Corruption Edges Toward Ferguson

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Earlier this week, the Post-Dispatch reported that the Missouri Ethics Commission fined former county council rep Rochelle Walton and the Walton’s political organization, Unified Democratic Township Organization, for violations of campaign finance laws. What they don’t report, and have no way of knowing, is that the violations were disclosed in an ethics complaint which I filed, and in another complaint by Representative Raychel Proudie. (The MEC decisions can be viewed here and here.)

I’ve always been a proponent of transparency in government, and that extends to transparency in campaigns. Why does this matter to us in Ferguson? Well, without transparency corruption freely spreads, and we don’t even know about it – we just suffer the cost. It’s a particularly sensitive matter in city government, because big media outlets are not scrutinizing ethics at that level, they’re just responding to the work of others. Transparency empowers watchdogs, by giving them the information to detect and blow the whistle on corruption.

Shady PAC in Ferguson

The Walton organization isn’t the only one violating state ethics laws. In 2018, Civil PAC was filed, with the treasurer residing in north St. Louis city. In 2020, they spent $17,000 against a candidate in the August primary, Ingrid Burnett, a state senate candidate in Kansas City. They also spent $4,300 against Steve Roberts, who sought a state senate seat in north St. Louis, and $19,000 in support of Michelle Sherod, who was running for the same St. Louis seat. They failed to disclose these payments prior to the election, and were fined by the Ethics Commission. The bulk of this money came in a $30,000 contribution from a PAC in Virginia. A search of Virginia and Missouri campaign finance sites did not yield any information on this PAC, so there’s no way to know where the funds came from.

In 2021, Civil PAC filed “limited activity” reports, indicating that they did not receive or spend more than $500 that year. In early 2022 they then modified all of these reports. The January report was amended to reflect payment of a $330 fine to the Ethics Commission. April was amended to reflect an additional $100 fine. And the October report included a previously undisclosed $500 contribution to the Committee to Elect Rita Days, our county council representative. In 2022, the committee contributed $500 to the campaign of Alan Green, a state representative and Walton ally. An additional $500 was also given to Rita Days. These contributions, and the donations which funded them, appear to have been properly disclosed.

This brings us to 2023, and to Ferguson. The PAC received a $2,000 contribution from the FP1 S Florissant LLC, owner of the marijuana dispensary. A few weeks later, the money was handed over to Ella Jones. This contribution was properly disclosed, though one is left curious why a Ferguson based business would launder money through a PAC with no connection to either the business or Ferguson. But then, the PAC reverts to their previous pattern of failing to disclose. On March 8, they received $1,000 contributions from Sam’s Meat Market, and from Ali Chaudhry, owner of the troubled nursing home on Hartnett. On the same day, they made an $1,800 contribution to Friends of Ella Jones. But while the contributions were disclosed before the election, the disbursement to the Jones campaign was omitted, only to be disclosed in an amended report filed after the election. The mayor’s committee did properly disclose the contribution, though of course, she again received money from local businesses, sanitized by running it through a PAC. Why?

In the final oddity, their twice amended 40 day after the election report indicates that they refunded the contribution from Sam’s Meat Market and BG Insurance Agency, and that a $900 check to the Jones campaign was returned. The PAC then made a $450 contribution to the Jones campaign, and paid $480 to Ashley Clemon of St. Louis for “administrative work.” In October, they paid Ms. Clemon an additional $351.79, donated $250 to the gubernatorial campaign of a state representative from Springfield, and closed. Clemon is the campaign treasurer for state representative Lakeysha Bosley. Bosley’s deputy treasurer is Linda Primer, who happens to be the treasurer of Civil PAC. She also served as treasurer for former state representative Wiley Price, who was the subject of a scathing censure for a sexual relationship with his intern, and for his mother, Leata Price-Land.

Circling back to the Walton organization, that also has a Ferguson connection. But first, a bit of background for those unfamiliar with the Waltons. The story starts with Elbert Walton Jr., a former state representative. Walton served in the state house from 1979 to 1993. He also built a business as an attorney. One of his specialties was representing governmental entities, and, some would say, bleeding them to death. Walton was ultimately disbarred after multiple suspensions. But along the way, he established Unity PAC, a political organization which promotes the interests of the Walton family and associates.

Unity PAC, now known as Unified Democratic Township Organization LLC, is presently in its third incarnation. The first, established in 2002, kicked off with a $5,000 contribution from Enterprise PAC, itself a fund of nearly $600,000 associated with Enterprise Rent-A-Car which contributed to candidates all over the country. Unity PAC’s very first finance report, filed in July 2002, had to be amended in October to include three contributions they omitted from the original filing: $200 from a water processing company, and two contributions totaling $600 from Elbert Walton, Jr. Unity PAC has had no significant activity since 2022, when they received a $10,000 contribution from Page PAC, the political operation of county executive Sam Page. As others have previously reported, the final priority of Unity PAC appears to have been putting money in the pocket of Rochelle Walton Gray, Elbert’s daughter, who had recently lost her job with the Page administration due to voter approved changes to the county charter. On the October 2022 report, she received $7,500 for “meeting & event planning.” The PAC reported a single meeting, at a banquet center on Bellefontaine Road, which they rented for $220.

Through 2003, a Patrick Parker served as treasurer for Unity PAC. But in 2004, a new treasurer arrived: Yolanda Austin, who was elected as the mayor of Jennings in 2017. Austin’s son is Terry Wilson, city manager of Dellwood, and a member of Jennings city council. Austin was elected mayor after the impeachment of Yolonda Fountain Henderson. Henderson, who is now a state representative, was elected to the legislature with the help of a nearly $3,000 campaign contribution from North County Solidarity PAC. That PAC, established in 2021, lists Walton as deputy treasurer. In 2022, North County Solidarity received two large contributions: $10,000 from Missouri Growth PAC, and $15,000 from Page PAC. Missouri Growth PAC is operated by Steve Tilley, former Republican speaker of the house. Walton’s new PAC continues to rake in money, posting $7,000 in contributions on their latest report, with a balance of more than $18,000.

The Ferguson Connection

So how does this connect to Ferguson? First, there’s the obvious: A PAC with no connection to Ferguson, which has been used to funnel anonymous, out-of-state money to candidates all over Missouri, was used to launder money from Ferguson businesses to the mayor’s campaign. Why?

More important, though, the influence of the Waltons’ “Unity” organization can already be seen in the Jones administration. An annual giveaway of school supplies, which is partially sponsored by the city, is called “Unity in the Community.” The new park on Halpin Drive was unilaterally named “Unity Park” by the mayor, who did not go through the normal process for park naming. Campaign flyers in the last mayoral election were of the same layout and contained similar phrasing as candidates openly affiliated with the Walton organization. And it’s worth noting that the Waltons have not only elected a county council member and several state legislators, but also at times gained influential positions in Berkeley, Jennings, Dellwood, and other municipalities around north county. We need to protect Ferguson from political operators with a long history of predatory conduct.

Our state’s Sunshine Law, and our state campaign finance laws, require transparency to prevent corruption. When officials minimize the importance of transparency, we shouldn’t ask whether they have something to hide, but rather, what they are hiding. That’s why I will always fight for transparency in city government, and for honesty in campaign finances, whether as council member, or just a neighbor with a nose for impropriety.