Until Kansas City Councilman Terry Riley cleans up his campaign-finance reports, paybacks are a bitch 

Back in March, I wrote a column suggesting that Kansas City Councilman Terry Riley had found a way to supplement his income by billing travel expenses to the city and to his campaign committee. Now it appears that he has tried to clean up his books.

I say "appears" not in an effort to be a weasel. I honestly don't know what he's doing.

Neither Riley nor the treasurer of his campaign committee, Friends of Terry Riley, will discuss recent transactions recorded by the committee. The entries indicate that Riley has returned money — but not in a fashion that fits with his earlier explanation of what happened.

As I wrote on March 6 ("Double Billing"), City Hall reimbursed Riley $487.96 for a hotel stay and other expenses he incurred while attending a conference in St. Louis in July 2007. Days earlier, however, Friends of Terry Riley recorded a $359.06 payment to someone at Riley's home address for what appears to be the same hotel stay.

A few months later, Riley traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the Congressional Black Caucus conference. Before the trip, the city gave Riley $616. Yet, upon his return, Friends of Terry Riley received a $520.09 bill for Riley's lodging, even though the councilman had already asked the city to pay for his $195-a-night room.

In addition to documenting these suspicious transactions, my column questioned Riley's use of campaign funds to pay back the city $1,525 for exorbitant mobile-phone charges he'd racked up in 2002. I suggested that Riley himself was liable because he used the phone to conduct personal business. (A Kansas City Star investigation revealed that the councilman had made numerous calls after 11 p.m.) Campaign-finance law prohibits contributions from paying personal expenses.

I spoke to Riley before that column went to press. He said that he thought it was allowable for campaign committees to pay phone charges. Nonetheless, he said he would put $1,500 into his campaign fund.

So far, so clear.

Then the conversation got weird, with Riley trying to explain what had happened with the travel expenses.

As we spoke on the phone, I had a hard time grasping what Riley was trying to communicate. (It didn't help that the councilman deigned to respond to my questions while he shopped for groceries.) Riley seemed to want to say that he had reimbursed his campaign in the instances when he had received two payments for the same expense. But nothing in the Friends of Terry Riley paperwork available on the Missouri Ethics Commission Web site indicated this to be the case.

We went back and forth for a few befuddling minutes. Finally, Riley said, "All of it will be reflected in my report."

So you're going to amend the report? I asked.

"Yes, sir."

I asked Riley when he had reimbursed his campaign. "I don't have the dates with me now," he said.

Can you guess?

"Sir, if I did, I would give it to you."

I then suggested to Riley that it would look as though these reimbursements — if they had taken place, whenever they had taken place — had been made only because I had called him on it.

"Absolutely not," he said.

It was hard to take the councilman at his word. He was unwilling or unable to produce a canceled check or other evidence that he had returned unwarranted payments. Elaine "Kinda" Webster, Friends of Terry Riley's treasurer, did not return my phone call.

After the story appeared, I waited for Friends of Terry Riley to submit the amended report Riley had promised. No such report has been filed.

Friends of Terry Riley did submit its regular quarterly report on April 15. This document indicates the receipt of $1,500 from Kea Byrd-Riley, Riley's wife, and an additional $1,546.17 from Riley himself.

The transactions are dated March 5 – the day my column about Riley's double billing hit the streets.

What are we to make of these entries? I have to speculate because Riley and Webster won't answer questions.

Let's suppose that one of the payments was for the mobile-phone charges. If so, good for Riley for making things right, as he said he would.

But what of the other transaction? Given the timing, it seems reasonable to conclude that the money was for the hotel rooms and other expenses that were double-billed.

And I think Riley still has some explaining to do. After all, when confronted with evidence of double billing, Riley wouldn't even admit to an "oversight" or give some other bullshit excuse of the sort that politicians provide when they're caught in acts of negligence or treachery. He might have said, "I don't know how it happened, but we'll make things right." That might have been a lie, but it would have been the kind of tolerable nontruth that people in power can deploy when they want to put some ugliness behind them.

Instead, as I understood him, Riley insisted that he had squared things, independently of my pestering. But I saw no evidence of this in March, and I see no evidence in the April 15 filing. (The next filing deadline is July 15.)

Finally, there is the question of whether the Rileys actually parted with the $3,046.

Officeholders in Missouri do not have to submit supporting documents — copies of wine-stained checks from donors, Costco receipts, etc. — when they file their campaign-finance papers. So a reporter like me can't file a public-information request for proof of the Rileys' payments.

Of course, Webster or Riley could simply show me the originals.

After Friends of Terry Riley's most recent report came online in April, I called Webster at home. She said I should talk to Riley.

I sent Riley an e-mail, to which he didn't reply. Then he blew me off after the May 28 Planning and Zoning Committee meeting. Outside the meeting room, waiting for the elevator, Riley stood in silence when I asked about the $1,500 payments. I reminded him that he said an amended report would be filed. "There will be," he said as the elevator arrived. "I have no comment," he said before the doors closed.

I can't make Riley or Webster produce any documents. The Missouri Ethics Commission does have the authority to investigate written complaints made against elected officials if someone has reason to believe that campaign-finance disclosure requirements have been violated.

I could do this, but I'd feel weird about it. Riley accused me of being on a witch hunt even before I started looking into his campaign-finance stuff. In fact, I'd feel weird about using this space to print the Missouri Ethics Commission's address.

Instead, I'll just note that the signature on such a complaint has to be notarized.

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