The Dumb Defense

Saundra McFadden-Weaver has a cold.

The Kansas City, Missouri, councilwoman gets out of her chair and moves to the back of the room on the 10th floor of City Hall. She raises the thermostat and returns to her seat, sniffling.

It’s a Monday afternoon in mid-December. The city’s rarely convened ethics commission is taking testimony about the suspicious circumstances surrounding McFadden-Weaver’s purchase and loss of a house in Lee’s Summit.

McFadden-Weaver is wearing a black suit and beige heels. A white-haired lawyer is at her side. The councilwoman’s need for legal representation is evident: An FBI agent, seated behind McFadden-Weaver, takes notes on a legal pad when the hearing begins.

The councilwoman doesn’t dispute most of the facts. On September 30, 2005, she borrowed $400,000 to buy a Lee’s Summit house. McFadden-Weaver says she bought the property on behalf of a contractor, Emanuel Kind. In exchange for the use of her name and credit, she claims that Kind promised to do repair work on her residence in Kansas City. Kind was supposed to make the mortgage payments on the Lee’s Summit house and then buy it from McFadden-Weaver.

The transaction bore telltale signs of mortgage fraud. McFadden-Weaver admitted as much last August, when The Kansas City Star first wrote about the purchase. Several aspects of the deal were strange. McFadden-Weaver paid more than the original list price. Also, she signed documents that indicated she would occupy the house. This was false.

McFadden-Weaver claims that she signed the papers in a rush. She says she did not intend to deceive anyone. “I think this time I’ve been the victim of a con,” she says.

At the ethics commission hearing, the councilwoman looks the part of a beleaguered figure. During the testimony of a mortgage broker, she gratefully receives a cup of hot water and a tea bag from a supporter. Later, her aide, Reva Simmons, delivers a Pepsi and a candy bar. Her sniffles persist.

The mortgage broker, a squat man named Ricky Hamilton, explains to the commission how McFadden-Weaver qualified for such a large mortgage. Hamilton says the councilwoman’s monthly income was “escalated” on the loan application. Hamilton says it’s acceptable to inflate a homebuyer’s earnings, as long as the increase is within reason. “You can’t just pull a number out of the sky,” he says.

Some answers, however, Hamilton cannot provide. He does not know why, for instance, the Lee’s Summit house lost a third of its value less than a year after McFadden-Weaver bought it.

Three weeks after the hearing, on January 3, a federal grand jury returned a seven-count indictment against McFadden-Weaver, Hamilton and Kind. What the councilwoman called a con, the U.S. attorney called a conspiracy to defraud mortgage lenders. In any reading of the facts, McFadden-Weaver either willingly committed fraud or was foolish.

McFadden-Weaver, who is also a church pastor, maintains her innocence. “I’m sure that I will be vindicated, and I have told the truth,” she told reporters during a press conference held at City Hall on the day she was indicted.

The councilwoman has been no stranger to controversy in her four years in office. She lost her meaningful committee assignments when she crossed Mayor Kay Barnes. She faced a recall election. She has been fined by the state ethics commission. A woman she appointed to an important advisory group was arrested in November. Her council attendance record is abysmal: She misses nearly one out of every five meetings.

McFadden-Weaver’s defense in the criminal case — that she didn’t know any better — sounds similar to past explanations she has given. Her ignorance would seem terminal to a career in politics, yet it’s going largely unchallenged. Black leaders who have defended her in the past are keeping silent. Meanwhile, her inadequacies continue to be exposed.

The 3rd District leads the city in murders, boarded-up homes and sad corners.

Residents of the 3rd District hate the stigma, says Melba Curls, who is running for the at-large 3rd District City Council seat now held by Troy Nash.

“We work. We go to church,” Curls says. “We try to make it better, just like everybody else.”

Yet the poverty and violence are inescapable. At a recent Center City Neighborhood Association meeting, a resident said he found 23 bullets in the shingles of a roof that he replaced.

McFadden-Weaver, 47, was born and raised in the 3rd District. She grew up in a family blessed with performance skills. Her father, James McFadden, was a tap dancer and bandleader who performed with Count Basie and Louis Armstrong. Her brothers, Lonnie and Ronald, followed in their father’s footsteps, forming the McFadden Brothers, a jazz and tap duo that performs regularly.

