Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas has been charged with a misdemeanor after negotiating a quid pro quo with two developers last year, Cole County Prosecutor Locke Thompson confirmed Thursday.
Thomas was charged with attempting to commit an act prohibited by a public official for offering to lend his support to a development project if the developers supported affordable housing.
The councilman broke the news himself, emailing constituents Thursday morning to inform them of the charges. In the email, he said he intends to plead not guilty and mount a defense in court. The charge against Thomas is a class C misdemeanor, “the lowest level misdemeanor offense under Missouri law,” the councilman’s lawyer, Christopher Slusher, noted in a press release.
Thomas reported the activities that led to the charges to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Slusher added. “His conduct has been open and transparent,” the release said. “There has been no suggestion that Ian acted to benefit himself personally.”
But Thompson, the special prosecutor who has been investigating the case, felt a criminal charge was warranted.
“Despite the plan being halted, Thomas did take substantial steps by negotiating a deal to provide affordable housing in the proposed development and in return he offered to support the development by voting for it and would work to gain the support of other City Council members,” a probable cause statement written by Boone County Sheriff’s Detective David Wilson said.
At issue is an agreement organized with developers Shannon Sapp and Justin Barnes. It would have required them to donate $40,000 to the Columbia Community Land Trust, an affordable housing group. In exchange, Thomas would support the annexation, zoning and development plans for Sapp and Barnes’ proposed Oakland Crossings neighborhood.
Thomas and the developers nixed the agreement after Housing Programs Manager Randy Cole and City Counselor Nancy Thompson noted it as potentially illegal. In November 2018, Thomas reported his activities to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
In his Thursday email, Thomas noted that the issue was reported extensively in the news media in February and that he was re-elected in April. The filing period for council candidates ended in January, however, and Thomas was unopposed.
The Sheriff’s Department investigated Thomas’ actions at the Missouri Attorney General’s request in March and produced a “charge request” against Thomas in April for for the “crime of prohibited acts by elected and appointed public officials and employees,” according to the court filing.
The Sheriff’s Department forwarded the charge request to Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight, who filed a motion in May asking that a special prosecutor be appointed to evaluate and handle the matter, citing his friendship with Thomas’ parents-in-law: Former Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman and his wife, Axie Hindman.
Boone County Presiding Circuit Judge Kevin Crane appointed Locke Thompson to decide whether to file charges against Thomas.
Thomas has maintained that he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong and that he did not personally benefit from the agreement.
City employees and officers under the city code are prohibited from granting “improper favors, services, promises or things of value.” Those found to have violated that ordinance must forfeit their employment or office.
In an interview with the Missourian, Slusher would not comment on whether that provision might affect Thomas’ council position, other than to say that Thomas plans to continue serving on council.
“He will exercise his right to defend himself in court because he does not believe his actions constituted a crime,” Slusher said.
City Counselor Nancy Thompson declined to answer any questions regarding Thomas’ case.