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7-12-12

MAYOR FACES OUSTER EFFORT

Rhoads accused of nepotism; court hearing Friday


by Ivan Foley
Landmark editor

Prosecutors say Tracy’s mayor was informed by a city employee that what she was about to do was an act of nepotism and prohibited. The mayor, prosecutors allege, did it anyway.

Rita Rhoads, mayor of Tracy, is now facing an ouster petition brought by Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd for nepotism. The legal action, which is a civil case in nature and not a criminal prosecution, alleges Rhoads on multiple occasions hired her son-in-law to perform repairs for the City of Tracy.

Zahnd told The Landmark a tentative court hearing date on the matter has been set for this Friday, July 13, 10 a.m. in Division II of Platte County Circuit Court in front of Judge Lee Hull.

If the hearing does happen as scheduled on Friday, it is not known whether the judge will immediately announce a ruling or the announcement will come at a later date.

Judge Hull has already issued a temporary order preventing Rhoads from engaging in any activity or exercising any authority as mayor. That order remains in effect until there is further order from the court.

Rhoads is being represented in the matter by Keith Hicklin, an attorney in Platte City.

Prosecutors allege Rhoads employed her son-in-law, Matthew Spores, to repair a sign damaged by a drunk driver in June at a cost of $100. It is also alleged that earlier Rhoads had hired the son-in-law to repair a city garage door and replace a water heater.

“The public policy behind the Missouri Constitution’s ban on nepotism is straightforward. Public officials should be prohibited from using their position of public trust to enrich relatives. And the Constitution is clear that engaging in nepotism results in the automatic forfeiture of office,” Zahnd said.

Court documents allege that when the city employee became aware that Rhoads had employed her son-in-law, before Rhoads paid him the employee told her she could not do that. Rhoads reportedly replied with the words to the effect of “I don’t care. They need the money.”

Two investigators from the Platte County Sheriff’s Department spoke with Rhoads at Tracy City Hall on Monday, July 2. They advised her of the nepotism allegation and asked her to come to the department to speak with them about the situation. Rhoads declined to speak with the investigators.

Multiple sources close to the investigation told The Landmark that after Rhoads refused to speak with detectives, she was advised by law enforcement to stay away from City Hall and to conduct no act as mayor while the investigation was ongoing. Court documents allege that on Tuesday, July 3--the day after she refused to speak with investigators--a city employee reported witnessing Rhoads inside City Hall shredding documents.

The same sources close to the investigation told The Landmark that Rhoads had been given the option to resign prior to the prosecutor’s office filing the civil case this week.

In an interview with The Landmark, Zahnd declined to comment on any of those details of the investigation, and said he could not comment on whether Rhoads had been offered the opportunity to resign.

In the most recent instance of Rhoads hiring her son-in-law, court documents say the check to pay Spores was written to MDS Construction. From 2003-05, Spores was connected to a business named MDS Home Improvement, Inc.
When Spores was unable to deposit the check because he no longer had a business account with the MDS name, Rhoads wrote a check to Spores on the city account.

Zahnd said the Missouri Constitution provides that “any public officer (who) appoints to public office or employment any relative. . shall thereby forfeit his office.”

Zahnd explained that state law “empowers county prosecutors to bring the actions against officeholders who violate the ban on nepotism or otherwise unlawfully hold or execute the duties of their office.”

The petition filing by Zahnd’s office says the Missouri Attorney General has recognized that the term “employment” should be broadly interpreted.