The family’s only daughter, Saundra McFadden discovered a gift for preaching. Her talent became evident at an early age. She was ordained when she was 16 at the nondenominational St. Mary’s Grand Holy Tabernacle on the East Side.

She attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City and married for the first time in 1984. (Weaver is the last name of her second husband.) She became a minister in an African Methodist Episcopal church.

Her affiliation with the church ended in a court battle. In 1998, she alleged sexual harassment by two church officials (Divine Debauchery, June 7, 2001). McFadden-Weaver initially won $6 million from a Jackson County jury, but an appeals court reversed it, and she settled out of court in 2003 for an undisclosed sum.

In addition to preaching, McFadden-Weaver took part in political activity. In 1991, she wielded a sledgehammer to help destroy a Toyota Tercel in protest of offensive racial remarks reportedly made by Japanese officials. In 1994, she spoke at a rally against Kansas City, Missouri, School Board candidate Clinton Adams Jr. During the event, she reportedly called Adams a “drug-addicted rap singer.” Adams later sued her for slander. The suit, which also made a libel claim against The Kansas City Globe newspaper, was dismissed in 1996.

She eventually sought public office. McFadden-Weaver ran for City Council in 1995 and 1999. Outspent by her opponents, she lost the races by close margins.

In 2003, after receiving endorsements from outgoing Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II and the influential Citizens Association, McFadden-Weaver finally won a council seat. But once in office, she made a major blunder.

She initially opposed the 2004 campaign to build a downtown arena, a pet project of Mayor Barnes. McFadden-Weaver switched to the pro-arena side a few weeks before the election. She said she had changed her mind after receiving assurance that women and minorities would get a fair share of contracts that a new arena would generate. The arena backers showed their appreciation to McFadden-Weaver by writing a $5,000 check to a political consulting business run by an ally, Riccardo Lucas.

But McFadden-Weaver was playing both sides. A political committee that McFadden-Weaver had founded, called Partners for Community Progress, had accepted $25,000 from an anti-arena group. On Election Day, the mayor’s people saw workers distributing anti-arena material. The workers said they had been hired by McFadden-Weaver.

Barnes was furious. She marched into the Prospect Avenue headquarters of Partners for Community Progress to confront McFadden-Weaver.

“I had to run to catch up with her,” Barnes aide Steve Glorioso recalls. Two days after the election, Barnes punished her by stripping her assignments to two key committees. (McFadden-Weaver was restored to the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee in 2005.)

A month after voters approved building what is now the half-completed Sprint Center, an effort to recall McFadden-Weaver was launched. Adams, the school board candidate she had attacked, was among those who circulated petitions calling for her removal (Grudge Report, January 6, 2005). Recall organizers cited, as grounds, the arena debacle, unreturned messages and missed meetings.

Two months before the recall vote, McFadden-Weaver appeared with recall proponents at a special meeting of the Citizens Association at the Screenland Theatre. The councilwoman appeared contrite. She apologized for seeming to be unresponsive. She blamed her occasional inattentiveness on her lack of computer skills and on a staff member who had been replaced. She promised to do better.

Recall organizers said the 3rd District could not wait for McFadden-Weaver to get up to speed. Recall proponent Quinnetta Fristoe called her term a “disappointment and an embarrassment.”

The Citizens Association decided not to take a position on the recall. The Kansas City Call, the city’s black newspaper, encouraged readers to vote against the measure.

Prominent black leaders also defended McFadden-Weaver.

The Rev. Wallace Hartsfield of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church on Linwood Boulevard, for instance, spoke from the pulpit against the recall. Hartsfield says today that he favored a less drastic intervention. “I felt that something like a community meeting of some sort, talking with her about that, was a better thing than seeking to recall a person. I believed then and I believe now that if it’s at all possible, not to have to do something like that.”

Councilman Alvin Brooks met with recall proponents in an effort to get them to take another course. Brooks’ support likely helped scare off strong replacement candidates. Pat Jordan, a public-relations specialist who led the renovation of the Gem Theater in the 18th and Vine District, circulated petitions in an effort to get on the ballot. Ultimately, she did not enter the contest. “I simply decided that’s not the direction I wanted to take at this particular point in my career,” Jordan tells the Pitch.

McFadden-Weaver handily defeated the recall. Nearly three-quarters of 3rd District voters chose to keep her in office. Brooks joined McFadden-Weaver in celebrating the recall’s defeat at the Peach Tree Restaurant.

But McFadden-Weaver continued to appear inept after surviving the recall.

In the fall of 2005, the Missouri Ethics Commission investigated the finances of Partners for Community Progress. The committee’s money had been overseen by 28-year-old treasurer Marcus LaRue, at whose marriage McFadden-Weaver had officiated in 2004. The commission found that Partners for Community Progress had failed to properly disclose contributions and kept inadequate records of cash withdrawals. LaRue was fined nearly $87,000. The state is still trying to collect the penalty, the second largest of its type in Missouri history.

At the time, McFadden-Weaver blamed the committee’s problems on her team’s amateur status. She told the Star: “None of us confessed to be professionals in campaigning.”

Later, the state ethics commission fined McFadden-Weaver $10,000 personally for the shoddy bookkeeping of her candidate committee.

In her four years in office, McFadden-Weaver has amassed one of the worst attendance records on the council. She has missed 33 out of 185 legislative sessions. Only Nash, the other 3rd District rep, had more absences over the same period, with 35.

Also conspicuous is McFadden-Weaver’s failure to put a lasting member on the Public Improvements Advisory Committee. Members of the committee compile a list of roads, bridges and community centers that need funding. They’re expected to be the voice of their districts in what amounts to a horse-trading game of building projects. Yet McFadden-Weaver appointed two people to the committee who did not reside in the 3rd District. A third appointee sat on the committee for only a brief time. The fourth, Carol Coe, is an experienced politician who has served on the Jackson County Legislature and on the City Council. She is also a renowned hothead.

On November 14, Coe was arrested and charged with trespassing after allegedly causing a disturbance at a veterinary clinic.

Wearing his usual trench coat, KMBC Channel 9 reporter Micheal Mahoney leans into the reception desk on City Hall’s 24th floor, where City Council members keep their offices. “I’ve been bird-dogging her,” Mahoney says when other reporters arrive.

It’s January 3, and City Hall is abuzz with word that McFadden-Weaver is about to be indicted. Reporters are unsure if the councilwoman, once she emerges from her office, will go to the 26th floor, where one of her committees is scheduled to meet, or the 10th floor, where the ethics commission is gathering.

McFadden-Weaver rounds the corner with a small retinue that includes her attorney and her son. Television cameras begin to record. Microphones point like bayonets.

“I’m on my way to 10,” McFadden-Weaver tells reporters before boarding an elevator. “Come on down.”

Members of the ethics commission meet privately in a back room when McFadden-Weaver arrives. The councilwoman sits at a table and begins to take questions from the pack of reporters. The indictment, she says, comes as no surprise. She is sure she will be exonerated, and she reiterates her belief that she is the victim of “some type of scam.” She smiles frequently. “I’ve lived in complication before coming into office,” she says, suggesting that the indictment is just another obstacle to overcome.

“As they say in my business, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,'” she says, quoting John 8:32, a passage in which Jesus defends himself against charges that he’s lying about being the Son of God.

The Scripture may comfort McFadden-Weaver, but more earthly documents have gotten her in trouble with the U.S. government.

The councilwoman has said that she met Emanuel Kind at a minority contractors event. McFadden-Weaver and Kind talked about work she wanted done on her Benton Boulevard home. Kind said he would complete the renovation if she would buy the Lee’s Summit house. Kind then introduced McFadden-Weaver to mortgage broker Ricky Hamilton.

McFadden-Weaver made several questionable decisions in the course of the transaction. For one, she entered into a complicated real-estate deal with an ex-con; Kind had gone to prison in 2002 for writing bad checks and is a defendant in several lawsuits. Information on Kind’s legal troubles is available on Missouri Case Net, an online database that is relatively easy to use and can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection.

Kind — who now works as a project manager at Greenleaf Construction, a McFadden-Weaver campaign donor — has pleaded not guilty to the charges. “Mr. Kind is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” his attorney, Willie Epps Jr., says. “We look forward to defending Mr. Kind against the government’s allegations in this case.”

McFadden-Weaver agreed to borrow $400,000 on his behalf. The loan application listed her income as nearly twice what she is actually paid. McFadden-Weaver says she signed the mortgage papers in a rush. In completing the paperwork, she signed four separate documents that indicated she would live in the Lee’s Summit house. Two of the four documents served no other purpose than for the homebuyer to make the residency declaration, under penalty of perjury.

Kind failed to make payments, and the bank foreclosed. The property sold for only $255,500 when the bank put it back on the market.

Kind and McFadden-Weaver gave differing accounts to the ethics commission as to why their relationship soured and how the house ended up in foreclosure. Kind said McFadden-Weaver wanted more for the house than he was willing to pay. She said he did not follow the terms of their agreement.

In an effort to prevent the foreclosure, McFadden-Weaver sought pity from the credit company. She wrote a letter to the company last summer describing her misplaced trust. She also stated that she had been involved in two “major” auto accidents. The councilwoman neglected to mention that the more serious of the accidents occurred in September 2004 — a full year prior to the purchase of the Lee’s Summit house. McFadden-Weaver was hospitalized following the first collision, but she returned to council meetings less than a month afterward. That Halloween, she performed at a fund-raiser with her brother Lonnie. She sang “When I Fall in Love.”

Hot dogs cook on a grill outside a compact office building at 75th Street and Holmes. The food is for volunteers willing to help Alvin Brooks become mayor. Inside the office, a team assembles yard signs for the volunteers to take home.

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon. Brooks is wearing a Chiefs hat and a cable-knit sweater. He works the room, exchanging handshakes and hugs. Brooks’ reputation as a community healer and the size of his campaign chest make him a favorite to advance past the February 27 primary. He calls for quiet in order to praise the volunteers and share his confidence in the upcoming elections. “I expect to be Kansas City’s next mayor with your help,” he says.

Brooks is not saying much about vouching for McFadden-Weaver during the recall. He won’t say whether McFadden-Weaver should now resign. A day after the indictment came down, he called her decision to remain in office a “personal kind of thing.”

Opposing a radical procedure such as a recall is one thing. But will Brooks maintain his support for McFadden-Weaver during a regular election? Brooks indicates that he will not get involved in her race. “I think that she’s under indictment, the ethics commission is active, and as far as I’m concerned, anything else would not add or detract from it.”

A Pitch reporter asks Brooks if he felt let down by McFadden-Weaver. “I’m not going to comment.”

Visited at his church after he led a noontime Wednesday service, the Rev. Hartsfield, who also supported McFadden-Weaver during the recall, is similarly noncommittal. Hartsfield says voters in the 3rd District will decide for themselves what needs to be done. “They’re intelligent people,” he says. “They are people who love the community and people who want justice in government. And they will make that determination. I don’t think I should be one to try to say to them, ‘You need to do this. You need to do the other.'”

Voters should also not expect to hear from Cleaver, now a second-term congressman and the city’s preeminent black politician. “The congressman’s staying out of all the city races,” says Phil Scaglia, Cleaver’s acting chief of staff. Cleaver is remaining neutral this year, but he took sides in the previous city election, when he fought against the re-election of 5th District Councilwoman Becky Nace.

McFadden-Weaver enters the 2007 race having been censured by the city’s ethics commission. On January 9, six days after the indictment, the commission issued an opinion that said McFadden-Weaver had either lied or been careless, damaging her reputation in either instance. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” the opinion read.

As the election approaches, McFadden-Weaver will rely on her popularity in the 3rd District. A group of about eight women attended one of the ethics commission hearings. One woman who declined to give her name faulted the Star. She said the paper had made McFadden-Weaver a possible target by printing information about her finances. “As bad as society is, they kill you for a dime,” she said.

Another supporter, Ramonda Brown, credited McFadden-Weaver for feeding the hungry through her ministry and participating in neighborhood cleanups. “She does a lot of good things in the area,” she said. “I trust her.”

Voters may accept that McFadden-Weaver is a compassionate person who has been victimized (by con men, by the Star, by prosecutors). On the day that McFadden-Weaver appeared in court, a federal grand jury indicted former Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields on similar charges. The charges against Shields may lead residents to doubt the accusation against McFadden-Weaver because, in the words of Carol Coe, “it smacks of political motivation.” Coe adds: “It was interesting they indicted them within 48 hours. That was not a coincidence.”

Coe concedes that McFadden-Weaver has made mistakes. Being a council member, Coe says, is like being the trustee of a major corporation. Coe says McFadden-Weaver can keep up. “I still support her,” she says.

But Coe sounds as though she’s not completely convinced that McFadden-Weaver is equipped for city politics.

“The game is so fast now.”

Multicolored Christmas lights hang from low tree branches in a corner of Spring Valley Park near 28th Street and Brooklyn. The trees surround a statue of Bernard Powell, a civil rights activist who was shot to death at a club on April 8, 1979.

It’s a chilly Friday evening. Teola Powell, Bernard’s sister, is holding a small campaign rally in the park. She’s one of three candidates challenging McFadden-Weaver in the February 27 primary. Fewer than two dozen people show up for the event, braving the cold and darkness with doughnuts and hot cider. The parks department helped Powell’s supporters hang the lights. “People in the neighborhood, we like Christmas, too,” Powell says.

A week earlier, the Citizens Association endorsed Powell instead of McFadden-Weaver. A first-time political candidate, Powell worked as a sales rep for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. before retiring in 2000. She says she felt compelled to put off retirement and run for the City Council. “When I look at my city, they need me more than I need to lie around.”

Powell, 58, lives in a tidy home across the street from Spring Valley Park. She grew up in the house and promised her mother, who died in 1999, that the residence would stay in the family.

As Powell greets her guests, smooth-jazz Christmas carols play on a portable stereo plugged into a generator. But the festivities grind to an alarming halt when a compact car heading west on 28th Street collides with a vehicle traveling on Brooklyn. There’s a child seat in the back of one of the cars.

“Lord have mercy,” Powell cries. “Is the baby all right?”

The baby and everyone else appear to be OK. Powell dials 911 but ends the call before she gets an answer. “I learned that if I hang up, I’ll get a person,” she says.

Her phone rings.

“See, I told you.”

Two other candidates have entered the primary: Brandon Ellington, a 26-year-old student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Sharon Sanders-Brooks, a state representative who couldn’t run again because of term limits.

The race will not be decided by policy differences. Powell and Ellington talk about lifting the 3rd District through education — something in which council members have little say. Sanders-Brooks is stumped when asked what issues she planned to raise during the campaign. “I’m kind of reluctant to go into this now,” she says. “Can I get back with you?”

None of the challengers indicates an eagerness to make the campaign about McFadden-Weaver’s woes. “We already have too many negative comments in the black community,” Ellington says. Powell shrugs when asked about the incumbent. “She’s a nice person. You’re not going to get me to say anything bad about her, if that’s what you want.” Powell does say that the 3rd District has been “neglected.”

The Citizens Association agreed with Powell that the 3rd has received poor representation. McFadden-Weaver received zero votes when the group chose its slate of candidates.

The Community Fellowship Church of Jesus Christ meets in a brick building south of 39th Street on Cleaver II Boulevard, near the Roberts dairy and a Conoco station.

Ushers guide visitors to the front pews during a Sunday service. Dress is casual. The church encourages members to wear knit and denim shirts bearing the church logo: a bleeding hand cradling a globe and a cross.

Community Fellowship started meeting in 1996, after it splintered from Mariah Walker, the African Methodist Episcopal church where McFadden-Weaver ministered before she left the denomination. Community Fellowship has a feminine character; its officers are all women.

It is the first Sunday after the mortgage-fraud charges were announced. A bearded worship leader named Robbie Hawkins asks the Almighty to give McFadden-Weaver strength. “We ask, God, that you be the wind beneath her wings,” he says.

Later, church chairwoman June White addresses the accusations from the pulpit. She describes attending an ethics commission hearing. “You know this is nothing but a lie,” she says.

Wearing a tan knit shirt and a long black skirt, McFadden-Weaver begins her sermon with a gospel song, “Stand.” The song talks about perseverance. A powerful alto, McFadden-Weaver delivers the lyrics with conviction. During the song, an usher brings a wad of tissues to a weeping woman nearly overcome with emotion.

McFadden-Weaver’s preaching is as dramatic and forceful as her singing. “Somebody, pop up like popcorn!” she says when she wants a church member to read a Bible verse.

McFadden-Weaver makes only passing references to the indictment. Toward the end of her sermon, McFadden-Weaver asks the congregation for solidarity during her time of struggle. “If I’m under attack, then we’re all under attack,” she says.

Her words elicit murmurs of agreement.

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