Councilman Terry Riley is upset. He says he's been done wrong.
"All you guys do is fuck me every time we interview," he says.
Riley shares this feeling with me before a recent Kansas City, Missouri, City Council meeting, after I've stopped him in the hall and asked if we can set up a time to talk.
I ask when we fucked him. He mentions a piece I wrote last December.
My brutality against the 5th District councilman took the form of a 250-word item that appeared at the top of the paper's group blog. The blog entry criticized Riley for billing the city $60 for an ad he placed in a church bulletin. As I saw it, putting an elected official's head shot in the hands of churchgoers was a bill that should have been paid by a campaign committee, not taxpayers.
I asked Riley about the ad before the blog item went live. He seemed to acknowledge that submitting the expense, even though it was a small one, to the city was not a great idea. "I'll write a check to the city, just to keep it clean," he said.
Two months later, this had, in Riley's mind, become a royal screwing. He called it "a low shot."
Why am I telling this war story? Well, it's interesting. My reason for intercepting Riley at City Hall was to get a handle on what seems to be his penchant for self-pity.
And before we can make a date, I get the violins.
Woe is Terry.
Our conversation took place a few weeks after the councilman appeared before the Finance and Audit Committee and complained about a witch hunt. That time, Riley was reacting to an auditor's report about a city contract that went off the rails.
In 2005, City Hall asked for bids on a job to supply photocopiers and handle other document needs. The bidding process was soon tainted by accusations of favoritism and interference. At one point, a city attorney wrote a memo outlining all the things wrong with the vendor that had been recommended by a selection committee.
After reconstructing what happened, City Auditor Gary White found fault at nearly every step: A consultant who had helped with the search received a no-bid contract; the two finalists — the existing vendor, Ricoh, and an Overland Park company called Perfect Output — were involved in drafting the requests for proposals; members of the selection committee had personal contact with individuals at both companies.
The audit , which White released in mid-January, also describes the actions of an unnamed City Council member. The audit says that person "created at least the appearance of bias." According to the audit, councilperson X asked a city employee to come to his office to talk about minority-contractor certification for a potential Perfect Output subcontractor.
The audit contains the transcript of an e-mail that X sent to a member of the selection committee on the day that the two finalists came in for second interviews. "Call me before u vote. Please!!" X wrote.
Later, the audit says, after the selection committee recommended Perfect Output, X called a meeting and instructed city staffers to finish the contract negotiations.
On January 23, with White's audit a week old, Riley acknowledged that he was X. The admission came as no surprise to anyone who had watched Riley speak up for Perfect Output a year earlier.
Perfect Output had negotiated a contract with city staff worth about $2.6 million a year. Riley supported that contract when it came before the city's Finance and Audit Committee on January 17, 2007. "I trust the staff," he said.
But Ricoh hadn't given up the bidding without a fight. The company griped to council members and the media about Perfect Output's contract, which exceeded Ricoh's bid by $1.4 million. (City Manager Wayne Cauthen said at the time that the disparity in the bids reflected "very different approaches to solutions.")
Amid questions about the bids and bad practices that White would later document, the contract died in the Finance and Audit Committee. But Riley is a guy who likes to have the last word. He suggested that the committee members who wanted to rebid the copier contract had been corrupted. "Maybe it has something to do with people getting campaign donations. I don't know," he said.
But seven months earlier, two Perfect Output executives had each given Riley $300 in campaign donations.
A reasonable person, it seems to me, can look at Riley's actions and comments and see that he tried to steer a contract. Yet the councilman insists that he's the victim. In a written response to the audit, Riley accuses White of "unfairly impugning my character." Speaking before the Finance and Audit Committee last month, he said the audit was "frivolous" and "not factual."
And Riley hinted that White was acting on behalf of his former boss, Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who has clashed with Riley. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of games going on at City Hall," he said.
In an effort to build a defense, Riley reached out to various current and former city staffers he had contacted during the contract selection and negotiation. In January, he e-mailed the human-relations director and asked: "At any point, did I direct you to or influence the MBE certification of Perfect Output or [the subcontractor] ABC Communications?"
But it's difficult to accept these e-mails, which Riley has written in his defense, as exculpatory evidence. Bureaucrats aren't the ones to judge whether Riley's actions were copacetic. Besides, how honest can a staff member be when a councilman comes at him or her with such a question?
For all his arm waving, Riley doesn't really dispute the facts of the audit — just their context.
His written defense says he contacted a member of the selection committee only to call for openness and objectivity. (So much for trusting staff.) The minority-contractor business was merely "an inquiry" as to whether the right documentation had been submitted. His role in the contract negotiations? Just to deliver a message to staff to work swiftly.
In addition to these dubious assertions, Riley would have us believe that his meddling in the awarding of a multimillion-dollar contract was no different from his making a call to get some trash picked up.
In our hallway meeting, I ask Riley why he got involved when he wasn't a member of the selection committee. He says, "Why not? I'm not a city councilperson? If a constituent has issues, why not? What, should I not talk to anybody? I'm just asking you."
The conversation ends with Riley saying he'll talk to his lawyer. "We'll call you," he says. Then he adds, "This is just another witch hunt by you guys."
Once again, I hear the swell of weeping violins.