Former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, once a rising star in the Democratic Party, pleaded guilty Friday to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in federal court, effectively ending a promising career.
Sanders, 50, entered his plea in a loud and clear voice before U.S. District Judge Roseann Ketchmark.
The criminal complaint said that at least four other people, identified as Persons A through F, participated in the conspiracy to embezzle and misappropriate campaign funds for their personal use. One of them, Sanders' former chief of staff, pleaded guilty to the same charge earlier in the day.
The conspiracy took place between 2006 and November 2014, according to the complaint. Sanders directed political committees with which he was associated to issue checks to some of the individuals, even though they performed little or no campaign work. After cashing the checks, the individuals would give the majority of the cash to Sanders, who used it pay bills and take personal trips to California and Las Vegas, according to the complaint.
The complaint says Person A was Sanders' chief of staff, Persons B and C "grew up together and were friends and associates" of Sanders, Person D was related to Sanders by marriage and Person E was "an associate" of Sanders. A sixth person is identified as Person F, an assistant to Sanders, but not part of the conspiracy.
The Kansas City Star reported in December that Sanders was being investigated for misusing $60,000 in campaign funds. At his plea hearing Friday, Sanders agreed to forfeit between $15,000 and $40,000 in ill-gotten gains.
Sanders is free on bond, and no date has been set for his sentencing.
“Mike knew better then and he knows better now," Sanders' attorney, J.R. Hobbs, told reporters after the hearing. "He also knows that mistakes come with a price. He accepts responsibility for his conduct and whatever punishment comes with it.”
Sanders was first elected as county executive in 2006 and then re-elected in 2010 and 2014. Before becoming county executive, he was the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney. He was also chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party from 2011 to 2013.
Earlier in the day, Sanders' close friend and former chief of staff, Calvin Williford, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Like Sanders, Williford admitted that he misappropriated money by directing Sanders' political committees to cut checks to individuals who performed little or no work for Sanders' political committees. The individuals then remitted a portion of the cash to Williford, who used the money to pay for personal expenses, including the trip to Las Vegas with Sanders.
Williford, 60, appeared upbeat and was smiling as he waited for the hearing to begin. After he entered his plea and the hearing concluded, he embraced family members in the courtroom and then began weeping audibly.
Brian Gaddy, Williford's attorney, said his client took "full responsibility for his conduct."
"I think anybody that watched the hearing knows that he is extremely remorseful, extremely embarrassed by his conduct, but he's trying to do the right thing," Gaddy said.
Sam Zeff is KCUR's Metro reporter. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.