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Fired director of Kansas City agency changed nepotism rules, paid her husband and gave herself a loan

 The Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City is an influential organization that has shaped commercial development in the city.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
The Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City is an influential organization that has shaped commercial development in the city.

It’s not often in the public eye, but the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City is an influential organization that has shaped commercial development in the city. The ouster of its leader has placed the EDC in the spotlight.

Directors for the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City (EDC) fired the organization's top executive last month for allegedly misusing agency funds and changing its policy manual without board permission.

A press release from the EDC issued on Oct. 4 thanked its interim president and chief executive T’Risa McCord for her service and announced Heather Brown would take over as the agency’s new interim chief executive.

In fact, minutes of a closed door meeting held on Sept. 30 show that a unanimous slate of directors voted to fire McCord for violating EDC policies. Kansas City Mayor and EDC board member Quinton Lucas made the motion to terminate McCord’s employment, and EDC board member Tammy Henderson seconded the motion.

Public records obtained by the NPR Midwest Newsroom show McCord made what appear to be questionable decisions with EDC funds. McCord said she is the target of a “smear campaign.”

T'Risa McCord
Provided
T'Risa McCord began serving as interim president and chief executive of Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City in December 2019.

The EDC is an influential organization that has had a hand in shaping commercial development in Kansas City.

It has a contract with Kansas City government to oversee and administer several agencies that award tax breaks and incentives for development projects. The EDC’s work can be seen in large-scale developments like the Power & Light District and Union Hill.

‘Completely unacceptable’

McCord served as the interim president and chief executive of the EDC starting in December 2019.

Records show in 2020, McCord wrote a $15,000 check to herself from an EDC bank account as an advance while she waited for a loan in the same amount from her 401(k) retirement funds. EDC policy says the agency’s top executive cannot spend more than $10,000 of agency funds without the board’s approval.

That same year, records show, a series of payments totaling $1,400 were made from the EDC to McCord’s husband, Reginald McCord, using online payment application PayPal.

Earlier this year, the agency’s policies and procedures manual was changed to remove a policy that limited contracting with family members of EDC employees.

Bridgette Williams, the chair of the EDC board, said directors had not been aware of the payments or the policy change and that their discovery led to her firing.

“The board found the behavior to be completely unacceptable,” Williams told the Midwest Newsroom.

An anonymous letter to some members of the board alerted them about the payments to McCord’s husband and alterations to the policy manual.

The letter made other complaints about McCord. It said there was a “toxic work environment” and a “climate of fear” that was widespread in the EDC and promoted by McCord.

The letter also said EDC staff, which experienced a high rate of turnover, witnessed McCord “screaming and shouting at staff in an intimidating way on multiple occasions.”

Williams said a lawyer was asked to conduct an internal investigation. That investigation confirmed the letter’s accounts of the payments to McCord’s husband and the deletion of the policy about paying EDC employee family members.

The investigation also turned up evidence of the advance paid to McCord but did not fully substantiate allegations that McCord bullied staffers.

Williams said McCord repaid the EDC for both the payments to her husband and from the 401(k) loan advance.

“The investigation did what it was supposed to do and that is that it revealed some uncharacteristic occurrences by the leadership of the EDC,” Williams said. “It was because of the actions that she decided to take, even though the money was repaid, that the board thought it was in the best interest of the organization to terminate Ms. McCord’s employment with the EDC.”

McCord responds

On Oct. 12, a reporter visited McCord’s house and left a letter with questions about the accusations against her at the door when she was not available.

A few days later, on Oct. 15, McCord delivered a letter to the reporter with her responses.

“I continue to assert that a smear campaign is targeted at me because of a disgruntled employee whose attempts at extortion from the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City were rebuffed by me and for which I asserted whistleblower privileges to the Chair in my verbal report,” McCord’s letter reads. “I blew the whistle to the Chair and legal co-counsels of the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City that was supported by documentation.”

McCord’s letter adds that the EDC’s allegations against her “will be handled and addressed in the near future in a formal manner.”

Follow up voice mail messages to McCord to discuss the specific nature of her claims were not returned.

Williams, when told of McCord’s claims, said she did not want to get into a debate with McCord in the press and that the EDC felt comfortable and confident in its decision to fire McCord.

McCord’s letter does not directly address the actions the EDC board said led to her termination. She asserts that loans are a common benefit of 401(k) plans afforded to EDC staff.

“I have never acted without the knowledge of the Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City Chair or outside of the policies and procedures regarding financial matters,” McCord says in her letter.

McCord also disputes the claim that she bullied employees.

“While I personally have a strong, assertive demeanor, I in no way bullied or intimidated anyone, but worked in a culture as the leaders before me and those colleagues that worked alongside of me as a strong, Black female in a predominantly non-minority environment,” McCord says.

The EDC’s most recent tax forms show McCord received $168,506 in total compensation for the fiscal year ending April 30, 2019.

‘Keep moving the ship’

The same day the EDC board voted to fire McCord, a 3-2 majority voted to place a reprimand letter in the personnel file of EDC controller Lee Brown.

Records obtained by the Midwest Newsroom show Brown writing a memo dated Aug. 27, 2020 explaining that McCord was receiving a $15,000 advance from the EDC to “bridge gap an advance” until her 401(k) loan for $15,000 was received.

Williams said the board wanted to send a message that it is the responsibility of the agency’s top finance official to report questionable uses of EDC funds.

“He is not the one who in our belief did the acts,” Williams said. “But we do feel it was important enough that we want him to understand that the expectation is that this not happen again. He wasn’t the focus of the investigation.”

Brown did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Bob Langenkamp was the last permanent EDC chief executive. He left the organization in July 2019. Greg Flisram was the interim chief executive until he left for a job in Pittsburgh in December 2019. McCord, who had been with the EDC since 2019, took over as interim chief executive at that time, where she remained until last month.

Prior her interim role running the EDC, McCord had been the agency’s chief administrative officer. Before that, McCord was a financial analyst for a financial services firm.

Williams said the agency, which has suffered from funding cuts from Kansas City government, is preparing to search for a permanent chief executive.

“There are very few ways to prevent someone who wants to do bad from doing bad things,” Williams said. “But in light of this investigation, we are strengthening our policies and feel confident about the board’s leadership and the interim leadership to provide oversight and keep the ship moving until we have a permanent CEO.”

The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism collaboration including KCUR, IPR, Nebraska Public Media News, STLPR and NPR.

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