Wage garnishment documents indicate they both worked for Radio Shack before Waters became a state administrative specialist and Morris started getting money from the state for Web design and speaking fees.

Passing the blame

In his November 2009 letter to Waters, Morris blamed the lack of substantial progress on the website on changes at the state agencies and a lack of communication by Frias.

According to the letter, the two companies were supposed to "help develop a back end that would encompass training curriculums, pod casts, transmittal complaint forms and manuals that could be used to help learn about the causes of racial profiling and hopefull (sic) help prevent it.

"As you know, my company, Morris Media and Polar Media were commissioned by you and your administrators to build a Web presence for the Governor's Task Force," the letter said. "We were to work with Shelby Frias at CodeSoft Solutions who would be handling the design and framework for this venture.

"There were numerous changes in the direction of this site. Most of these changes were prompted by Administrator Swopes (Danielle Dempsey-Swopes, executive director of the African-American commission at the time) which caused serious delays and at one point a halt of productivity until a meeting was held in Wichita in late May.

"In late August, the prodject (sic) was paused due to the moving of Ms. Swopes and a virtual lack of communication with Ms. Frias," the letter continued.

Frias said that neither Morris nor Pollock ever tried to contact her.

"I have no and none relationship to any of those people," she said.

Frias said she never heard of Pollock or Polar Media and her only knowledge of Morris and his company was through Waters.

She said near the end of her contract, Waters told her that Morris would be taking over the Web operation and that she would get her final payment from his company.

When the check didn't come, she contacted Waters and he got her paid through the regular state system, she said.

She said she was angry that Morris tried to blame her for his and Pollock's lack of progress — and that Waters repeated that justification in a memo to Perez, which read, "both companies finished their respective parts of the Web site and were waiting for CodeSoft Solutions to finish the front end."

She said Waters had "grandiose" plans for the site, but as far as she knew, it never went beyond the talking stage.

"I cannot fix the fact that they (Morris and Pollock) got paid for a lot of work they didn't do," she said. "They can't say they're waiting on me to do something if I'm not commissioned to do it."

The state's Division of Information Systems and Communications has since taken over the Web responsibilities for all three agencies and created a new site for the profiling task force at www.gtforp.ks.gov.

Some progress made

The task force did make progress on racial profiling, said Mike Watson, a former Wichita police chief who now co-chairs the group with Whitten.

Among the task force's accomplishments, Watson cited a 2005 statute that prohibits police from using race or ethnicity as the sole reason to stop an individual for investigation. The law also requires departments to establish policies and training to prevent profiling and guarantees citizens the right to file complaints or sue if they believe they've been profiled.

Watson said members of the task force also held a number of meetings around the state to hear public complaints and has worked closely with law-enforcement agencies to implement anti-profiling policies and training programs.

The task force also commissioned Wichita State University to research profiling in Kansas and work with law enforcement. The Eagle found no irregularities in billings related to the university's work.

Watson said the task force is putting finishing touches on its final recommendations, which will be presented after the Legislature reconvenes in January. The task force is scheduled to sunset in June.

Watson said he did not attend the $10,000 town hall meeting and wasn't aware it had happened until later.

"That was during the time that the task force, it had ... come to an end, it was before it was reappointed," Watson said. "There were people who were working in the name of the task force in between that, as I understand it."

Records indicate that most of the questionable spending took place at a time when the actual task force was not meeting because of divisions and resignations on the board and the agency was primarily under Waters' day-to-day control.

In January, the governor's office tightened financial control of its minority affairs commissions.

The new policies require they keep a purchasing log and get prior approval for travel, events, hospitality and cell phones, records show.

Parkinson said he was disappointed by the suspect spending because the task force was engaged in important work.

"When you have 20,000 employees, from time to time, a few of them will disappoint you," the governor said. "When they disappoint you, the right course of action is to assemble the facts, establish what's happened. If termination is justified, you terminate. If a criminal investigation is justified, you turn over what you found to the criminal agencies. And that's exactly what we did in this case."

"I'm hopeful and confident that the KBI will investigate it thoroughly and if money has been misappropriated and crimes have been committed, we will certainly encourage the attorney general to prosecute them," Parkinson said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle