Feds seize property of Kansas City companies accused of COVID relief fraud

The federal government has seized two vehicles, and is threatening to seize a lake house, allegedly purchased illegally with COVID-19 relief money by a Kansas City-area businessman.

The property was seized from several real estate companies incorporated in Kansas by Joseph Campbell, with most operating under a version of the name Titan Fish.

According to a complaint filed by the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas, in early 2020 Campbell submitted 20 applications to the Small Business Administration for federal disaster loans made available under the CARES Act.

Most were deemed duplicates of other applications, the complaint says, and five were granted.

Campbell's companies received nearly $1 million in aid that was supposed to be used to pay debts, payroll and other bills that could have been paid had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred.

According to an affidavit filed by Richard Littrell, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service, Campbell's applications contained false information and he used the money he received to purchase two vehicles and a lake house in Morgan County, Missouri.

“Based on the information set forth in this affidavit, there is probable cause to believe Campbell committed violations of wire fraud and money laundering," said Littrell, who conducts money laundering investigations as part of the Kansas City Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces.

Littrell later added that there is probable cause that the vehicles and property “were purchased with proceeds derived or obtained from the wire fraud violations."

The two vehicles — a 2019 Dodge Ram 1500 and a 2017 Ford Explorer — have been seized by the government. The lake house has not yet been seized.

Campbell did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Danielle Thomas, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas, said she cannot comment on open cases beyond what is available in the public record.

Titan Fish, based in Shawnee, Kansas, is described on its website as “special situation investors that focus on unique investment opportunities in real estate, energy and other real assets."

The company garnered attention in 2017 when it purchased the former Rockwood Golf Club in Independence for $550,000 from a company that had owned the property for several years.

Just months after that purchase, the Independence City Council voted to buy the golf course from Titan Fish for $1 million in order to use it to build a solar farm.

The deal drew FBI scrutiny over a series of donations to Independence Mayor Eileen Weir days before she voted to approve the purchase.

Those donations came from four political action committees connected to lobbyist Steve Tilley, a former state lawmaker and longtime friend and adviser to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.

Tilley's lobbying firm represents Independence's utility and the company chosen to operate the solar farm.

In 2019 Tilley began representing Titan Fish, and a year later was part of a proposal involving Titan Fish to repurpose a power plant owned by Independence.

Titan Fish and Tilley severed ties shortly after details of the proposal were made public.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

Missouri governor vows criminal prosecution of reporter who found flaw in state website

On Tuesday, a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch alerted the state that Social Security numbers of school teachers and administrators were vulnerable to public exposure due to flaws on a website maintained by Missouri's department of education.

The newspaper agreed to hold off publishing any story while the department fixed the problem and protected the private information of teachers around the state.

But by Thursday, Gov. Mike Parson was labeling the Post-Dispatch reporter a “hacker" and vowing to seek criminal prosecution.

“The state does not take this matter lightly," Parson said Thursday at a press conference, though he refused to take questions afterward.

Parson said he had referred the matter to the Cole County Prosecutor and has asked the Missouri State Highway Patrol to investigate.

“This administration is standing up against any and all perpetrators who attempt to steal personal information and harm Missourians," he said.

According to the Post-Dispatch, one of its reporters discovered the flaw in a web application allowing the public to search teacher certifications and credentials. No private information was publicly visible, but teacher Social Security numbers were contained in HTML source code of the pages.

The state removed the search tool after being notified of the issue by the Post-Dispatch. It was unclear how long the Social Security numbers had been vulnerable.

Parson said Thursday that he wasn't sure why the reporter accessed the information. He claimed it was part of a “political game by what is supposed to be one of Missouri's news outlets."

“The state is committed to bring to justice anyone who hacked our system and anyone who aided and abetted them to do so," Parson said, later arguing that the reporter was “attempting to embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet."

The Post-Dispatch published a statement in response from its attorney, saying the reporter “did the responsible thing by reporting his findings to (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) so that the state could act to prevent disclosure and misuse.

“A hacker is someone who subverts computer security with malicious or criminal intent," the statement continued. “Here, there was no breach of any firewall or security and certainly no malicious intent. For DESE to deflect its failures by referring to this as 'hacking' is unfounded. Thankfully, these failures were discovered."

Also Thursday: Top lawyers won't touch Donald Trump with a '1,000-foot pole' as legal crises escalate. WATCH:

Top lawyers won’t touch Donald Trump with a ‘1,000-foot pole’ as legal crises escalate youtu.be

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

The ‘Big Lie’ remains a big part of Missouri US Senate race

Seconds into a web ad supporting Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's U.S. Senate bid, footage of former President Donald Trump alleging a stolen election is juxtaposed with headlines touting Schmitt's role in lawsuits challenging the 2020 results.

A largely discredited audit of the presidential election in Arizona has become a key piece of Eric Greitens' Senate campaign, with the former governor traveling across the country to witness it and celebrating the endorsement of a legislator who is one of its biggest cheerleaders.

U.S. Reps. Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler — both seeking the GOP Senate nod — joined most Republicans in Congress in January to vote against certifying Biden's electoral college win.

And three days after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol to stop that certification vote, Senate hopeful Mark McCloskey tweeted, “there is no question that the election was the result of massive fraud, there is no question that Donald Trump won the legitimate vote…"

The “Big Lie" is alive and well in Missouri politics.

Allegiance to Trump's discredited allegation of a stolen election has become a litmus test for Republican candidates around the country. In Missouri, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump twice, the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud has done little to dissuade fidelity to that lie.

That dynamic has manifested itself in myriad ways, from election officials forced to fend off wild conspiracies at legislative hearings to Congressional candidates refusing to say whether Biden won legitimately.

But nowhere is it more evident than the GOP primary for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, where the idea of a Trump endorsement is largely seen as a golden ticket for whomever gets it.

In order to win over the GOP base that will be voting in the primary, and to hopefully snag Trump's endorsement along the way, candidates need to at least appear to believe Trump's version of reality," said Joshua Holzer, assistant professor of political science at Westminster College in Fulton.

Perpetuating the “Big Lie" may have short-term value for GOP candidates, said Luke Campbell, assistant professor of political science at Northwest Missouri State University. In the long term, however, it further undermines voter confidence in democratic institutions.

“It certainly does have the effect of doing damage to our electoral processes in the future," Campbell said.

Arizona audit

Of all the candidates running or pondering a run for Missouri's open Senate seat, none have embraced the “Big Lie" quite like Greitens.

On Jan. 6, Trump supporters, incited by the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, stormed the U.S. Capitol determined to stop the certification of Biden's electoral college victory.

The next day, Greitens went on right-wing television to peddle election fraud conspiracies and advance the idea that the violence was actually perpetrated by Antifa.

His enthusiasm for the “Big Lie" continued in the subsequent months, culminating in June when he ducked out of attending the year's biggest gathering of Missouri Republicans to travel 1,200 miles away to witness Arizona's election audit.

The farcical exercise has included inspecting ballots for traces of bamboo to determine if they were imported from Asia and reportedly scanning them with UV lights to look for secret watermarks.

Democratic and Republican critics alike — including the GOP-run county board of supervisors and the Republican who is the chief county election officer — dismiss the effort as a dangerous exploitation of grievances that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Recently, Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers visited Missouri to endorse Greitens and tout his support for the audit.

“When I'm talking to conservatives and I'm talking to patriots, the first question I get asked is, 'does my vote matter,'" Greitens said during a TV appearance earlier this month. “They want to know there are patriots who are fighting to get to the truth of what happened on Nov. 3, 2020."

Greitens resigned from the Missouri governor's office in 2018 to avoid impeachment by the GOP-led legislature and as part of a deal to settle a felony charge.

'War games'

Schmitt was among a handful of GOP attorneys general who waged an unsuccessful legal fight to overturn results in battleground states won by Biden. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected their efforts.

He later drew criticism for his role as vice chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) when it was revealed it was involved in a robocall encouraging “patriots" to participate in the Jan. 6 march that ended in the violent attack on the Capitol

Schmitt denied knowledge of the robocall or that the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the 501(c)(4) arm of RAGA, helped finance and organize the march. The group also held a special “war games" meeting weeks before the election to discuss its strategies if Trump lost.

