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The Justice Department spent years looking for corruption in Jackson County. What happened?

A collage of elements shows a man sitting in a leather chair next to another image of a tall, stone building (the Jackson County Courthouse). Also in the photo are court documents that read Calvin Williford (the man in the chair) is a defendant in a lawsuit and he was originally charged in 2018 with "conspiracy to commit wire fraud via a scheme to skim tens of thousand of dollars of campaign funds."
Photo illustration by Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

After two Jackson County officials were sentenced in 2018, the FBI and Justice Department said they were running an “active investigation” in at least two jurisdictions. Since then, there’s been silence — meanwhile, one of the officials is back working in Jackson County government again.

Five years ago, there was some unexpected drama in a federal courtroom in downtown Kansas City. Calvin Williford, chief of staff to the Jackson County executive and a major player in county politics, was going to go to prison for spending campaign money on lavish trips and political bullying.

That part was well-known. His boss, former county executive Mike Sanders, had been sentenced to two years and three months in prison the day before.

What nobody knew was exactly why Williford — who admitted to the same crimes as his former boss — would receive a significantly lower sentence. The government said Williford cooperated with investigators. But what did he tell them? Who was being investigated?

That information was in sentencing documents, which are usually open to the public but in this case had been sealed.

KCUR has now obtained those documents, but many of the biggest questions remain unanswered.

A kick-back scheme at the top of local government

Williford pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in 2018 in connection to kickback schemes that netted him and Sanders tens of thousands of dollars. Both admitted to using the ill-gotten gains for lavish travel and political dirty tricks.

Both Sanders and Williford used the money for trips to Las Vegas and to pay people to tear down the yard signs of political opponents, according to the government. The money was pilfered from Sanders’ campaign accountand not from taxpayers.

Williford was sentenced to six months in federal prison, reflecting the reduction the government requested.

For the same wire fraud crime, Sanders was sentenced to 27 months by the same judge, three months more than the government wanted.

Former Jackson County executive Mike Sanders leaves the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City after pleading guilty to wire fraud.
Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
Former Jackson County executive Mike Sanders leaves the federal courthouse in downtown Kansas City after pleading guilty to wire fraud.

“In recognition of the substantial assistance to law enforcement provided by the Defendant (Williford,) the government moves the Court to depart downward from the advisory guideline range by 35 percent,” Williford’s sentencing memo said. That document has been under seal since 2018.

At Williford’s sentencing the government was adamant but opaque about the federal investigation. It is "very much an active investigation," Department of Justice prosecutor Lauren Bell said at the time. She told the judge that someone is a "target" of this investigation, and the probe stretched into another jurisdiction, but who the target was and which other jurisdiction were never disclosed.

Despite the passage of five years, we still know little about that mysterious federal investigation.

To try and figure out what the FBI was investigating, KCUR made a motion in federal court in Kansas City to unseal the sentencing documents.

KCUR argued on two grounds: First, the government has charged no one else in the years since the records were sealed. “There is no evidence that — more than five years after Williford was charged — the Government’s investigation is ongoing,” KCUR’s attorney, Bernie Rhodes, wrote.

Second, the public has an interest in why the same judge sentenced Williford to two years less than Sanders “for the same criminal conspiracy.”

The government said it had no problem unsealing the sentencing memo, a document that is routinely open to the public. But it fought unsealing the document that explained why Williford was getting a sentence lower than the minimum sentence suggested — the "downward departure" motion — because “the government has a compelling interest in protecting the safety and privacy of cooperating defendants,” the motion said.

Williford simply argued that the document “should remain sealed in its entirety, as it contains sensitive personal and health information about Mr. Williford and numerous innocent third parties,” according to his motion.

In the end, U.S. District Court Judge Roseann Ketchmark split her decision. The government’s sentencing memo would be unsealed as is with no redactions. Williford, she ruled, could request redactions. But the most important document, the downward departure memo that spelled out exactly what Williford told investigators, could be redacted.

What was in the sealed documents?

As far back as 2015 there was talk of FBI agents investigating elected officials, government staff and political players. The Kansas City Star reported that year on a healthcare consulting contract Jackson County granted to a consultant with ties to the former speaker of the Missouri House.

Rumors swirled about elected officials in Jackson County who were under investigation for other contracts.

However, despite years of investigating, the government only made the two cases against Sanders and Williford.

The four-page document explaining Williford's lesser sentence would have revealed much of what the government was investigating. While Ketchmark unsealed the document, she did allow the Department of Justice to heavily redact it.

Page 4 of Williford DD Mot
Contributed to DocumentCloud by Madeline Fox (KCUR 89.3) • View document or read text

For example, the government writes “As part of his cooperation, the defendant” — and then three thick, black lines block out what Williford said — “To date, the defendant’s information has been corroborated, and it appears to be complete and truthful,” the paragraph continues.

The document ends with “The government expects, and the defendant agrees, that he will,” and then another thick, black line. What the government expected and what Williford agreed to is unknown.

Despite no other indictments, despite an investigation that stretched back at least eight years, and despite the statute of limitations potentially ending, the government insisted on keeping the details of a political corruption investigation secret.

“The harms to cooperators and the administration of criminal justice are substantial and pervasive,” the government argued in support of redactions.

One thing was learned: The government wanted “a term of imprisonment of 9-14 months” for Williford’s cooperation. Ketchmark sent him to Leavenworth for only six months.

Williford’s sentencing memo also contains many redactions. In fact, two entire pages are blacked out.

The memo stresses that Williford distanced himself from Jackson County politics following his guilty plea by moving to St. Joseph.

“This move was extremely beneficial for Calvin. He became involved in volunteer efforts in St. Joseph through Community Missions. He works as a receptionist and as an assistant at the Haven House,” Williford argued when he asked Ketchmark for probation instead of prison time.

Page 1 of WillifordUnseal
Page 1 of WillifordUnseal
Contributed to DocumentCloud by Madeline Fox (KCUR 89.3) • View document or read text

Williford is back in Jackson County government

After leaving prison, Williford worked for More2, a social justice group best known for taking on policing issues.

But Williford was soon back at the Jackson County Courthouse, working at the County Legislature. Williford is officially the legislative aide for Legislator Donna Peyton but he also acts as an advisor to Legislature Chair DaRon McGee.

As a legislative aide, Williford helps legislators with research and communication on a wide array of policies and proposed ordinances.

“It felt like returning to a place that had a lot of bad memories and had a sense of this is where I made all of those stupid decisions, right?” Williford told KCUR.

Not everyone was happy with his return. Some people associated with county government questioned whether someone convicted of a federal crime connected to politics belonged back in government. But Williford argues that going through the criminal justice system makes him better prepared to do government work in a mostly urban county.

“I know this building, I know county government, I know the agencies, right? So, despite my trepidation, despite some threats from some people, it felt like the next right thing to do.”

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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