Disabilities board treasurer now faces conflict claims

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Less than two weeks after one board member's resignation, Cape Girardeau County's disabilities board treasurer Jeff Baer is facing similar conflict-of-interest scrutiny -- and talk of his removal -- after claims that he conducted board business with clients of his Jackson-based accounting firm.

Baer, a CPA and CEO of Baer & Edington, doesn't deny it, acknowledging that he negotiated and voted for a lease that pays a client and business partner $1,800 a month for the Cape County Board for Developmental Disabilities targeted case management program office at 902 E. Jackson Blvd.

Furthermore, Baer admits the taxpayer-funded program purchases supplies, products and services from several of his firm's clients.

"I have over 1,200 clients," Baer said Tuesday. "I'm not trying to hide anything. ... I have never profited from any of this. I don't see it as a conflict."

But some do, including Cape Girardeau County Commissioner Jay Purcell and board chairwoman Dory Johnson. Purcell has sought guidance from the Missouri Ethics Commission and hopes Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle, the commission's counsel, can render a legal opinion. He's asked Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy to put the matter on Thursday's agenda for further discussion. Tracy would only say that he's aware of the matter and he's looking into it before deciding whether to put it on the agenda.

To Purcell, the conflict is clear because Baer, who has been on the board for a year, failed to recuse himself from votes involving his clients. Purcell says that means Baer is directly influencing decisions to send business to his customers and associates, which profits them and makes his business more attractive.

"I'm going to look into it and make sure that nothing has been done inappropriately," Purcell said. "But to me, this doesn't pass the sniff test."

According to Missouri conflict-of-interest statutes, appointed officials cannot use confidential information in the course of their official capacity with the intent to have financial gain for themselves, their spouse or dependent children or any business with which they are associated.

Baer maintains he does not have a conflict because he didn't profit directly. But Purcell doesn't read the statute that way.

"Sitting on this board, his main role is to be an advocate for Cape Girardeau County citizens and the developmentally disadvantaged," Purcell said. "His job is not to actively advocate for his clients to get business because he happens to sit on that board. How can he vote for a client of his without bias?"

Purcell initially sent inquiries to Baer asking about the business relationships. In a response, Baer said he told board officers before the February vote about renting the case-management office that he had a business relationship with the building's owner, Bill King.

Not only was King a firm client, but Baer said he told board officers that King was also Baer's partner in a limited liability corporation called Crown Development of Jackson. According to documents filed with the Secretary of State's office, the company holds and rents commercial and residential real estate, but not the building leased by the board.

But Johnson said she didn't know about Baer's business connections to matters he was voting on. Johnson said she only recently learned that Baer and King had a business relationship -- six months after the board's unanimous vote to enter into the lease agreement.

"As far as I can tell, it was never disclosed to anyone," Johnson said.

If Johnson had known, she said she would have voiced concerns then about it being a conflict of interest. Now, she is considering a special meeting to discuss what happened and will at the very least put it on the board's July 12 agenda.

Johnson, who agrees Baer's actions constitute a conflict, said she believes Baer's actions warrant a discussion on removing him from the board. While the board is appointed by the commission, only the board can remove other members.

"I think it's going to be given some serious consideration," Johnson said.

The board has had a controversial year. It is being sued by VIP Industries for failing to make payments, though the board has questioned how the sheltered workshop spends the money. This month has been particularly rough, with the board's firing of executive director Bob Dale and the resignation of board member Bryan Noack.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

902 E. Jackson Blvd., Jackson, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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