“…we will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal," the robocall said. “We are hoping patriots like you will join us to continue to fight to protect the integrity of our elections."

Emails between the Rule of Law Defense Fund and one of Schmitt's top aides, Solicitor General John Sauer, were revealed in February through open records requests filed by attorneys Elad Gross and Mark Pedroli.

Unlike Greitens, Schmitt doesn't openly peddle conspiracies of a stolen election, Instead, his rhetoric is typically framed around the idea of election integrity.

But a super PAC supporting Schmitt, called Save Missouri Values, ran a web ad featuring Schmitt declaring he'll defend election integrity sandwiched between footage of Trump claiming “this election was rigged" and television coverage of the lawsuit seeking to overturn the outcome of the presidential election in Pennsylvania.

A CNN poll released last week found that 63% of all respondents correctly believed Biden legitimately won in 2020. Only 21% of Republican respondents believed that, compared to 97% of Democrats and 64% of independents.

Candidates see political gain in peddling debunked conspiracy theories, Holzer said, demonstrating how Missouri politics has become “increasingly defined by division."

“The 'Big Lie' runs the risk of further polarizing our electoral process," Holzer said, “as radical viewpoints become more entrenched and normalized."

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

Lawmaker 'disappointed and angry' after exhibit on history of LGBTQ rights suddenly disappears from Missouri Capitol

A state senator from Kansas City is demanding answers about why an exhibit on the LGBTQ-rights movement was removed from the Missouri Capitol after only a few days on display.

This article was originally published at the Missouri Independent

Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, released a statement Thursday decrying the move, saying he was “disappointed and angry that Missouri State Parks would bend to pressure from those who want to see people like me stripped of our rights and our dignity as American citizens."

The exhibit was part of the Missouri State Museum in the Capitol building which, which includes numerous exhibits on state history.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said later in the day, through a spokeswoman, that the exhibit was removed because it didn't get approved by a state board he sits on. However, a review of five years of meeting minutes of that board show no evidence that museum exhibits has ever been a topic of discussion.

Word of the removal spread on Facebook following a post by Uriah Stark, legislative aide for state Rep. Mitch Boggs, R-La Russell. He celebrated the decision to remove the exhibit, giving credit to Republican Reps. Ann Kelley of Lamar and Brian Seitz of Branson.

“Thanks to the efforts of several of our great elected officials, the exhibit has been removed from the Missouri State Museum! To God be the glory!" Stark posted.

Neither Kelley nor Seitz could be immediately reached for comment.

Connie Patterson, spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources — which oversees the museum — said state law requires the department to coordinate with the board of public buildings in regards to displays in the museum.

That process wasn't followed, Patterson said, and the display was removed.

State law only requires the department coordinate its activities regarding the museum “as may be necessary for the display and exhibits of the museum and the memorial hall."

Patterson also noted that Parson was unaware of the exhibit until “after receiving several complaints regarding the display." But she didn't respond to an email asking when the last time the board of public buildings discussed exhibits in the museum at one of its meetings.

Razer, the only openly gay member of the Missouri Senate, said the state owes the LGBTQ community answers “as to why they put this exhibit back in the closet."

“There is nothing controversial about an exhibit that explains how members of the LGBT community fought to end persecution and demand rights as citizens," Razer said. “This is nothing but 'cancel culture' coming from those who want the LGBT community to simply disappear into the shadows again."

The exhibit, built by students in the University of Missouri-Kansas City's public history program, explores the activism of gays and lesbians in the decades before Stonewall, including “Kansas City's surprisingly pivotal role in helping to launch America's gay rights movement. Focusing on ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things, the exhibit explores how history is made."

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

Longtime Missouri GOP political consultant pleads guilty to felony tax fraud

David Barklage, a veteran Missouri political consultant and lobbyist, pled guilty to a felony tax charge in U.S. District Court Wednesday afternoon.

This article was originally published at Missouri Independent

Barklage, who has been a fixture in Missouri Republican politics for decades, was indicted in April for failing to pay more than $150,000 in taxes over the course of a three-year period.

In a statement released after entering his plea, Barklage said he takes “full responsibility for my actions and intend to make full restitution. I am deeply grateful for the support of my family and friends, and apologize for any embarrassment my personal tax issues have caused for them."

His attorney, Joseph Passanise, said he intends to ask the court for probation. He's scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 2.

According to the plea agreement, the maximum penalty Barklage could face would be 3 years in prison, a fine of $100,000 and a year of probation.

Prosecuting Barklage's case is Assistant U.S. Attorney Hal Goldsmith, who specializes in public corruption cases and was the lead prosecutor in the indictment of former St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

In the 1990s, Barklage led campaign committees in both the Missouri House and Senate that eventually helped engineer the Republican takeover of the legislature for the first time in 50 years. He's also long been a part of Gov. Mike Parson's political team, most recently as a consultant for Uniting Missouri, a political action committee formed to help Parson win a full four-year term.

Just this year, Barklage's consulting firm has been paid roughly $70,000 by Uniting Missouri.

Barklage's former business partner is Robert Knodell, who is Parson's deputy chief of staff and has been serving as acting director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

The indictment focuses on failure to report income from 2012 to 2014, a time when Barklage was in business with Knodell. During that time, the indictment says he failed to report $443,633 in income and failed to pay $151,843 in taxes.

Most of that income — $209,499 — came from a Missouri political campaign, the indictment says. Another $30,000 came from lobbying fees and $122,580 came from “an independent media producer" that is not named.

Barklage deposited all of these funds into his personal bank account, the indictment says, instead of his business bank accounts. These funds and earnings “were not included on Barklage's tax returns for the years 2012, 2013, and 2014," the indictment says.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP lawmaker to serve in exile after being indicted for selling fake stem cell treatment

A Missouri lawmaker indicted earlier this year for allegedly selling fake stem-cell treatments and fraudulently using federal pandemic relief funds has had her trial pushed back until June 2022.

That means state Rep. Patricia Derges, R-Nixa, will serve yet another legislative session in exile after her party removed her from committee assignments and kicked her out of the GOP caucus following her 20-count federal indictment in February.

Derges has denied any wrongdoing and refused to resign her legislative seat.

Her trial was supposed to begin on Monday. But her attorney asked the court for a delay because a witness for the prosecution suffered a stroke that prevented her from being able to testify.

The defense needs to be able to “vigorously cross-examine the subject witness," Derges' attorney, Al Watkins, wrote in a motion asking for the delay. The motion noted that prosecutors were supportive of pushing the trial date back.

U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge David Rush agreed, moving the jury trial to June 6, 2022.

Derges caught the attention of federal investigators when she did television interviews claiming she was working with the University of Utah on an FDA-approved research project to determine if stem cells were effective against COVID-19

Federal prosecutors initially charged Derges in February for medical fraud, writing illegal prescriptions and lying to investigators. She was alleged to have obtained sterile fluid, which contained no stem cells, from the University of Utah at a cost of $250 per milliliter, then administering it to patients, telling them it contained stem cells and charging $950 to $1,450 per milliliter.

The investigation identified eight patients who had paid Derges from $1,905 to $6,500 for stem cell treatments and $191,815 in total for such treatments.

In March, she was faced with additional charges for allegedly taking $300,000 in federal aid intended for her nonprofit clinic and using it instead to pay for tests that patients at her for-profit clinic had already paid for.

During a court appearance earlier this year, Derges pled not guilty to 23 charges. She has maintained her innocence from the beginning.

Derges was elected to a two-year term representing Christian County in the Missouri House last year. She is licensed in the state as an assistant physician, receiving her medical training at the Caribbean Medical University in the Netherland Antilles.

During her first legislative session, she filed 10 bills — four of which deal with medical licensing in ways that could create conditions that would allow her to convert her license as an assistant physician to physician.

None of her bills gained traction after she was stripped of her committee assignments, kicked out of the Republican caucus and asked to resign by House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold.

She was also moved out of her Missouri Capitol office into a tiny, windowless room, not much larger than a closet.

The Missouri General Assembly will return to Jefferson City in September to consider whether to override any of Gov. Mike Parson's vetoes. Unless the governor convenes a special session, lawmakers will reconvene in January for the 2022 legislative session.

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: info@missouriindependent.com. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.

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