Missouri economic development director says his knowledge of Watch Me Smile incentives was limited

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Citing pending legal action and his lack of involvement, Missouri's top economic development official did not comment Friday on the initial approval of $2 million in state incentives to a Cape Girardeau development led by a man who was later discovered to have written more than $100,000 in bad checks.

David Kerr, director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, in Cape Girardeau on Friday, said he was not involved in the day-to-day operations in the department review process that authorized the incentives for the proposed $10 million Watch Me Smile development, a deal that proposes bringing a dental and vision cooperative to downtown Cape Girardeau.

Kerr's comments come some three weeks after the story broke that Weaver Dickerson, CEO of Hometown Holdings Group LLC, is on probation for writing more than $90,000 in bad checks in 2007, though he had signed a state application saying that no owner of the company had been convicted of a felony or was on probation.

Director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development David Kerr speaks Friday, January 7, 2010 during Cape Area Magnets luncheon at the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center. (Laura Simon)

Gov. Jay Nixon held a news conference in Cape Girardeau on Dec. 8 to announce the development, 10 days before media accounts of Dickerson's past surfaced. The governor has referred questions to Department of Economic Development spokesman John Fougere, who earlier this month said DED declined to comment other than to say the project had received no state funding.

Asked about his agency's incentives vetting procedures for the Watch Me Smile project, Kerr said he couldn't address specific issues because he was not involved.

"Our team directs, obviously directs, from the ground up, from the first day until the end, but I was not involved, so I don't know what kind of communication was involved," Kerr said following his appearance Friday at Cape Girardeau Area Magnet's annual meeting. "I do not have direct contact in this."

House Speaker Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, who has said he would like to see committee hearings into the incentives application, said he was surprised to hear that Kerr still apparently doesn't have answers into what happened.

"As speaker of the House, I don't have direct control over every decision in the House. I may not know an answer, but I know how to get the answer, and David Kerr should know how to get the answer" in his department, Tilley said. "With all the press on this, I would have thought one of his lower-level staff could have briefed him on it."

Tilley said he would encourage Kerr to get "personally involved" in the matter going forward.

Earlier this month, Tilley took issue with Fougere's statement that no state money has gone to the development project. The speaker said Watch Me Smile would have received the incentives if reports hadn't surfaced about Dickerson's criminal past.

"We need to have some accountability, so tax dollars aren't going to convicted people who have frauded people out of $100,000," Tilley said then. "We need to give people the assurance that this isn't going to happen again. The DED clearly dropped the ball on this."

A spokesman for Nixon did not return a phone call or an e-mail Friday seeking comment.

The legal action Kerr referred to is an ongoing investigation into the matter being conducted by the Stoddard County prosecuting attorney's office, where Dickerson was on probation.

Stoddard County Prosecuting Attorney Russ Oliver said Saturday he has had two police detectives investigating the application since Jan. 3 and that he now expects to make an announcement about his findings the week of Jan. 17.

A probation revocation hearing set for Jan. 19 was canceled last week, he said, because Dickerson managed to pay off $80,000 in restitution for those checks, which he did Dec. 17 after the news broke. Before that, Dickerson had made only sporadic payments, even going all off 2008 without making a payment.

Oliver's office still has an amended motion filed, alleging that Dickerson made a false declaration and made a false affidavit in the application. Oliver said he is considering adding forgery to the amended motion. No new date for a probation revocation will be set until after the investigation, Oliver said.

"We're the only ones even investigating this," Oliver said. "I talked to the DED's legal counsel, and they told me that they're not an enforcement agency."

With Dickerson facing legal action, Kerr said he was not in a position to address the incentives situation. He did say the Department of Economic Development constantly reviews its polices and procedures to "determine whether there are ways to strengthen" them.

That's what Tilley wants to see. He said he's hopeful that the Dickerson issue is an isolated incident, but that's why he and Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, want government accountability committees to look into how state incentive applications are handled.

Kerr said he is not aware of any other state-assisted development deals with similar legal questions. He said he invites any discussion on the matter with lawmakers.

"If this is an issue they want to chat about, certainly we welcome the opportunity to have a discussion with them," Kerr said.

Staff writer Scott Moyers contributed to this report.



Pertinent address:

1267 N. Mount Auburn Road, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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