KANSAS CITY — A former Jackson County Circuit Court administrator's guilty plea to mail fraud served as a springboard last week for an announcement by federal officials of a new telephone hotline people can call to report public corruption.
If Teresa York's guilty plea Thursday in federal court wasn't enough to illustrate how public officials are using their positions for personal gain, the guilty plea a day earlier by a former treasurer for a Missouri fire protection district who embezzled more than $1.5 million would have served the same purpose.
As would a federal charge against the former treasurer of a Kansas rural fire district accused in October of stealing more than $427,000 from his employer over five years and leaving the district unable to pay its bills.
"Everybody's aware public corruption has always been a constant problem," Michael Kaste, special agent in charge of the FBI's Kansas City office, said at a joint news conference Thursday. "What we're trying to do is call attention to it."
Kaste, U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson of Missouri and U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom of Kansas met with members of the media Thursday in Kansas City, to encourage people to assist in uncovering misdeeds by public officials.
The hotline number is 1-855-KCPCTIP — or 1-855-527-2847. Kaste said the hotline is answered by a real person, instead of a recording, and callers can either provide their name or remain anonymous.
Every call won't necessarily result in an investigation, he said, because sometimes people make reports simply because they don't like someone or inaccurately suspect wrongdoing.
"Public corruption is the FBI's number one criminal priority," Kaste said. "We're very good at it. We're also very good at ferreting out frivolous complaints."
In the Jackson County court administrator's case, a routine audit found that York, 58, of Blue Springs, used credit cards issued by the court for nearly $78,000 in unauthorized purchases. Prosecutors said she also entered into a fraudulent contract worth nearly $70,000 with a fake company that was a front for a person with whom York had a personal relationship.
"All of this was happening at the time Jackson County court was having serious budget restraints," said Dickinson, who worked with York while serving as an assistant county prosecutor before being appointed as U.S. attorney. "People were being laid off. I find it to be completely reprehensible from that aspect."
York pleaded guilty to a single count of mail fraud and could be sentenced to up to 20 years in federal prison.
On Wednesday, Leland Ray Kolkmeyer, 58, of Wellington, Mo., pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud. Prosecutors said he was treasurer of both the Wellington-Napoleon Fire Protection District and Special Road District when he stole a combined $1.5 million for personal use. A tip led investigators to Kolkmeyer, who could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.
Late last month, Richard Bontrager, 67, of Holton, Kan., was charged with stealing more than $427,000 from the Mayetta Rural Fire District, where he was treasurer since 1994. He also was accused of issuing checks with forged signatures of board members payable to a fictitious entity he created.
Bontrager is scheduled for arraignment next week.
"Crooked public officials undermine the public's trust in our government," Grissom said. "They dishonor the many honest and hard-working men and women who serve the public at all levels of government."